For this interview, I’m happy to introduce Jon Rees, who is a researcher working at UC San Diego. We met several years ago while playing the online game Syrnia. Bit of trivia: we share a birthday – though not the same year! Jon’s from South West Wales. He completed a PhD in Physics at Exeter University in 2016, and then moved to the US for a research position.
Caroline: Jon, thanks for speaking with me. First of all, can you tell me what an astrophysicist does?
Jon: It depends on what area they work in. I’m an observational astrophysicist, so in broad terms it’s my job to take data from a telescope, analyse it, and use that information to answer questions.
Theoretical astrophysicists generally use computer models and simulations to predict and study how things form and evolve, and I can take the information from these models, compare them to my observations, and use that to figure out what’s actually going on.
My area of expertise is star formation, so I study the stars within our own galaxy. My previous work focussed on figuring out how old groups of young stars are (young meaning millions of years old), so that we could place limits on how long it takes to do things like form a planet or star, or how long disks around stars can survive in certain environments. My current research looks at much older stars, in an effort to understand how small stars evolve over much longer timescales (billions of years).
Caroline: Certainly gives us a sense of perspective, if “young” stars are millions of years old! Why did you choose this career?
Jon: I sort of fell in to this career really. I certainly didn’t set out originally with the idea that I would become a professional astrophysicist. I’ve always been interested in space (I blame all the sci-fi I read growing up), and so I decided to study astrophysics at University. A physics degree is fairly flexible with eventual career paths, so I had no idea where I would end up at the end of it. I realised I was pretty good at the research side of things, applied for a few postgrad programs, and got offered one. And again, I didn’t really have a good idea on what I would do at the end, but I figured that at least I’d be able to spend another 4 years doing something I enjoyed. As the end of my PhD rapidly approached I started applying for a variety of positions, including a few research positions. I got offered a joint position between Tucson and San Diego, and it seemed like it would be a great way to explore living in some interesting cities in the USA.
Caroline: Are there any misconceptions or stereotypes you’d like to correct?
Jon: I think the biggest misconception around my job is probably what we actually do all day. Unfortunately, there’s far less time spent using telescopes than you might imagine. It’s mostly time spent in my office at a computer.
Caroline: I guess that makes sense. There’s only limited telescope time, but we like to glamorise what we think. What does your daily routine involve?
Jon: It’s a lot like a typical office job. I usually work something like 8-6, although when deadlines approach that gets blown out of the water. I work on a mix of writing computer code, analysing data, and writing reports. Occasionally you get other things sprinkled in, which is usually my favourite part. Things like telescope runs, writing proposals for telescope time, or working on a brand new set of data.
I’m actually currently transitioning to a new role as Observatory Manager at New Mexico State University, so my daily routine will be shaken up pretty soon.
Caroline: Sounds like you’re going up in the world! What do you like best?
Jon: I definitely enjoy the opportunities to use the large research telescopes. It’s a fun environment to work in, you get to see brand new data as it comes in, and there’s a lot of problem solving and troubleshooting to be done when things inevitably go wrong.
Caroline: And what do you like least?
Jon: Definitely the temporary nature of the positions. Getting a permanent position is extremely difficult, they’re incredibly competitive. So you end with a number of temporary positions. In the space of 3 years I’ve moved from the UK, to Arizona, to California, and now to New Mexico. Thankfully my new position should be more permanent, so I’m excited for that!
Caroline: Maybe a dim question: do you have to work at night rather than during the day?
Jon: Not a dim question at all! That’s one of the more common questions I get. And the answer for me is usually no. I sometimes get the opportunity to go to telescopes to collect data. And on those occasions you do end up working nights, but that accounts for much less of my work than you might imagine. Modern research telescopes are so productive that you don’t need to spend a huge amount of time there to get a lot of data. For example, in the 4 years I spent working on my Ph.D. I had a total of around 20 nights on a research-grade telescope, and that still gave me more than enough data to work with for 4 years!
Since then, I’ve been working with Hubble Space Telescope data. Being a space telescope means that we don’t have to physically go and take the data ourselves. Instead we fill out a form detailing what the telescope should look at, the instructions are sent to Hubble’s computer control system, and then we wake up one day to an email telling us the data are ready to be downloaded. But I still volunteer for other observing runs because that’s the part of the job that I enjoy the most.
Caroline: Wow. It would certainly be a different kind of job if you needed to visit the Hubble to use it. Do you see any big changes coming up over the next decade?
Jon: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the next large space telescope to launch. Hopefully it will go up as planned in 2021, and will provide us with a whole new level of sensitivity. It should give us a step-change in our current capabilities, and allow us to study things in much greater detail than before.
One of the most exciting areas (especially for the public) is exoplanet research (planets around other stars). JWST will allow us to study the atmospheres of exoplanets in much better detail than we can do right now. The TESS space telescope also just launched last year, which will search for new exoplanets. It’s predicted to discover thousands of new planets, many of which will be suitable for further study with JWST. Between these two new telescopes, we’ll likely see a number of exciting discoveries over the next decade.
Caroline: How do you switch off from work?
Jon: That’s still something I struggle with actually. It’s never easy to completely switch off and ignore work, especially when you have collaborators around the globe working on different schedules. I read a lot, generally sci-fi and fantasy books. Weekends are a prime opportunity to go hiking, which has the added benefit of not being able to receive emails.
Caroline: Thanks, that’s very interesting. And all the best with your new position!
If you’re interested in learning more about Jon’s background and work, you can visit his website here.