"An Average Day in the Life of an Astronomer (Me)"

Megan Donahue - February 13, 1996

    When the day starts, I'm a mom. Michaela wakes before me, sometime between 5:30 and 7 am. She's about one year old and she can be LOUD. I feed Michaela while Mark showers and prepares Michaela's bottles for daycare and leaves. I shower then dress and change Michaela. I eat breakfast and feed Michaela some oatmeal. I brush teeth for both of us, put on Michaela's coat and booties, and if all has gone well we're out of the house by 9-9:15. Why do I bother telling you this? Because this is the most carefully orchestrated and choreographed part of our day.

I drop Michaela off at daycare. I usually spend about 15 minutes there unpacking and talking to Ann, the supervisor, about Michaela's morning so far and any concerns we might have. Finally I'm commuting to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), about 20 minutes away by interstate. I'm at work by 10 am.

I go directly to my office and login to my workstation. One of my daily tasks is to monitor the activity of the archive "hotseat", an email site that astronomers can write with questions regarding the Archive, where all of the data from HST is stored. Most of this data can be accessed by anybody who wants to. Part of my job is making sure that the scientists and educators who need the data for professional reasons can get it fairly easily. There are usually about 20-30 email messages waiting for me, mostly messages asking for help with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST data archive. I page through those, scanning for the ones with science content. I read the posted replies to all messages since I just started this job, I don't know the answers to all of the questions. Often I also have email from collaborators who want some images or plots, and I zip those files off as soon as I can (or I forget). It often takes me an hour to sort through email in the morning.

Depending on my deadline and meeting schedule, I try to block out my time for the rest of the day in as large chunks as possible. The tasks that I have include: calibrating and analyzing telescope science data, writing and researching papers and proposals for future work, calling and emailing other scientists with questions, meeting and guiding the work of a science data analyst, and what is called my "functional work." I spend about half of my time on this kind of work.

I don't mind this part at all. The "real" part of my job is to enhance the scientific usefulness of the data archives. All of the data that HST sends back to Earth is stored on optical disks at the Institute. Eventually, all of this data is made public, available to anyone who wants to use it. But data is worthless if no one knows how to access it or use it. Most of the people who work with the archive are computer and software experts who know a lot more than I do about databases and data storage. But they are not as familiar with the science and how an astronomer might want to use the data. That's where I come in. Since I actually use HST data for my own research, and I plan to study more as it becomes public, I can be an interface between the computer scientists and the astronomy professional. Right now I'm helping develop a user survey and I'm updating the archive manuals. I'm also involved with expanding the archive to include other sources of astronomical data, like the 10-meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. I am not directly responsible for any of the day to day activities regarding the care and feeding of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The other 50% of my job is occupied by scientific research. I am going to repeat a little of what I said in my bio. I study clusters of galaxies in order to learn about the origins and contents of the Universe (cosmology) and to study how galaxies evolve in dense environments. I use a lot of tools to do this, from space telescopes like HST to ground-based telescopes in Arizona and Chile, to computers to analyze data and to construct software-based models of clusters of galaxies. I don't just use HST, because HST only gives me one way of looking at clusters of galaxies. HST is very important because it is the only telescope which can see the structure of very distant galaxies. From the ground, distant galaxies look like fuzzy blobs; above the atmosphere, HST shows that many of these fuzzy blobs have disks, spiral arms, regions where massive stars are forming, just like in galaxies near to us. The difference is since these galaxies are very far away, we are seeing them as they were many many years ago. Looking at them is like looking into the Universe in the distant past. I use other telescopes, like orbiting X- ray telescopes, because clusters of galaxies also have huge amounts of very hot gas in between the galaxies, but bound to the cluster along with the galaxies by gravity. The only way to see this gas is by using telescopes and detectors sensitive to X-rays.

Deadlines place the biggest pressures on my job. So far I am most familiar with the scientific deadlines. For example, each observatory accepts proposals for the use of their telescopes about once or twice a year. I have access to all the orbiting telescopes (like HST), and to ground-based observing at the national observatories at Kitt Peak in Arizona and Cerro Tololo in Chile. The proposals contain a description of the project that I'd like to do, why it's an important project, and why it's possible to do it at this or that telescope and instrument. Sometimes the proposals also request money, for travel to the telescopes, for presentation of research at professional meetings, or for publications. The biggest proposals also ask for money to support salaries. I don't need money for my salary, but if I'd like to support a data analyst or a post- doctoral researcher, I must get funds. These proposals are entered into a competition with other proposals for the same telescopes and money, so they must be good and well-written to succeed.

As a scientist, I am evaluated by my papers, so I must both write papers AND write good papers. Right now I have several projects going in various stages of completion. Since I was pregnant with Michaela, I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of new data to analyze, so I made myself write up a backlog of projects, rather than start new ones. So right now, I'm NOT in the midst of writing a paper, but I am planning a new paper with my husband. He worked on the theory and I planned the experiment and took the data, so we're both going to write and submit the paper. We have done this several times before; we're a good team.

My Normal Day usually ends around 6 (Mark picks Michaela up). I try to run every other day at least. If Michaela is feeling well, she goes to bed all fed, bathed, and warm around 9-9:30, leaving me some time to do more reading (recently I had to read 24 NSF proposals in order to evaluate them, and report to a proposal-evaluation panel.) It requires a lot of discipline on our part to give Michaela the time she needs, and work, and do minimal health-maintenance, but so far we're doing ok. As I have alluded to earlier, all bets are off when Michaela is sick because she can't go to daycare and she isn't so predictable. Then I'm glad I'm in a position where either Mark or I can take time off to take care of her. In a most sticky crunch, one of us can even sub for the other.

The highest stress time (but also one of the most emotionally rewarding times) is observing at a ground-based telescope. I'll write about that in a future journal, because it is a rather special time for astronomers.

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