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Meg Schwamb discusses managing a Hawaii telescope and gender imbalance in the sciences

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Dec 11, 2017

What do you think of when you hear "Hawai'i"? It's probably gorgeous beaches and blue water as far as the eye can see. But that's not what immediately occurs to most space scientists, communicators, and enthusiasts. Instead, this group thinks first of the telescopes perched atop the mountain of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, which have changed the way we perceive the universe around us.

There are thirteen telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea, with one more under construction. These telescopes have been controversial for environmental and religious reasons: the mountain is sacred to native Hawai'ians. To them, the telescopes defile the landscape. Additionally, the environment at the summit hasn't been well taken care of over the years. Though there's been a recent emphasis on preservation and conservation, it's hard to argue that the human presence on Mauna Kean hasn't damaged the environment.

But these telescopes have also been incredibly important in space science. There aren’t a lot of places in the world they can be built; the dry air on Mauna Kea and the elevation makes for optimal viewing conditions. Many have made the trek up the mountain to see these telescopes, but what's it like to work at one? Today, we’re talking to planetary astronomer Meg Schwamb, who works at the Gemini Observatory.

Tell me about your professional life. What do you do? Do you juggle multiple roles?

I’m currently an assistant scientist at Gemini Observatory. The observatory has two telescopes one located in Hawai’i and one in Chile. I’m based at the Hawai’i operations center. Part of my day-to-day responsibilities include helping to facilitate observations for other astronomers who are granted time on the Gemini telescopes. I also spend part of my time working on my own research projects. I’m a planetary astronomer. I’m interested in how the Solar System and other planetary systems form and evolve. I use both observations from ground-based telescopes and spacecraft imagery in my work.

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How did you get to where you are professionally? What was your path to becoming a scientist?

Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been interested in the Solar System and astronomy. I’ve wanted to be an astronomer ever since I can remember. I studied physics as an undergraduate at UPenn. I went on to graduate school at Caltech pursuing a PhD in planetary science, studying the small bodies like Pluto in the Kuiper belt and beyond. After graduating, I spent three years at Yale as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. At Yale, I searched for large Pluto-sized bodies in the outer Solar System and searched for extrasolar planets with the Planet Hunters citizen science project. I then spent three years in Taipei, Taiwan as a postdoctoral fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. For over year, I’ve been living on the Big Island of Hawai’i working at Gemini Observatory as an assistant scientist.

Can you speak specifically about your journey as a woman in the sciences?

I did notice pretty quickly that there was only one other woman in my higher level physics classes in university, but the cohort of students I worked with and my professors never treated me differently than anyone else in the class. Throughout grad school and onwards, there are definitely more men than women, but the gender balance is better for my generation than it has been for past women in science.  I’ve been lucky that my collaborators and mentors both men and women have been supportive and treated me with equity and respect. There is still work to be done for inclusion and diversity that we as members of the field all need to play a part in both in our actions and listening and learning.  

What are you currently researching?

My research partly focuses on studying the small bodies in the outer Solar System, like Pluto, beyond Neptune in the Kuiper belt. I’ve been recently part of a collaboration to measure the infrared and optical colors for around 100 Kuiper belt objects to better understand their composition and the conditions of the early Solar System’s planet forming disk.

I am also involved in several citizen science projects that enlist the public to help mine large datasets for Solar System science: Planet Four (to map seasonal fans on the South Pole of Mars), Planet Four: Terrains (to probe the carbon dioxide jet activity on the Martian South Pole), Planet Four: Ridges (to identify locations of polygonal ridges on Mars), and Comet Hunters (to identify new comets residing in the asteroid belt, a newly discovered population of bodies residing in our Solar System).

Over 150,000 people have helped explore Mars contributing to real scientific research through the Planet Four projects. Anyone can participate in these projects, all you need is a web browser. Recently the first results from Planet Four: Terrains were accepted for publication in a research journal. More details can be found here

The other aspect of my day job is helping to facilitate getting observations for those researchers who have been awarded time on the Gemini telescopes. I support the design of observing programs and help ensure the principal investigator gets the data they are expecting. Gemini is mainly a queue-scheduled telescope, which means we take the observations requested by astronomers who have been granted time on the telescopes. At times, I help make the schedule for the night determining what observations the nighttime staff will execute based on weather conditions, program priorities, and what instruments are installed. I also help take care of the instruments on the telescope, serving as instrument scientist for Gemini North’s near-infrared camera, NIRI.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I really enjoy the process of figuring out something new that we didn’t know before about the Universe no matter how small or miniscule. I value the moments working with collaborators one-on-one sitting around a table talking through the plots we’ve made trying to figure out what the observations we’ve taken are telling us.  The path is often winding with obstacles and frustrating and sometimes the answers you find are completely different from what you were expecting or set out to study. I really enjoy the process of going through those twists and turns.

Do you have any advice for young women — or even women who are looking at a second career — about becoming a scientist?

A career in science can be mentally and emotionally trying at times but also rewarding. You will be searching for jobs every few years especially early on in your career, possibly moving across continents and countries each time. Keep an eye out for the people who will become your network of mentors and allies throughout the different stages in your career who you will support you in those moments and also celebrate your successes. These mentors might not turn out to be your direct supervisor, and that’s okay.  

What are some things you enjoy when you're not working?

Over the past several years, I’ve become a pretty avid soccer fan. I’m currently rooting for the Tottenham Hotspur F.C. (Premier League) and the Chicago Fire (Major League Soccer). I’m enjoying the season the Chicago Fire are having this year. I also co-run the @astrotweeps twitter account, which each week hosts a different astronomer or planetary scientist sharing a bit about their lives and their work.