I'm an Assistant Scientist and a Senior Scientific Programer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. The reason for having two titles is that I sort of have two jobs here. Most of my time is spent writing, fixing, and helping other astronomers use computer programs to analyze the pictures (we call them "images") and spectra that come from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Modern telescopes produce so much data - all of it in electronic form - that you have to use computers to look at it. The days of simply staring through a telescope and writing down what you see are long gone! The rest of my time is spent doing my own astronomical research. I'll tell you more about that later.
I work in the Science Software Group at STScI. This is a group of about a dozen people who are responsible for the software that is used for two main purposes. The first is to calibrate the data that comes down from HST before it is archived. The second purpose of the software we write is to get the information from the data that astronomers need in order to answer the scientific questions that they have about any object that's been observed with the telescope.
The job of calibrating the data is necessary because, no matter how hard engineers try, nobody can make an absolutely perfect camera or spectrograph. There are always a few little flaws or just simple variations in the way the detectors and the electronics respond to the light that it's seeing. So the purpose of the calibration software that we write is to fix-up the data, removing the flaws and accounting for the known variations, so that in the end (if we do our job right!) it's as if the data came from a perfect camera.
Computer programs are also need to analyze the data after they've been calibrated. These programs do things like adding up the amount of light coming from all the objects (stars and galaxies) in an image so that we can find out how bright they are, measuring the sizes of objects, and measuring the positions, heights, and widths of emission and absorption lines in the spectra of objects. All these measurements can tell astronomers a lot about how far away an object is, how fast it's moving, how big it is, how bright it is, and what chemical elements are in it.
You and your "Planet Advocates" will be using the software written by our group to calibrate and analyze the images that you'll be getting from HST. In fact, the calibration software that will be used to process the Pluto images from the Faint Object Camera (FOC) was written by my officemate!
I've been working at STScI for about three years now. When I first started here, I was working on the software that's used to calibrate and analyze the spectra that come from the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS) on HST. About a year ago I quit doing that and started working on writing all new software for an instrument, called the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (we call it NICMOS for short). This is a brand new camera that's being built right now out at the Ball Aerospace company in Boulder, Colorado and is scheduled to be put into HST by a space shuttle crew in February 1997. This will be the first camera on HST that will be able to take pictures in the infrared part of the spectrum. This is a part of the light spectrum that's too red for our eyes to see, but the cameras in NICMOS can see it and translate it into electrical signals for us.
OK, so enough technical stuff. Even though the majority of my job here is to write computer programs, I've never actually had any formal training (like in school) to do that! I got interested in working with computers when I was in high school (way back in 1974 or so!). My older brother, who was in college at the time, used to take me to the computer center at his school and he started teaching me how to use them to write simple programs (and to play games of course!). Ever since then I've just used them enough and got enough experience on my own that I can actually do it as a job.
Of course the reason that I have a job writing programs for use in astronomy is because I'm also an astronomer. I've also been interested in astronomy since about the time I was in high school and read just about every book on the subject that was in the library in my home town. So by the time I started college I knew that was what I wanted to do. I took a lot of physics and math classes and then went on to graduate school where I got my real training in astronomy. So when people ask me if I like my job, I say "Well, I'd better - I spent 10 years in college learning it!"
And speaking of being an astronomer, when I'm not writing computer programs I have time to spend doing my own research. Ever since graduate school I've been studying what happens to galaxies when they collide with one another. Most people don't realize that this ever even happens, but there are actually a lot of galaxies in the universe that occasionally run into one another. The specific thing I like to look at is to see how the collisions affect the way each galaxy is making new stars. All galaxies are constantly making new stars (and old ones are always dying) out of the gas and dust that's floating around inside of them. But when two galaxies collide, something often happens inside of them to suddenly make them start forming new stars at a much faster rate for a while. I (and quite a few other astronomers) have been trying to figure out exactly what's going on inside of them to make them do that.
When I'm not at work I'm usually busy with my family. I'm married and have three kids. My son is almost 9 years old and is in 3rd grade this year, and I have two (really cute) daughters who are 6 years old and a year and a half old. My son and oldest daughter always enjoy it when I get out my telescope that I bought in high school and let them look at stuff like the moon, some of the planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), and star clusters. My son says he wants to be an astronomer too!