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Chandra Chronicles Spotlight: An Interview with Leisa Townsley
July 19, 2006
The Chandra Chronicles Spotlight series aims to introduce various people involved in the Chandra X-ray Observatory to the website's visitors.
Dr. Leisa Townsley, a senior research associate at Penn State University's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, recently spoke with the Chandra Chronicles. In addition to the beautiful Chandra images she creates (see images below), Dr. Townsley is involved in the study of high-mass star formation regions, X-ray astronomy instrumentation, globular clusters and galactic evolution, ground-based observing, and remote sensing.
When did you first realize that you were interested in astronomy? Along those lines, how were you initially exposed to the topic -- either in school or in some other way?
I am a child of the space age (born in 1964), so space exploration, especially the robotic Viking and Voyager planetary missions of the 1970's, were just part of growing up for me. I remember cutting pictures from these missions out of the newspaper as a kid. I never got a chance to do any observing, so most of my exposure came from books.
When did you decide to become a professional astronomer? Were there other competing career choices along the way?
I had always wanted to be an astrophysicist and took as much math and science as was available to me through public schools in the '70's and early '80's, but the real choice came as a sophomore in college. Everyone encouraged me to become an engineer because pay and job prospects were better, but I decided that money wasn't as important as doing what I really wanted to do.
What kind of training and education did you need to get to your current position?
My mediocre public education didn't prepare me for the rigors of the science curriculum in college. I attended Rice University in Houston because the generous financial aid offered by Rice made it cheaper for my parents to send me there than to the local big state school. I am a first generation college grad, so the whole experience was new to me. As a sophomore, I was advised by the astronomy department head to switch to an easier major, that I would never make it through the physics curriculum. Out of pure spite I stuck with it, graduating in 5 years with a double-major in physics and mathematical sciences. Luckily I had work-study money as an undergrad, so I got a chance to do research in astrophysics with a Rice professor -- that resulted in co-authorship on a few journal papers and a recommendation that secured me a position in graduate school. Many years and 300+ nights at the telescope later, I finished my PhD, a visual-waveband study of the globular cluster systems of edge-on spiral galaxies. Now that really has almost nothing to do with the job I got (and still have), working on the instrument team for Chandra's Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer
(ACIS). To answer your question, I think I got this job because I knew how to drive a Sno-Cat (a 4-track vehicle that we used to get to the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, at the top of 9600-foot Jelm Mountain), which demonstrated that I could do field work without killing myself or breaking anything expensive. That skill was important in the early days of calibrating ACIS.
Can you describe the area of research you are most interested in? What led you to this topic?
Using primarily Chandra, I study massive star-forming regions in our Galaxy and in neighboring galaxies. X-rays are a great way to study these murky regions where the most massive stars form, as they penetrate the shrouds of gas and dust that envelope these infant stars and let us see how star birth happens. Studying these regions is very rewarding to me, since it is likely that our Sun formed in a similar environment, close to massive stars, so it was bombarded by the strong winds and powerful UV radiation that those stars produce. So understanding massive star-forming regions is a way to understand where we came from.
My first work in astrophysical research (as an undergrad) involved studying the turbulent motions in these massive star-forming regions. I pursued other topics in graduate school, but came back to star formation after Chandra was launched and we had worked out the bugs in ACIS, as it became clear that Chandra's fine spatial resolution and the ability to get spectra from individual stars with ACIS would open up massive star-forming regions as a new field of study in X-rays.
Is being an X-ray astronomer any different from being some other sort of astronomer (optical, radio, etc.)?
I guess one of the biggest differences is that X-ray astronomy can only be done from space, since Earth's atmosphere absorbs the X-rays we're trying to study (not that I'm complaining about being protected from all that nasty radiation!). So from a practical standpoint, I do enjoy not staying up all night anymore! Of course you can't really understand astrophysical phenomena if you limit yourself to just one waveband, so we compare our X-ray results to data from the infrared and radio all the time. Astronomy is a very collaborative science, one where we can't adjust the experiment if we don't like the results, so all different sorts of astronomers have to work together to build an understanding of some astrophysical phenomenon. It takes brilliant instrument builders and theorists, as well as observers, to really learn anything new.
Outside of your current research, what do you consider to be the most fascinating question(s) in astronomy today?
Wow -- that's a tough one. There are so many mysteries and so many great stories to tell that it's hard to choose just one. I would say that one of the most compelling topics today is the discovery of extrasolar planets -- I think we all knew that they had to be out there, but the confirmations of this over the last 12 years have been astonishing. I can't wait to see what the next decade will bring in our understanding of how stars, planets, and even life, have come to be.
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell strangers -- ie, on a plane -- what you do for a living?
Well, as I get older, I get fewer of the disbelieving exclamations of "Really?!" Most people are very excited to hear that I'm studying data from a big NASA telescope in space and are very supportive of such work. Usually I'm working on a talk or a paper on the plane, so I can even show them some of my data!
What's your reaction if someone then confuses you with an astrologer?
Gladly, this almost never happens. I think most people understand the difference between astronomy and astrology, even if they use the wrong word. So nobody thinks I spend my time reading palms.