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January 2011  •  Volume 3 Number 4

Diversifying Research and Communication in Astronomy: Lucianne Walkowicz

Lucianne Walkowicz

How free is the life of an astronomer? For Lucianne Walkowicz, being an astronomer provides freedom that most people don’t have or recognize exists in a scientific career: “By and large I get to pursue questions that I find intellectually interesting to whatever manner I can think of. Being an astronomer is a very creative job, which I don’t think the general public realizes.” Lucianne pursues her interests in a variety of research efforts at the University of California (UC) Berkeley Astronomy Department these days. Her main challenge is to not overcommit herself given the myriad of interesting projects that excite her intellectual curiosity.

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, Lucianne worked for the Advanced Camera for Surveys analyzing flight candidate CCDs during the school year. As a graduate student at the University of Washington she worked on M dwarf activity with Suzanne Hawley and became involved in LSST. “If I had a piece of advice to give, I’d say never to be afraid to approach people and ask to work with them when you’re just starting out. Every job I had I got by cold-calling astronomy departments or knocking on people’s doors and asking if they would let me work on something. Experience helps, of course, but anything you don’t know how to do you can learn, you just need to find someone who is wiling to teach you. You can learn a lot and explore a lot of different subtopics that way, long before you get to grad school.” This next generation will benefit from mentors but also have much to teach about how to view the modern face of astronomy.

In addition to pursuing her personal research interests with LSST, Lucianne was one of the lead authors of Transients and Variable Stars chapter and with Josh Bloom chairs the Transients and Variable Stars collaboration. Lucianne points out that this is probably the most diverse science collaboration: all things transient – from near by to very, very far away – covers all kinds of objects. “We are the time domain; and transients will make useful observations for lots of different collaborations.” It’s a thrill watching an event unfold in its entirety: “It’s not often that astronomer get to observe phenomena evolve in real time. But for us, the objects of interest are things which change on human timescales.”

Lucianne is now a post-doc with Kepler, the NASA Discovery Program to search for habitable planets, at UC Berkeley. As the Kepler Fellow for the Study of Planet-Bearing Stars, she uses Kepler data to study stellar magnetic activity and rotation. Lucianne has a long-standing interest in stellar activity both in what it tells us about the star and in how it affects any orbiting planets. Her work on Kepler satisfies both her interest in stars and in planets: she is also a member of the follow-up group, which takes additional data on Kepler’s planet candidates to validate or reject them as true planets. LSST research will expand her Kepler efforts in a variety of ways: building light curves of variable stars, capturing transient events on variable stars and quantifying what is observed to determine if the event is extragalactic or requires immediate follow-up are examples. LSST will also be able to find transiting planets by observing gravitational microlensing and transits.

In five or ten years Lucianne will no doubt be well-established leading a working group of graduate and undergraduate students wherever she is. “In five years I hope to have found a permanent job ideally at a research university where I will be able to have a strong research program as well as the ability to teach.”

And her teaching employs intriguing methods. She brings a unique way of communicating – with lots of visualization and significant artistry. Lucianne is an accomplished artist and graphic comic book creator. She not only took art courses in high school and college but last year had her first gallery show. Her plan is to combine her interests in astronomy, art, visualization, teaching, writing and graphic books into educational and instructional materials for students and the general public. Sales of graphic novels and comic books are growing in the US and may one day reach the level they enjoy in Japan. Some of the future volumes may be Lucianne’s; and hers may help people who think they are not capable in math and science realize they are perfectly capable when concepts are presented with a different learning style.

“I think that LSST is a going to be a fundamental change in how astronomy is done – the time domain aspect and immediate data availability go beyond even the large surveys. It will be a very exciting time for those of us involved in the field for a while to learn to think about our research processes differently, while new students coming into the field will take this “new” landscape at face value.” Lucianne will be working on both the new ways astronomy is done and the ways it is communicated.

Article written by Anna H. Spitz


LSST is a public-private partnership. Funding for design and development activity comes from the National Science Foundation, private donations, grants to universities, and in-kind support at Department of Energy laboratories and other LSSTC Institutional Members:

Adler Planetarium; Brookhaven National Laboratory; California Institute of Technology; Carnegie Mellon University; Chile; Cornell University; Drexel University; George Mason University; Google Inc.; Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Institut de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules (IN2P3); Johns Hopkins University; Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University; Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, Inc.; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; National Optical Astronomy Observatory; Princeton University; Purdue University; Research Corporation for Science Advancement; Rutgers University; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Space Telescope Science Institute; Texas A&M University; The Pennsylvania State University; The University of Arizona; University of California, Davis; University of California, Irvine; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Michigan; University of Pennsylvania; University of Pittsburgh; University of Washington; Vanderbilt University

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