Was It Hard To Return To Astronomy and Research?

This was the most common question I was asked about my last post. I spent several years in Earth Sciences before returning to astronomy in 2000 as the Manager of the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) at IPAC, Caltech.  My position gave me 20% of my time to spend on science as a senior member of the IPAC science staff.

I wanted to spend my science time working on brown dwarfs. I have had a longstanding interest in this field, ever since Neill Reid and myself made an early search for them as long ago as 1986.  The trouble was,  I had only 20% of my time for science, and by 2000 the field had blossomed into a dynamic research area, with a huge literature. I found it overwhelming just to read it, let alone develop a research proect.

But an opportunity was at hand.  IPAC was a contributor to the National Virtual Observatory (NVO), a project to develop the infrastructure to make astronomy databases talk to each other. In its early days, the NVO decided to perform three science pilot projects to inform the requirements on infrastructure. One of them was a search for brown dwarfs by cross-matching the databases of sources produced by the Sloan Digital Science Survey (SDSS) and Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS)  projects. IPAC was granted technical leadership for this project.

This was my opportunity to get back into research. I recruited my colleague Davy Kirkpatrick at IPAC, one of the founders of the brown dwarf field and one of its leading experts, to work with me on science goals. And I recruited Serge Monkewitz, a very bright Software Engineer, to build the search engine. Working together, we got the engine going, and we set up search criteria that would optimize our chances of finding brown dwarf candidates, especially very cool (in temperature!) ones, designated T-dwarfs.  Then we went through the list of candidates, and culled out image artifacts.  We then recruited Stan Metchev, then at UCLA and now on the faculty at Stony Brook, to work with us to measure spectra and make positive identifications. It took 5 or 6 years to observe the candidates, what with the usual allocations of cloudy nights, but we hit paydirt. We found 2 new very cool T-types, and made the first estimates of their space densities, and we found a number of unusual warm brown dwarfs.

So, what advice might I offer to someone in a similar position?  Trying to develop a project by yourself after an absence may prove very, very hard. Instead,  I would advise people to work with experts in the field and develop a well defined project with them, and keep at it. Learn from the experts – Davy pointed me to the papers I should read, and patiently answered all my questions.  When you have a result, go to a meeting and present it. Make a real effort to talk to attendees, and see if you can set up further collaborations with them.

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