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Career Choice: Astronomer

Dr. Heidi B. Hammel

* Not many people can say they have something in space named for themselves but Dr. Hammel can...she has an asteroid named for her. Found in 1996, it is called 3530 Hammel!

1. Can you explain to young people just what an astronomer is?

An astronomer is someone who uses a telescope to study objects in the sky, like stars, planets, galaxies, or anything else out there in our Universe. Some astronomers also use computers to simulate things that other astronomers see.

2. What is the best part of your job?

The good things about astronomy are too numerous to count. For many of us, it is a pleasure to be studying the universe. The pluses are that you actually get to do this as a JOB!!! You are doing work that contributes to the sum total of human knowledge. Your research papers and findings will live on for hundreds of years after you are gone. You might even get to name a new category of astronomical object, or discover something very remarkable and unexpected. You also can give talks or write books or articles for others that express your excitement, and communicate some of the exciting discoveries about the universe.

3. What would you say is the most difficult aspect of your career choice?

Most of us are constantly under stress to find funding and jobs especially with the NASA space research budget forecasted to be declining.

4. Do you have a memory you'd like to share with young people concerning your job?

In 1994, I discovered that the biggest cloud feature that the Voyager spacecraft discovered on the planet Neptune in 1989 -- the Great Dark Spot -- had disappeared! I used the Hubble Space Telescope to make this discovery. I have also discovered many more interesting facts about Neptune, like how fast its winds blow and where most of the storm systems are likely to be seen. I have also been a participant in groups that have made major discoveries. In 1994, I led a team of scientists that used the Hubble Space Telescope to watch as a comet (named Shoemaker-Levy 9) crashed into Jupiter. We discovered that it made a huge effect on the planet, creating big black clouds (the residue of vast plumes of burned-up Jupiter gases), as well as waves rippling across the atmosphere.

5. What are the necessary skills/degrees needed to become an astronomer?

Get the best overall basic education you. Most astronomers major in physics, but some, like myself, majored in earth and planetary science (i.e., geology/geophysics); a few major in other fields like mathematics. It is really in graduate school that one really learns the astronomy ropes, so choosing the right graduate school is much more important than where one goes to college as an undergraduate.

6. Any suggestions for young people who might be interested in your career? How can they begin now to get prepared for your career?

The most important thing someone can do is to keep on taking math and science courses all through high school. Computer skills are also critical in today's world. You also need good communication skills (English and writing) and perhaps some kind of performance field like music or drama would be helpful.

7. Where can you work in this career?

Most astronomers hold teaching positions at colleges and universities, combining teaching and research. Other astronomers work at research institutions. This kind of astronomer can spend up to half of their time carrying out their own programs of research, and the remainder doing things such as developing new instrumentation or supporting archives of data from instruments. Yet other astronomers carve out their own career paths. I work for a non-profit organization that has the dual mission of excellence in scientific research and excellence in education and public outreach. So my time is balanced between my research and doing things like this - answering questions from the public about astronomy!

8 . Describe a typical day at your job.

Most astronomers find it difficult to describe a typical day, as each day can be different. But certainly, a typical day does not include observing with a telescope. That is a misconception, and not how most astronomer hours are spent. Most of the time, an astronomer works at a computer analyzing data or computing models, or travels to attend meetings or make observations. Reviewing other scientists' proposals (for NASA and National Science Foundation programs) and articles (submitted for publication in professional journals) are also part of the daily routine. Many astronomers would say they spend lots of time writing grant proposals.

9. What got you interested in becoming an astronomer? Did anything in school or your childhood help spark this interest?

When I was involved in the 1994 Comet Crash into Jupiter, the TV station near where I went to high school sent a crew down to Baltimore to interview me. They asked me what was the most important course I took in high school. I answered, "Chorus." It taught me to approach everything from a professional point of view - "No amateur-land in Dixie," my choral teacher would always proclaim. That attitude is critical for success. I also took as much as my high school had to offer: physics, calculus, chemistry. I avoided biology, though, since I didn't want to be involved in dissecting things. Just a personal choice. I wasn't involved in any science clubs or things like that. I did music - band, chorus, orchestra, musical theatre. I won the band award my senior year (I played pitched percussion instruments, tympani, chimes, bells, xylophone, etc). As for your own choice of extracurricular activities, do what you like and do it well!

10. Where do you currently work as an astronomer?

I work for a non-profit organization called the Space Science Institute (Space Science), which is located in Boulder, Colorado, but I actually live in Connecticut, and work from an office in my home. Most of our scientists are spread out across the country.