4 Things I Learned While Spending My Summer as a Professional Scientist
I’ve written before about my…um…abrupt career change. Not a day goes by that I don’t second guess that decision because of course I’m secretly a not very smart person who has convinced very smart people that I am worth their time. Some of those very smart people I managed to bamboozle where the good physicists and astronomers at the University of Oklahoma who for some reason invited me to do research there over the summer through the university’s REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program.
There are a lot of these programs in various disciplines throughout the country funded in part by the National Science Foundation. They are designed to give undergraduates a taste of what it’s like to be a researcher under the caring tutelage of, you know, someone who actually knows what they are doing.
For my project, I ended up helping catalog galaxy clusters as part of a Ph.D. student’s dissertation. This is not as straight forward as it sounds. Helping with this project really cemented some things that I knew intellectually, but hadn’t really internalized.
1. Computers are your friends
I know that knowing how to program is important if you want to be an astronomer or a physicist. I know this in my brain. I did not, before this summer, know this in my heart. Now I know this in my heart. Most of the 10 weeks of this program were spent writing programs in IDL, with a text editor on one screen and Google on the other. (Also, I definitely got addicted to having two monitors. Why is my laptop screen sooooo smol?!)
At my final count I wrote about 30 programs this summer. I don’t actually know if that’s a lot, but it feels like a lot. Moreover, they were all pretty small and simple and probably shouldn’t have taken me all the time it took me write. I’ve been trying to learn how to code for a while but nothing has really stuck. But this summer I coded for basically six hours a day five days a week. I think some of the stuff started to stick, which is a relief. It’s possible for me to learn to code! Just not easy.
Lesson 1: Don’t be sad when you have to learn to code just to be a professional star-gazer. You can do it!
2. Actually, computers are more like the Soviet Union in the 1980s
Because I was hunting galaxy clusters, I had to look at a lot of images of the sky. If I had to identify every source of light in those images by eye, I probably would have packed up my bags on the first day and rode a cartoon dust cloud home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do that. There is a popular program called Source Extractor that is widely used in astronomy circles to detect and catalog stars and galaxies in an image of the sky. It will even assign those sources a value so you can tell how likely they are to be galaxies. Great! Let’s do it!
Oh one problem. Source Extractor can’t always tell the difference between stars and galaxies. Not just a few mischaracterizations here and there, but a lot and for reasons not made clear to me. So it was with our images, which lead to more work for me.
I won’t go into what we had to do to fix this problem because it’s not terribly interesting and not relevant to the lesson. Lesson 2: You may need computers to do astronomy, but you need more of a trust but verify type of relationship with them.
3. Use Your Words
Part of the requirements for the program was giving two talks: one talk at the beginning of the summer explaining what we were researching and where we hoped to get by the end of the summer and one talk at the end of the summer explaining what we had accomplished. I mean…fine. I have a horrible fear of public speaking and would much rather have just written a couple of essays, but I get it. If we want to move on in physics and astronomy we’ll need to learn how to do presentations.
Most people did a really good job, despite being given what I consider really bad and specific advice. Like, don’t practice your presentation more than three times. LOLWUT? If you are someone who can get away with that, great. But that’s not me. I’m lucky that I’m in my 30s and know more or less what advice to ignore and rant about on Facebook.
That advice really just comes down to personal preference. But I did notice something that I consider a little more nefarious as these established Ph.D. scientists were trying to teach us how to give a talk. They didn’t really recognize who the audience was. There is no specific piece of advice they gave us that exemplifies this. In fact, we were told again and again to “know your audience.” However, when it came time to give our final presentations, it became clear that we should assume everyone has the same base of knowledge, which wasn’t true. Astrophysicists can’t assume that particle physicists have the same knowledge pool to draw from, and vice versa. And for glob’s sake, show a little personality! I know a lot of Very Serious Scientists seems to think so, but your work doesn’t become invalid because you put a little of yourself into the presentation of it. (FWIW the title of my presentation was “Mindiana Jones and the Cluster Crusades” and I have no regrets.)
I suppose that I need to remember that I’m a lawyer from a liberal arts background. Communicating perhaps comes as naturally to me as advanced mathematics comes to some of my colleagues. And since my inbox is routinely filled with emails from science communicators, perhaps I’ve thought more about this than the average person. Moreover, there may be some wisdom in erring on the side of boring professionalism before you develop the instincts to know when and where a certain style might be appropriate. Lesson 3 is not as much a lesson as a reminder to myself: Being boring and professional has it’s place, but don’t let it crush whimsy.
4. They Might Be Giants is basically the best music to code to
This is a fact.
Overall, I spent a really great summer in Oklahoma mapping galaxy clusters in the universe. In the end, I only got as far as to tentatively identify one cluster, but I helped develop the process that will lead to more being confirmed. It’s not flashy, but it’s pretty cool.
Featured image comes from the title slide of my REU 2015 Presentation at the University of Oklahoma created by Chris Tucker