Live From...the Stratosphere
Sean Colgan Biography


Name: Sean Colgan

Position: Astronomer

I'm an astronomer. In my job, I think of an interesting astronomical problem which I might be able to solve. Then, I write a proposal to get money and time at a telescope (specifically the Kuiper Airborne Observatory for most of my work) to approach this problem. If the proposal is accepted (most aren't, in which case it is back to step one), I make the observations. If everything works, I'll get useful data, which I analyze and write up a report on. I submit this paper for publication in a technical journal. The journal appoints another astronomer, a referee, to read the paper and decide whether it is suitable for publication. If the paper is accepted (it usually is at this stage), the final step is publication.

I also do tasks in support of astronomical research. My main responsibility in this regard is developing and operating a star guider. Keeping a telescope pointed in the desired direction when it is mounted in an airplane which is pitching and rolling is a difficult task. Basically, the star guider uses a camera to locate the stars in the field the telescope is pointing at and a computer to determine where the stars should be. The difference between where the stars are and where they should be is the amount by which the telescope is mispointed. We then repoint the telescope to correct the pointing, oftentimes using a handpaddle. This really amounts to a primitive video game of trying to keep a star in a box, although under some conditions the computer can actually play the game for me.

Observing is the most fun. Staying up all night playing a prehistoric video game doesn't sound like much fun, but getting new data about interesting astronomical objects is quite exciting. Also, when a project is finally published, seeing everything in print is rewarding. The least fun is when things don't work during a flight - then it has been a lot of work for nothing.

While a child I enjoyed both geology, in which my father had received training, and astronomy, for which I had several books with very pretty pictures (which is probably what hooked me in). I didn't finally decide between the two until college, when the fact that I enjoyed math nudged me toward astronomy - at the time I didn't think geology required too much math, but that may have been a misconception.

For preparation, in high school I followed a pre-college curriculum (ie lots of math and science, nothing practical like shop or Home Ec courses). I wasn't a complete nerd - I lettered in tennis and cross country skiing, so I think a well balanced approach is best.

In college I majored in astronomy, which is probably better termed astrophysics, as I took more physics courses than astronomy courses. Also, there was a lot of math - mostly calculus. I took only one computer course and few electronics courses and learned the rest as I needed it.

To really carry out research in astronomy requires a PhD, which also means graduate courses in, of course, physics, astronomy and math. Naturally, along the way there were electives in other subjects, for me usually the social sciences - art history, economics, etc.

Outside of school, I read a lot (this was all pre-PC of course), although no particular book stands out. I had a small telescope, nothing expensive, which I spent a lot of time with. This was probably most important in terms of inspiration although I did learn some useful things.

As far as advice, to become a research scientist requires a lot of aptitude and determination to do well in math and science classes, even in high school. Curiosity is very important as this leads to asking interesting questions, which is perhaps the most important thing a scientist does. Tinkering, whether with a chemistry set or a car (which I didn't do much of), also helps.

My high school physics teacher, who was both very demanding and very supportive encouraged me to seriously consider a career in science. I also enjoy gardening, listening to classical music.

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