Sunday, April 2, 2017

BDNYC and Beyond

For the past year and a half I’ve been working in New York City as part of the Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC) research group at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). In this blog post I’ll describe my experiences in that time and how I went about getting my new job at Space Telescope.

In my last year in Chile, while applying for more postdocs and a few faculty positions, I decided against pursuing the standard academic research track. The whole hamster wheel of proposals-observing-writing-proposals-repeat just wasn’t for me. However, this is unfortunately what most graduate careers in astronomy train one to do. So I was left with very little guidance as to how to proceed in this and ended up getting depressed. I’ve written about my decision before and encourage you to read it if you want more details. During this time, I was approached by my former officemate Jackie Faherty about working for their team in a 1-year postdoctoral-level position that would allow me to explore alternative careers while helping them in their own research. After some deliberation, I accepted, but was still hesitant given the loosely defined job.

Upon arriving in NYC, I was confronted with the vagueness of the job. I had no idea what I wanted to do, yet the PIs of the team, Jackie Faherty, Kelle Cruz, and Emily Rice, all had good suggestions of things I should tackle. Work was slow at first, as I learned the ropes behind their flagship product, the BDNYC database and accompanying astrodbkit python code. I also learned what the various students worked on and set up meetings with them to quickly get into the team. I struggled with what my position was, especially when talking to the other postdocs as I felt shame at leaving research. As time went on, I became more confident in my work and was given more responsibilities to explore what I could do with my skills.

After a few months, I was quickly becoming an expert at the database and coding work. Around this time, I also attended a data science workshop (see here) that taught me several good skills. I was also pointed to the Advent of Code series of puzzles, which further helped me expand on my python skills. Furthermore, I started working with Brian Abbot in the Digital Universe, the backend that contains all the data displayed in AMNH’s planetarium. This got me working on their Uniview and partiview software and I started learning how to add datasets that I could then explore and create videos with. I also started mentoring one of the students, Colleen Clearly, in a project applying some machine learning tactics to data from our database.

By the summer of 2016, I was pretty much established as the BDNYC database expert and had worked hard to improve it and the various programs that interfaced with it, including creating a web app to access the public subset of the database. I started getting involved with the Astrocom students with set me up as a bit of a technical/coding expert for a new batch of undergrad students. My own student gave an excellent presentation on a Principle Component Analysis and I had become well-versed in adding new data to the Digital Universe, which came in very handy when the first-year GAIA data was released. By this time I was proud of my work and was calling myself the database manager and software developer of the team.

Schema for the BDNYC database

In the fall of 2016, one of my bosses forwarded an email advertising a set of positions for archival scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. I had of course heard about STScI, having used their interface and products before in my own research days, however I was unaware that positions like ‘archive scientist’ even existed. This was practically the exact same thing I was doing for the BDNYC team, except on a larger scale and as a more permanent job. I was super excited at the prospects and applied to it. Curiously, my bosses were very concerned as they knew I had the skills for the job, but they didn’t want to see me go! They felt I had become such an integral part of the team!

The rest, as you may guess by now, is history. I got a phone interview and then an in-person interview, both of which went very well and I was offered the job in late January 2017. I accepted to start in April and what followed was some of the most hectic months in my time in NYC to date. I was juggling my apartment search in Baltimore, dealing with the landlord in NYC, and trying to get everything closed out in a reasonable fashion with BDNYC. I wrote up a description of the work I did for them and was surprised to see how large and detailed it had become, particularly given that they had no one in line to replace me. I set up several tutorial sessions with the group and with students to bring them up to speed with the best ways to use the (new and improved) database as well as the new tools that existed for that, including how to host local versions of the BDNYC web app, AstrodbWeb.

In the end, it was sad to leave such a great group behind, but I know that I will have a great experience working at STScI. My last day at the museum, March 24, 2017, was filled with happiness and joy at my new job and appreciation for all the work done and all the things learned while at AMNH. I know I’ll continue to collaborate with BDNYC remotely, so maybe from time to time I’ll get to visit NYC and hang out with the old team.

BDNYC, having a fun photo at my farewell party

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