I am a research assistant for Mike Shara at STScI. The specific studies that we are involved with are the structure of nova shells, the discovery of Dwarf novae in globular clusters, and the discovery of novae in other galaxies. (I will explain what a nova and a dwarf nova are shortly.) Projects that I'm involved with other people include the comparison of stellar populations with theory and trying to understand why different globular clusters that appear to be the same age contain differences. (I will explain this shortly as well.)
A nova is a binary which has a white dwarf star and a companion that is dumping material onto it. When enough material is dumped onto the white dwarf the material explodes and gets ejected from the white dwarf. We study this ejected material to try and determine just how much material it takes for this explosion to take place and to determine how the eruption itself effects the structure of the shell. A dwarf nova is similar but instead of the eruption coming from the surface of the white dwarf it occurs in a disk of material that is being created from the material stripped off the companion. We're trying to find these objects in globular clusters, which or clusters of stars that orbit around our galaxy, because there are suppose to be lots of them there but as yet very few have been found. Globular clusters themselves are interesting because they contain so many stars that formed at the same time. This allows us to test theoretical models of how stars evolve. However, globular clusters still have differences that we can not explain and this is one of the areas which I am currently exploring.
What I do is write proposals for telescope time (basically an application form that is judged by other astronomers), observe at the telescope if we are doing ground based observations, process the data, analyze and model the data and finally to help write up our results for publication. This whole process is fun and exciting but by far my favorite parts are observing and the analysis and modeling. To me this is kind a like exploring and I get excited every time I receive time on a telescope and when I receive new data.
I guess I decided that I wanted to be an astronomer when I was about 12 or 13 years old. In grade 6 we did some reports on the solar system and these got me very interested in astronomy. Science always interested me but something about astronomy, I guess because it's such an unknown, just excited me. I grew up in a small town (8000 people) in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada and we didn't have too many things like science centers or stuff like that (the closest big city is Vancouver which is an 8 hour drive away). I did contact a professor at the local college and he was kind a enough to take me and a couple of friends to use some of the telescopes that the college had. One of the things I did do was to write NASA a letter and they sent me catalogs and some information. I also bought books and posters with the money I earned on my parents orchard. I think watching the shows "Cosmos" and then buying the book when a long way in furthering my interests. As I got older I got interested in computers which has helped me greatly in my work.
The best thing about my job is the not knowing what I will find. Exploring new areas of astronomy and trying to understand what we find is very exciting and interesting to me. I guess one of my least favorite parts is in the initial reduction or image processing of the data. It is completely necessary but it is pretty much the same every time and for every new piece of data. I guess it gets a little tedious.
I'm not sure I did anything special to prepare for my career. I read lots of books on astronomy, such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and I watched every show on PBS that had something to do with astronomy. I think today things have become more competitive and I would suggest that someone who wants to pursue a career in astronomy should study and math and physics and just importantly should learn as much as they can about computers.
There are two people that had a very large influence on me and my eventual success in this career. The first was a professor at a small college who took me and my friends to the telescopes that the college owned and showed us the planets and other interesting objects in the sky. He gave us books to read and he helped us make a telescope. My friends and I would regularly get together to look at the stars and watch a meteor shower like the Pleiades. Later once I was at University a professor there hired me to assist him. He encouraged my ideas and supported them as well. He then allowed me to apply or telescope time and to conduct research that I was interested in. These two people I owe a lot to and I will always be grateful to them for the support that they have given me.
Personal Info: I am unmarried and have no children. I will probably be getting a dog this year sometime. I played rugby for the University of Victoria. I guess because I grew up in a place where wilderness is abundant I enjoy hiking, camping and nearly everything associated with the outdoors.