- Ph.D., Astronomy, University of Hawaii, 1975
- M.S., University of Hawaii
- B.S., Physics, Harvey Mudd College, California
Catherine A. Pilachowski
Distinguished Professor, Astronomy
Daniel Kirkwood Chair
Distinguished Professor, Astronomy
Daniel Kirkwood Chair
Professor Pilachowski holds the Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington, where she teaches and conducts research on the evolution of stars and the chemical history of the Milky Way Galaxy from studies of chemical composition of stars and star clusters.
She served for more than 20 years on the scientific staff of the NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy research Laboratory in Tucson. While at NOAO, she served as Project Scientist for the design and construction of the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope.
In addition to her astronomical research, Professor Pilachowski has been active in the areas of light pollution, astronomical instrumentation, large telescope design and construction, electronic publications, women in science, and diversity. She has served on numerous national and international boards and committees and as President of the American Astronomical Society from 2002-2004. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Professor Pilachowski received a B.S. in Physics from Harvey Mudd College in California, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii.
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As a Professor of Astronomy at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I teach astronomy to undergraduate students, and work with graduate students who are obtaining their Ph.D. degrees in astronomy and astrophysics. In addition to teaching, I also conduct research on the evolution of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy through observations of stars in clusters.
My research focuses on the composition of stars, both to understand the complex processes that occur in stars to produce the elements of the periodic table and to understand how the chemical composition of our galaxy has changed over time. We know that stars make elements through nuclear fusion in their interiors. As more and more stars contribute to the mix, the amount of each element in the Milky Way increases of over time. The pattern of element abundances we see in individual stars also tells us something about the origin and history of that star.
Spectroscopy is the tool astronomers use to study the detailed compositions of stars. Each element imprints a characteristic pattern in a star’s spectrum. By recognizing those patterns and measuring their strengths, I can figure out how much of each element is present. Really, I study rainbows of starlight!
From reading books! As a teenager, I knew I wanted to work in science because that is what was the most interesting to me. I read many books about different fields, and found books by Asimov, Hoyle, and Gamow about physics and astronomy to be the most interesting. I especially enjoyed learning about the evolution of stars, which astronomers were just beginning to understand in detail in the 1960's, when theoretical computations could be carried out on the new, large, mainframe computers. Those computers were, of course, not nearly as powerful as those on astronomers' desktops today!
While I always enjoyed looking at the sky, learning about the Universe always interested me more. And today, my research is in the area of stellar evolution, understanding how stars form, evolve, and die, and how they effect the environment around them.
Most astronomers take undergraduate degrees in Physics or Astronomy, and then go on to graduate school in Astronomy or Astrophysics. While in undergraduate school, most students participate in summer research internships at observatories or universities. These research internships are funded through the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
Graduate students typically study for four to six or seven years before completing their Ph.D. degrees. Then they often spend 3-6 years as postdoctoral fellows, developing their research program before taking permanent jobs.
Math, certainly! And also physics, chemistry, and other sciences. Students should also get a good general education, and learn to write well. Writing is very important in science, because it is how we communicate our discoveries to other scientists and to the public.
Physics, math, and astronomy are all important subjects. Computer science is also important, and some fields of engineering can be useful, too. Many radio astronomers began as electrical engineers.
Graduate students in astronomy usually work as teaching assistants or research assistants while they are in graduate school. They work about 20 hours per week and are paid between $15,000 and $30,000 per year, depending on which university they attend. Universities in areas with a very high cost of living pay more, while universities with lower costs of living usually pay a bit less. While students don't get rich, they do make enough money to get by. Their fees and tuitions are usually paid by the universities they attend.
Once young astronomers have completed their graduate studies and their postdoctoral fellowships, they begin to look for permanent jobs. Many astronomers become professors at colleges and universities, and many others work at observatories and national laboratories. Astronomers also work in public outreach, organizing and presenting public programs, developing curriculum materials, and helping science teachers learn about astronomy. Finding permanent jobs in astronomy can be a struggle, because there are more astronomers than jobs, but most students eventually land jobs in the field.
As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, I worked as a research assistant assisting a professor with his studies of peculiar stars that have magnetic fields and starspots. After completing my Ph.D., I worked at the University of Washington as a postdoctoral fellow, studying the compositions of stars in globular clusters. When my postdoctoral work was complete, I joined the staff of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, where I worked for more than twenty years. In 2001, I left Kitt Peak to become a professor at Indiana University, where I now teach and conduct research.
Advances in technology during my career have completely changed how astronomers do research. Data are obtained using digital cameras instead of photographic plates, computers allow us to tackle much more difficult and comprehensive research projects that were possible decades ago, and our data and research papers are now available on line. The Internet allows astronomers all over the world to communicate and work together, and the way we work has become more international.
In any job, and especially in scientific fields, it is essential to continue to learn to use new tools. In research, I must compete with all astronomers, including more senior colleagues and with newly-minted Ph.D.s and even graduate students for research funds and access to telescope time and data. If I don't make skilled use of the latest tools and techniques, I can't compete successfully.
The number of women entering astronomy graduate programs has more than tripled since I started graduate school in the early '70's. The number of women at scientific conferences has increased, as has the number of women in technical positions on observatory staffs. It is now much less common to be the only woman at a working meeting. This is a BIG improvement! And the future looks bright for women in astronomy. Half of the undergraduate students majoring in astronomy are women now, and the fraction of new Ph.D.s who are women continues to rise.
Find a field and a job that you love. I love what I do, and enjoy each and every day. And each day is filled with new challenges and new learning. For me, this a big part of what makes my job so exciting.
I think everyone encounters obstacles! We all find family, health, and other personal problems that can slow down, postpone, or even derail our education and research - and our families come first. For astronomers, the weather can be a big obstacle, too. Time on research telescopes is usually allocated months in advance, and if the weather is bad, astronomers are out of luck - usually having to reapply for more time the next year. Bad weather can impact our research in a big way - even causing graduate students to spend another year (or two!) in graduate school. Other obstacles can involve finding the right next job as an astronomer advances from graduate student to postdoc to a permanent job, whether at an observatory, at a college or university, or in a research center. Choices are limited, and the search for the right match for each person can provide a significant obstacle. The research provides obstacles, too - research is always challenging, and it's typical to encounter many obstacles through the progress of a research project, from data problems through software that doesn't do quite what you expect, to reviewers who don't understand the results.
I've found my share of obstacles throughout my career. For each one, I try to find a way around, over, under, or through the problem, and always ask for help when I need it. Overcoming an obstacle is just another challenge, and a part of the process of research. I think the secret is to expect and anticipate obstacles and to see them as a part of every-day life - not as a special, unfair burden. It's a perspective that has helped me not to be overwhelmed or stopped by obstacles.
Astronomers use physics to understand objects in the Universe. We need to understand how astronomical objects like stars, galaxies, planets, etc. interact due to gravity, how heat is generated and transferred from one place to another, how electromagnetic radiation works and how it interacts with matter, and so forth. So astronomers need to know a lot of physics.
This happens often, because we're still learning about the Universe. When astronomers discover something new, we write a paper about our discovery, how it was made, and what it means. The paper is read by other astronomers, who incorporate the new discovery into their own work. We also report on our work at conferences and over the internet. There are tens of thousands of papers written each year, so it's hard to keep up!
Most interesting - learning new things, constantly. Least interesting - answering email!
In the short term the benefit is indirect. Astronomy is a basic science that helps us learn about how physical laws work in extreme cases - over very large distances, with very large masses, or at very high density, or very low density, etc. So it lets us test physical laws in ways that cannot be done on Earth. We motivate the development of new technology in optics, electronics, and computing - an example is that image processing software developed for and by astronomers is useful in analyzing medical images. And we inspire people to have an interest in science and to learn about science. All of those have indirect economic benefit. Over the longer term, we cannot predict what the benefits will be, but history has shown that past discoveries have led to economic benefit. For example, helium was first discovered in the Sun! So the benefits are likely to be there, but are unpredictable.
What's the most useful? Optics, of course, for telescopes, sensitive radio receivers for radio astronomy, computers and computing for data analysis. CCD detectors (like in a digital camera, but way more expensive!) for detecting light. The list is endless.
Sorry, I don't provide these personal details. The information that is available is the dates of my undergraduate (1971 from Harvey Mudd College) and Ph.D. (1975 from the University of Hawaii) degrees. I was born and raised in California.
The American Astronomical Society has an excellent website for information about careers in astronomy < https://aas.org/careers >. Also check out career information from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) < https://www.aura-astronomy.org/careers/ > and the International Astronomical Union <https://www.iau.org/public/themes/careers/ >.