I am a Data Analyst for the Space Telescope Data Capture Facility (DCF). I'm fairly new to the position--I began in June, 1995, one month after graduation. As a math major I did well, graduating valedictorian of my class, but I had no solid future plans. This changed after my DCF interview (which I heard about simply through a job posting at my school); I was excited to suddenly be a part of the space program, especially HST.
Once I accepted the job offer, my family and friends both had the question, "What exactly are you going to be doing all day?" At the time I had no idea; I only knew very general things about the DCF. For example, I knew that the DCF receives the data from the spacecraft, processes the data, ensures data quality, and delivers the data to the Institute. But I still couldn't have told you what I'd be doing all day!
Well, here's what we do. We receive the data that are downlinked from the Hubble and they go through our system (which is basically a bunch of machines). The system 'processes' the data--it organizes the data and performs checks to see if the data are all there and if the data have been corrupted in any way. The data analysts (that's me) ensure that the system is set up to receive the data, verify that the system is receiving the data, and investigate further if the data are not complete or are of poor quality. When we encounter a problem, we can look at the raw data (before they reach our system) and compare them to the processed data to see if the problem occurred within our system, or if the data were corrupted before they reached us. We do our best to pinpoint problems and provide the best quality data to the Institute. We are also continuously working to improve our own system.
The best part of my job is when I can figure out a new problem (or quickly recognize an existing problem) by myself. It's great to know that all of the aspects of my training are coming together and I'm making a real contribution.
The worst part of the job is that once I solve a problem, there is still work to be done. Forms must be filled out, reports generated, and copies distributed to inform everyone involved of the problem and ensure that it gets resolved. It's like in school when you have to research and write a paper on a famous person. Through research, you find out many interesting things about his/her life and it feels good to have learned something; however, the work's not over--you still have the paper to write. Never try saying to a teacher, in place of a paper, "Well, I did the research and I now have the knowledge; isn't that enough?" That would be like me telling my supervisor, "Yes, there was a data problem and I figured it out, so you don't need to know about it!"
As far back as I can remember I've been interested in space. I remember looking at the stars as a kid with my father and telling him that I wished I could reach up there and bring one of those stars into the house with us. "Those stars are bigger than our house," he said. For a second I didn't believe him; then I just felt overwhelmed. That was my first hint as to how big our world really is.
In addition to a basic interest in the space program, my position also requires an analytical mind. If you love to solve problems (and don't give up too easily!), you probably have good analytical skills. As a kid I loved 'brain teasers.' I'd anxiously figure out the solution and race to the answer key. If I was wrong, I had to exactly figure out my flaw before I was satisfied.
Of course, I don't hope for data problems (a single problem can sometimes keep us busy for a while), but each one that arises is a learning experience for me. I get the opportunity to determine what I know, determine what I need to learn more about, and ask lots and lots of questions about everything to the helpful and knowledgeable people I work with. If you don't ask questions, people will either assume that you already know or that you don't care.
My parents were my source of encouragement throughout college and my new job (actually, since birth!). Their advice has always been, "Just do your best." That may sound like a typical parent thing to say, but if you honestly follow it, you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Outside of work, I enjoy using the artistic half of my brain; I love to 'create.' I recently learned how to quilt (and am reading about how to make 'picture' quilts from photographs), I make picture frames, and I love to paint anything--from three story houses, to pictures of friends and places. Hiking and white water rafting I also enjoy, though the places local to where I live can't compare to the sights of Colorado (which I experienced last year on a trip after graduation).
I currently live with three friends from college--an archaeologist, a Capitol Hill lobbyist, and a therapist for autistic children; we're quite a diverse group. They're all wonderful, interesting people. Though I still wonder how it is that at work I analyze complex data and system problems for the HST project, but at home I can't figure out how to get any of us to take the garbage out. (This problem will most likely remain unsolved.)