profiles of astronomers

Profiles of Astronomers: Chris Laws

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Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Chris Laws, Senior Lecturer in Astronomy, and I’m originally from Chicopee Falls, Massachussetts.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I’ve been interested in astronomy, science fiction, and thinking about outer space since childhood.

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
I primarily study stars that vary over time in interesting ways — because they are pulsing in size, sending out massive flares, or have planets or other stars orbiting around them. I also study the physics of time itself in some detail.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
It’s all so weird, it’s hard to pick any one thing… That any of us are getting to experience it — and that there is so much to experience — is probably the coolest and most mysterious thing to me!

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
Good food and good wine with family and friends — no doubt about it.

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
Growing exotic chili peppers and smoking meats — and eating the super spicy BBQ those hobbies make!

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?
I spend most of my professional time teaching and mentoring undergraduate students at UW — and it’s the best job I can even imagine having (except for roguishly handsome and good hearted spaceship pilot, but Han Solo has that taken).

Profiles of Astronomers: Cliff Johnson

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Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Cliff Johnson and I grew up on Hannibal, Missouri — boyhood home of Mark Twain, located on the majestic Mississippi River.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

In middle school, I once tried to pick out constellations on a particularly clear night, but couldn’t find any I recognized.  I picked up some books from the library to help answer my questions and started learning the basics of backyard astronomy.  After receiving a telescope as a gift, my interest quickly grew as I wanted to learn more about the nebulae and stars I was seeing.  When combined with my knack for math and science, my path to becoming an astronomer was set!

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I study star clusters and star formation in the local universe — my PhD work is focused on our nearby galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.  I am part of a research team that uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take detailed images (like this one) of the stars that make up Andromeda.  Using these data, we hope to learn about how the galaxy has grown and changed over time, how clouds of gas and dust transform and collapse to form stars, as well as gain a better understanding for how stars evolve throughout their lifetimes.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

That we haven’t figured everything out yet!  It’s thrilling to work in a field where new discoveries are made every day.  For example, in the last few weeks astronomers have discovered a dozen new dwarf galaxies that are orbiting in our local neighborhood (galactically speaking).  What?!?!  How cool is that, right?  Knowing that there is always the potential to make a discovery that will change how we think about the Universe.  Yeah — that gets me out of bed in the morning.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Still space science related, but I think the idea of sending a submarine to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its subsurface ocean would be amazing.  I mean, landing a probe on a comet and driving a rover around on Mars is cool and all, but a submarine swimming around in a ocean on alien world?  Wow, right?

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Watching soccer!  I’m a huge Seattle Sounders fan and recently acquired an addiction to watching English Premier League matches.  Beyond spectating, I still play occasionally for our UW Astronomy intramural team, the Pulsar Kicks.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I’m a huge fan of citizen science — especially projects run by the Zooniverse.  I was fortunate enough to work on a project called The Andromeda Project, where 30,000 people helped me build an amazing catalog of star clusters in Andromeda that I’m using as the basis for my PhD.  If you have a free moment and want to help out scientists on their research (maybe instead of playing games on your phone), log in and help out!

Profiles of Astronomers: Oliver Fraser

Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Oliver Fraser. I grew up around Seattle, and went to grad school at the UW too!
How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I wanted to know what was above the clouds. =) Seriously though, I felt from a young age (and still do) that astronomy answers some very big questions: where do we come from? how do we fit into the wider Universe?.
If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
In grad school I studied red giant star’s last gasps. These stars were normal stars, like the Sun, but now they are at the end of their lives and running out of fuel. Now I study how to teach astronomy to a room full of interested folks from lots of different backgrounds.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
This year it’s dwarf planets: Rosetta, Dawn, and New Horizons are visiting places we’ve never been before!
What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
A good story. Storytelling is hard, but scary-powerful, I’m trying to figure out how to use it in my teaching. The flipside is that listening to stories is relaxing. Very weird.
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
Doing awesome kid stuff with my kids! Lego is just as good as an adult, and there are so many new pieces today!

Profiles of Astronomers: Vaishali Bhardwaj

Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Vaishali Bhardwaj and I’m a graduate student from California. After college at UC Berkeley, I took a year off before coming here and completed certification in Pastry School at the Cordon Bleu in London and Paris.
How did you become interested in Astronomy?
My dad always has had an interest in Astronomy and always told me facts about the Universe, but I remember distinctly the idea of “Time Dilation” in Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity was particularly mind-boggling. I could not fathom how time could possibly slow down and honestly, cannot quite fathom it to this day!
If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
I study cosmology, the study of the formation and evolution of the Universe. We know our universe consists of approximately 5% ordinary matter, 25% dark matter, and 70% dark energy. Although we don’t know what dark matter (or dark energy) is, astronomers attempt to map where the dark matter is, to better understand it. My research focuses on understanding the distribution of material (neutral hydrogen) in between galaxies. The majority of ordinary and dark matter in the Universe lies in galaxies, but there is a lot of material outside of the galaxies as well. I am studying how that material, the intergalactic medium, is distributed — whether its evenly permeated through the Universe, or clumps up in dense clouds. Studying this will give us a better map of how the Universe looks, and help us understand how it formed and evolved.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
The idea that the same rules, only a handful of physics laws, govern the evolution of the Universe. Whether it’s the formation of a planet or a galaxy, the same rules apply and our task is to fully understand how all those elements interact to create all the amazing objects in the Universe.
What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
The fact that somehow organic matter converted itself to a self-sustaining replicating being that ultimately became intelligent enough to wonder about how this transformation occurred!
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
I love cooking! As they say, “Baking is science for hungry people”. I find that cooking is a great way to create small projects for oneself in which the end result will ultimately nourish you. So, you’re able to enjoy the success of creating something while providing yourself with sustenance.

Profiles of Astronomers: John Lurie

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Who are you and where are you from?
I’m John Lurie, a second-year astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington. I grew up and went to college in Atlanta, GA.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I was actually a public policy major in college until I took an introductory astronomy class. As part of the class, we had to venture out to the university observatory in the boondocks. It was my first time looking though a real telescope, and the first thing I saw was a beautiful globular cluster. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on astronomy.

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
My research so far has focused on characterizing the lowest mass stars (so-called red dwarfs), such as measuring their distances, masses, and magnetic activity. Recently, I’ve transitioned into studying how stars are distributed in the Milky Way, and am looking for sub-structures and populations of stars that give us clues about how our galaxy formed and evolved.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
Brown dwarfs, which coincidentally are literally rather cool by astronomical standards. They’re not quite stars, but not quite planets, either. As we learn more about them, we also learn more about how stellar and planetary systems form, and about the processes that underlie their behavior.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
Archeology. I’ll watch pretty much any documentary where someone is digging up something from an ancient civilization. It’s fascinating to see how similar the human experience has been throughout history, but also kind of distressing to see us repeating many of the mistakes that lead to the collapse of previous civilizations.
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
I studied a fair amount of Spanish in high school and college. I try to keep it fresh by reading, listening to, and watching things in Spanish, and by chatting with other Spanish speakers.

Profiles of Astronomers: Aomawa Shields

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Credit: Martin Cox

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Aomawa Shields, and I’m an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (I don’t actually commute back and forth every week, or even every month, but spend the academic years at UCLA and the summers at Harvard). I’m also a TED Fellow, and a proud UW grad Astronomy alum. I’m originally from Berkeley, CA, but I’ve lived all over, mainly on the East and West coasts.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

When I was 12 years old my 7th grade class was shown the movie Space Camp about a bunch of kids at Space Camp who get accidentally launched into space on the Space Shuttle. I decided that day that I wanted to be an astronaut and an astronomer.

If you’re an astronomer, what do you study?

I study the possible climates of potentially habitable planets in multiple-planet systems orbiting low-mass stars, using computer models and observational data.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The fact that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, means that there are a lot of planets out there. Like Jodie Foster said in the movie Contact, “If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” Knowing that it is likely that there is at least one other habitable planet out there that is actually inhabited by some form of life is just the coolest thing ever, and it’s one of the main things keeping me going in this field. I want to find that planet.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

I recently learned that astronomers discovered a supermassive black hole residing at the center of a very tiny, ultra compact dwarf galaxy. This is changing the way we think about how galaxies form and evolve. We thought the largest galaxies would have the largest black holes. But that may not be the case. Or large galaxies might undergo some pretty violent stripping of their stars by passing neighbors. It’s exciting to think about. Also, landing a spacecraft on a comet is just freakin’ awesome.

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Well, I left astronomy for a long time to train and work as an actor. Though I work in astronomy full-time now, I still love movies and talking about great actors. I also love writing, reading (for fun, not papers!), and traveling with my husband. We both love playing with our two cats and eating great food. I’ve also recently gotten into knitting, and find that very calming. And massages are my thing. I get at least one per month, and may step it up to 2x/month now that I can do that. They’re wonderful. Spas are heaven. They really are my “mothership” to use a Legally Blonde reference.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I used to have a subscription to the magazines Sky and Telescope and Glamour. That pretty much sums me up in a nutshell. I’m a glamorous astronomer (I hope!). Now I just get Glamour, because, well, it’s mostly all astronomy all the time, and a girl’s gotta have a little fashion in her life.

Also, I’m on a mission to encourage people not to settle in life. Do the thing that you most love to do, in spite of the negative voices that might tell you it’s too late or you’re not good enough. Don’t listen. It’s never too late. Like Nike says, “Just do it”. And make it your own. There’s no one way. Ever.

Profiles of Astronomers: Phoebe Sanderbeck

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Phoebe, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, have now lived in Seattle for over 2 years!

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

I became interested in astronomy/astrophysics when I was an undergrad majoring in physics. I had known for years that I wanted to be a physicist, but I didn’t know what part of physics I wanted to study. I started doing research and finally came upon astrophysics and loved it. Studying the universe in its entirety is what I realized interested me most.

  • If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I’m a grad student studying theoretical cosmology. Specifically the physics of the intergalactic medium, the particle soup between galaxies. It can tell us about how the universe evolved!

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

Dark energy! We know so little about it, yet it’s causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion! Also shout-out to the cosmic microwave background, photons that have been streaming through the universe since the epoch of recombination.

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Within physics: quantum mechanics. The way stuff behaves is way stranger than I could have ever imagined. Outside of physics: biology and neuroscience. There is so much left to learn about life and ourselves.

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Playing music, hiking, paddle-boarding, surfing, running, fashion, too many to mention!

  • Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I went to performing arts high school. I always knew I would study science though. Don’t be afraid to pursue everything that interests you!

Profiles of Astronomers: Nell Byler

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Nell Byler, a 4th year graduate student at the University of Washington. I’m originally from Palo Alto, CA and I did my undergrad at Wellesley College.

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

My father works for Lockheed and I always enjoyed the take-your-daughter-to-work-day events the company hosted each year – they were these grandiose affairs with hundreds of children hopping between lectures and activities and we all got to go home with goodie bags full of swag (Spirit & Opportunity paper dolls, solar flare puzzles…etc). Despite my early introduction to space science, I began college at NYU with plans to study something art-related. I took an introductory astronomy course to fulfil a gen-ed requirement and was immediately smitten. I transferred to Wellesley College the following semester and majored in physics – thank goodness I had kept up with math!

  • If you’re an astronomer, what do you study?

I am generally interested in the origin and evolution of galaxies. I use the stars within a given galaxy to probe the properties (like stellar mass or star formation history) of the galaxy as a whole; akin to looking at rings in a stump to learn about the life of that tree.

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

Fluid dynamics! It has such widespread applications in astronomy: gas clouds in a galaxy, stellar interiors, shocks, accretion…

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Fluid dynamics! It has such widespread applications outside of astronomy: paint on a canvas, weather, car hydraulics…

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Electronics and the physics of sound – after reading a book on DIY sound projects (like modifying a portable radio into a synthesizer) I started making guitar effect pedals. I get to use my physics background for the circuitry and soldering, and my artistic background to design enclosures!

 

Profiles of Astronomers: Nicholas Hunt-Walker

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Nicholas Hunt-Walker, and I’m a New York native. I moved to Seattle a little over 4 years ago to start grad school at the University of Washington and…I’m still here I guess. Still…here…

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

I’m not one of those astronomers that was interested in the sky ever since I was a kid. I came into it through Physics, laziness, and luck. In high school back in Elmont I was pretty good at Physics, so naturally I completely avoided doing Physics when I went off to the first of several colleges. That was fine, since I ended up dropping out of that university and eventually transferred into Queensborough Community College (still in New York), intending to go into Accounting since everyone needs an accountant. To complete my associates degree I needed a science credit, and I chose Astronomy because a) I already had a background in Physics and b) it seemed like it would take the least amount of effort. I was right! The Astronomy that I was taught was really easy, but also really interesting. Especially when it came to stars. My professor at the time (George Tremberger Jr.)  saw the spark of my interest and breathed life into it by getting me into research as soon as the semester ended. It was his effort that kept me in the Astronomy community back then and from there I’ve just been lucky to meet really awesome people to push me forward to learn even more awesome things!

  • If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I’m in my fifth year and I study the structure of the galaxy by way of Asymptotic Giant Branch stars. To make it short, AGB stars are the last phase of evolution for any star like our Sun. They’re physically gigantic (like 100 – 1000 times our Sun’s radius), they’re deep red, and they physically pulsate as they slowly die.

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The coolest thing to me is the interiors of stars (quite the opposite of cool in temperature) and how they generate the elements that are peppered throughout the Universe. In these furnaces, you get direct mass-to-light conversion through nuclear fusion (which creates heavier elements), and then have that energy generated from that fusion scatter about inside the star for millenia before it emerges from the surface as light. You’ve also got convection physically moving hot bubbles of plasma up and down inside the star, magnetic fields getting twisted and tangled together, neutrons pumping up already-heavy elements, and a host of other things going on depending on the mass of the star and its phase of evolution. The interiors of stars are like gigantic Rube Goldberg machines.

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

The brain (including brainstem), easily. Even if you only take it from the standpoint of signal processing, your brain artfully handles stimuli from thousands of sources routinely, including stimuli from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and like all of your skin. The fact that it rarely, if EVER, confuses these signals or shuts down its receptors is a testament to the magnitude of its ability. Not only does it do that, but it also simultaneously regulates your heartbeat, breathing, hormone production, and general growth of your body. This is an organic machine that has been around in one form or another for MILLIONS OF YEARS yet only recently are we even getting to the point of being able to create something comparable. I tip my hat to the brain. Or rather, my brain sends the command to my body to tip my hat to the brain.

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

My favorite non-astronomy hobby is Capoeira, a martial art with roots amongst the slaves of Brazil and their descendants. I love the constant improvisation and physical conversation that goes on whenever I practice. I’ve been practicing this beautiful art for the past 4.5 years, 3.5 of which have been with Senzala Seattle. It was a very easy way to find family in a foreign place, and I’ve even found that the language of Capoeira is universal, whether you’re in New York, Seattle, or even Italy!

  • Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

Yes! I maintain a blog at http://nhuntwalker.blogspot.com. I’m working on developing my own domain space, but for now all my blog stuff is over there. I write about basically anything that piques my interest. Lately it’s been about science (mostly astronomy and physics), but I’ve also written about Capoeira, personal finance, and the afro-brazilian religion of Candomble. Because of my obsession with Capoeira, I’ve also been learning Brazilian Portuguese for the past few years, and this year I’ve gotten serious about it and have been practicing daily with DuoLingo. I hope to make Portuguese my second language, and then move on to Spanish, French, and others down the line!

Profiles of Astronomers: Stacie Mahuna

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Who are you and where are you from? My name is Stacie Mahuna. While I’m originally from Wisconsin, my hubs and I fled that snowy wasteland back in 2011 and I’ve been here in Seattle ever since!

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always loved space. (I was “that kid” that knew the order of the planets before I knew the months of the year.) The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was my hero. I wanted to be just like her! As I got older, I discovered Neil Degrasse Tyson, Annie Jump Cannon, and Stephen Hawking and was fascinated by the work they did. It felt like the more humanity discovered about the Universe, the bigger and more mysterious it got, and the more its puzzles drew me in. Now I’m hooked for good. J

  • If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I’m not currently part of the astronomy program – I just participate vicariously through others. Maybe that will change one day!

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The coolest thing in the Universe for me is the Noctis Labyrinthus, just west of Valles Marineris on Mars. It’s a section of criss-crossing fissures in Mars’ surface that hovers around -100 degrees Farenheit at the bottom (-70 C). There are two reasons why this is my favorite thing in the Universe. One, Noctis Labyrinthus is Latin for “Labyrinth of Night”, which is easily one of the creepiest/most epic names ever. Two, a deposit “of unknown origin” was recently discovered at the bottom of one of the canyons. What it is exactly and how it got there is unclear. I just think it’s amazing that something so mysterious can be found so close by on our next-door neighbor. How little we know about the space around us!

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

My field is health research, so I do a lot of population-based studies, specifically tobacco cessation and obesity research. There’s a lot of research projects going on outside of pop. health that sound incredibly interesting! I saw an article the other day that talked about robotic prosthetics and several studies that are focusing on amputees’ use of their new limbs. That’s way more futuristic than anything I currently do!

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

I write a lot of fiction in my spare time. Currently, I’m trying to get a novel and a screenplay published. We’ll see how that goes. J

  • Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I’ve never had a tooth pulled before. It felt like an important piece of information to share.