PNAS: Brad Holden, Observatory Astronomer

p>(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Brad Holden, of the University of California Observatories (which, OK, is affiliated with an academic institution, but this is not a traditional faculty-type job). The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am an astronomer at an observatory, specifically the University of California Observatories. Our headquarters are at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus (though, as I like to say, no undergraduates are harmed by my presence).

There are four of us at my institution, with a few people playing similar roles at other locations. Most modern observatories have some people in a similar role.

Our job is to provide support the users of the facilities. This usually means solving technical problems. My job focuses on software for the users, such as useful tools to help with data analysis or archiving of data. My colleagues' strengths lie in hardware, so they work in areas such as optics, electronics or cryogenic systems.

2) What is your science background?

I have a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics, as do most of my colleagues, though one has an engineering degree. Of course, all of us have Bachelor's in order to get into graduate school.

3) What led you to this job?

I am interested in data reduction and instruments along with astronomical research. An observatory allows me to work on problems in both areas of interest, but still lets me do some research on the side (you know, holidays and weekends). From grad school on, I have always working on data reduction pipelines or tools to automate the analysis of data. After working as a postdoc, I focused on applying for jobs like the one I have.

4) What's your work environment like?

Because I am the software person, I just spend my time in front of computers. My work environment is by choice.

My colleagues who build instruments, however, get to spend some time in the lab making things work. One is exploring new coating technologies for astronomical instruments (such as the big picture below). Another is designing and planning the building of a huge new instrument for a new telescope. A third has been working on new detectors in the detector lab.


5) What do you do in a typical day?

Most of my date is spent working on software projects, coding and testing. I spend a few hours meeting with other people, including active researchers and students. Some of these meetings are focused on how we can meet their needs. Others are the typical meetings people have to discuss science. Occasionally, I have to give presentations or write technical documents.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

My job consists of trying to improve or automate much of the work that the typical astronomer does to reduce data from astronomical instruments. Therefore, my job relies on all of my science background. I have to understand what an astronomer needs in order to turn observational data into scientific output. This means understanding what instruments actually produce, how to calibrate instruments, what sorts of failures exist, and what sort of final output the user will want in order to get writing a paper.

The ability to write and give presentations for other Ph.D.'s is also useful. I need to translate technical issues that concern software or instruments into terms that the average astronomer can understand. All of those years of TAing and writing papers really has helped.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Assuming that this is a Ph.D. student, the key is to have strong technical skills in addition to the core knowledge of astronomy. I know four or so programming languages and have some industry experience in software. My colleagues all have extensive lab experience with building instruments. Modern astronomical instruments are expensive complicated pieces of equipment so project planning and management skills are at a premium.

One of the best ways to end up in an institution like mine would be to spend time in graduate school working on the technical aspects of a large program, such as helping build an instrument or taking part in a large astronomical survey. In the course of such a project, you will have the opportunity to learn most of the skills I mention.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

Systematic problem solving, trying to figure out why something works a certain way is what scientists do (the joke that an astrophysicist is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders how it would work in theory.) A lot of what I do is trying to figure out how some piece of software works, or does not work, so I can improve it. Being able to work out why a piece of software or equipment is misbehaving requires the same sort of approach as an ideal experiment and, of course, is part of the experimental process in the real world. This job is ideal for the kind of person who enjoys that aspect of science.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Successful scientists seem to have a broad range in skills beyond research. A lot of the time, as scientists we focus on learning only exactly what we need to know in order to solve the problem at hand. Spending time learning computer skills or how optics work or a new set of techniques on how to calculate interesting quantities always seems to pay off.

I would add that I never met a successful scientist who does not know how to give presentations or write clearly. This is another set of skills that takes lots of practice, so write often and never turn down a chance to give an oral presentation.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

I am paid similar to faculty at my institution.

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