Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Astrophysicist

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Astrophysicist

Zoom out far enough and astrophysics is really the study of everything: planets, heavenly bodies, and all that star stuff from whence we came. It’s literally a broad subject that can include anything from quantum mechanics and relativity to exoplanets and black holes.

 To learn a little about the day to day work of an astrophysicist, we spoke with Natalie Hinkel, Ph.D., a planetary astrophysicist at Arizona State University, who does both observational and theoretical work while cataloging the elemental abundances in stars—among other things.

First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.

To explain my current research, I have to go back to the beginning. During the Big Bang, the only elements that were created were hydrogen and helium. All of the other elements, such as carbon, oxygen, iron—all of the basic building blocks that we see in our own bodies, the planet we live on, and most of what is in the periodic table of elements—were made within stars. These elements were formed within the first stars which lived and then died in massive explosions, spreading the new elements to different regions in the universe. The new elements then mixed with the original gas from the Big Bang and coalesced to form new stars.

What I do is look at elements within nearby stars, using a technique called “spectroscopy.” I’ve put together the largest catalog of element abundances (or “amounts of the elements”) in stars that are relatively close to the sun. It’s called The Hypatia Catalog—named after one of first known female astronomers—and contains +50 elements for +4300 stars within 150 parsecs (pc) or 500 light years (ly) of the sun. Interestingly, stars and planets are made at the same time, out of the same giant ball of gas. So I also try to connect elements within the stars with the possible composition and structures of orbiting planets, or “exoplanets.”

I started doing this research as a part of my PhD, which I got in 2012 from Arizona State University, so +6 years. Since then, I’ve been a “Postdoctoral Researcher”—which is someone who has their degree but is primarily doing research (not teaching) and learning new skills. Postdoc jobs are typically short-term, about 2-3 years, and you do maybe 1-2 of these positions in order to explore other areas of research, make connections with other researchers, and generally get your career started. I’ve been a postdoc at Caltech, San Francisco State University, and now I’m back at ASU as a member of a large research network (call NExSS).

What drove you to choose your career path?

As corny and cliched as it sounds, and because I feel that most astronomers and astrophysicists have a similar story, I was drawn to astrophysics the first time that I saw Saturn through a telescope. I was visiting some family in Miami and my uncle had a small, 3-4” telescope that we set up in the street. My cousin thought that it looked like someone had put a sticker at the end of the telescope, because you could see Saturn and its rings so clearly. But I was just stunned that you could see so much detail in something that was so far away.

In high school, I was really geared towards math. However, when I first started college, I couldn’t help but take an astronomy course, because I wanted to know what it was “really” like. I enjoyed the class a lot and continued to take more, which lead me to taking physics classes. I joined a research group my first year studying pulsars, which was both exciting (since those are super far away and kind of strange objects!) as well as a bit tedious (I had to learn how to program, reduce data, etc.). But, I really enjoyed researching a lot and exploring new ideas.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

First, I got my bachelors degree in physics with a minor in math (from Oberlin College). Then, I went to graduate school for 6 years in order to get my PhD. As I said, I’m in the phase of my career where the jobs are relatively temporary, but I’m looking now for something more permanent, whether as a university professor, full-time researcher at an observatory, or data scientist at an institute. There are many options open to me right now.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

I spend the vast majority of my time programming. Most people assume that astronomers spend all of their time at telescopes, but that’s only a very small fraction of the job, if at all. I do some observations, but in the past few years I’ve only been observing twice for a total of about two weeks. Once you get the data, you have to reduce it (i.e. take out the bad parts and process it for real information), usually combine it with other data in order to see the whole picture, and then write a paper about your findings. Since each observation run typically yields data from multiple stars, you don’t need to spend all of your time at the telescope to have enough work.

Also, because The Hypatia Catalog—which is really the major focus of my work—is a gigantic database, it needs to be maintained and updated on a semi-regular basis. In fact, putting together Hypatia was really what threw me into programming, since it’s not only relatively large but it’s also multidimensional. I had to figure out a good way to computationally put it together so that it could be flexible and relatively easy to update. It’s usually a big surprise to people that most of what I do involves a computer and not a telescope.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

In general, people assume I study aliens. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to “let someone in” on what’s actually going on with extraterrestrial lifeforms. More personally, people tend to associate me with Sheldon Cooper (from The Big Bang Theory), which I find rather insulting. I know they are trying to find something they can relate to, but telling someone that they are similar to a character who is entirely without social skills, empathy, patience, or a sense of humor is not particularly nice. I’d like to think that I can be a scientist and still have those qualities (or at least most of them).

What are your average work hours?

Weirdly, I don’t really have a “typical.” One of the perks of being a postdoc is that I don’t really have to be in an office by/at a particular time. In fact, a lot of times I work from home. As long as the work gets done and deadlines are met, then everyone is happy. This can be really nice if I’m exhausted and need to sleep in, for example. On the other hand, it’s a double-edged sword in that I work a lot on weekends.

What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?

Well first, as an undergraduate, I did a lot of research. I wanted to see what it was like and if it was something I wanted to do as career. I worked with a professor at Oberlin and then I did two summer internships through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. All of my research projects were very different (pulsars, measuring gas ratios in nearby galaxies, and star formation) and gave me a good sense not only of the science but also the skills I would need.

The second thing that really helped me, especially as a woman in science, was when I learned to stop comparing myself (my grades, my research, my papers) to other people. When I realized that the scales for people’s success varied on a person-to-person basis, that really changed my self-confidence and allowed me to focus on being a good scientist... which, in turn, makes me a successful scientist.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? (Well, of course every researcher has a distinct focus.)

Many people in the field focus very narrowly into their chosen research topic. They know and do one thing and they do it amazingly well—they are by far the experts in their field. I take a much broader approach: I do stars but I also do planets. I do observations but I also do theoretical work (with models and simulations). I do lot of things and I find a way to tie them all together. For me, the big picture, the big patterns, are the most intriguing—so that’s what I go after.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

The worst part of the job, at least right now, is the temporariness of every contract. And because jobs tend to be with universities, there are limited options within one city so getting a new job usually implies moving. I’ve moved four times in as many years, which is exhausting. It was made worse by the fact that my husband was still at ASU while I moved around, meaning we did long distance for 2.5 years. He is graduating in the next year, so another struggle we’re up against is trying to find jobs in the same city.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

I get to do what I love. No doubt about it. I get to do the research that is interesting to me, with people that I enjoy, on my own time. It gives you a real sense of drive, one that I appreciate very much.

What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what’s an average starting salary?

Salaries tend to vary by city, obviously since cost-of-living changes, but in general a postdoc makes ~$50k. From there, as you become more of a “senior” scientist, you tend to make ~$70-100k, but rarely anything more than that. Being an astrophysicist typically means your life will be comfortable but not extravagant.

One of the funny little things about life in academia is that others in the field always tend to know roughly how much you make. In general, graduate students (in the sciences) make around $20k, postdocs $50k, and then it increases from there. Because of this inherent knowledge, and since literally everyone has “been there,” there is this really nice pay-it-backward mentality. Namely, senior scientists will often pay for the food/drinks of postdocs, grad students, and undergrads at social events, postdocs will pay for graduate and undergrad students, etc. It’s one of those small, common occurrences that can really make a big morale difference.

Is there a way to “move up” in your field? Do you ever see yourself working in the private sector?

As I mentioned, possibilities for me are rather open right now. So while I can see myself being a professor or a pure researcher, I can also see myself going into the private sector. I’m not sure exactly what I would do in the private sector, since working for an internet company like Facebook or Google doesn’t sound very exciting, but given my skills I believe I could find something that I’d enjoy.

What do people under/over value about what you do?

I think people tend to overvalue the extraterrestrial aspect of astronomy and as a result they tend to undervalue all of the really cool other things in space. To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” And in all of that bigness are these weird, strange phenomena that we know nothing or very little about.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

Don’t be afraid of math. Try internships to see if/what you like about the science. Use your classmates as valuable resources; working with other students, in my opinion, is one of the best things you can do since you end up teaching each other. Find your self-confidence.