Alumni Spotlight | September 2017
KU major: Physics & Astronomy, class of 2008
Current occupation: Data Scientist
Research mentor while at KU: Barbara Anthony-Twarog, Bruce Twarog, Adrian Melott
Describe the undergraduate research experience that you had while at KU:
A: Before the end of my freshman year, I joined Prof. Adrian Melott's group, working to collect data on trilobite extinction patterns during the Ordovician extinction. One hypothesis at the time was that, if cosmic explosion (supernova, GRB, etc) had a role in the extinction of trilobites (all at sea), that the extinction pattern would be different for shallow vs deep subspecies. I learned a good deal about various non-parametric statistical tests while at it! I switched then to the study of chemical abundances of nearby stars, using a photometric system (a way of mapping the "color" of stars to their chemical composition) developed by Barb and Bruce Twarog. This project, which lasted more than 3 years, allowed me to actually do observational astronomy (in San Diego), as well as get better at coding. Together with my advisors, we improved the calibration technique in a regime that had not been explored before: that of very metal-rich stars (compared to the Sun). This technique, amongst others, could then be better used for measuring the composition of stars in clusters, and thus to map out the chemical evolution of the Milky Way. I really enjoyed my research experiences at KU, ultimately leading me to seek a PhD in astronomy at Yale.
Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research?
A: To a student who spent most of his earlier education studying material that had a "right" answer, it was hard at first to adapt to the research way of thinking. Often the data quality or quantity plays against you, or you often live with the sense that you have made "an error somewhere." Having a healthy skepticism about one's results makes one a more careful and prepared researcher. You also learn a lot about patience, and that savoring a triumph (seeing a research paper through with a new result, etc) is very gratifying, but a lot more work than regular school work. Finally, no research question is ever truly "finished."
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative scholarship?
A: Don't stress unduly at first over creating a masterpiece of scholarship. Feel free to try out ideas when you get the chance to do research. Your advisor will be there to advise on some boundaries, but it's important for you to develop your creativity while you also acquire technical skills.
Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation? How so?
A: While the projects I work on are shorter term than those found in academic research, I see myself as a mix of a statistician, a coder, and a researcher. Note that these three are things I did while on my research experiences at KU: statistics, coding, and astronomy research. In a certain way, working on a research-oriented team at a startup also means that there is often no right "answer" to a business question, or a right blueprint for a product. The difference lies in that you don't get many years to do incremental work. You must move quickly!
Q: Many undergraduate researchers are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?
A: It is hard to give very broad advice, but I think I would have tried to spend one of my (working) summers doing work outside of my major. It does not hurt to get a good sense of what's beyond academia, even if you ultimately decide to pursue a PhD and, perhaps an academic career (or not, as was my case). Good luck with your respective decisions!