In this interview, we have the opportunity to talk with Dr. Michelle Edwards, who is currently the Observing Development (ObsDev) and Support Lead at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO). LBTO is one of the largest telescopes in the world, located in Mt Graham (Arizona, USA). You can visit its webpage to know more about the activities developed at LBTO.
Now, she is a manager and group leader at LBTO, supervising a team of 4 people. She talks us about her work, but also about her experiences as a woman in optics and photonics, in this interview. Thanks for your collaboration, Michelle!
Michelle, you work at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO) in Arizona. This is one of the largest telescopes in the world! Can you tell us about your work there? Can you describe your role at LBTO?
I am the Observing Development (ObsDev) and Support Lead at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory. LBTO is an international observatory that serves astronomers from Italy, LBT Beteiligungsgesellschaft in Germany, and a consortium of U.S. universities. The telescope is located at an elevation of ~10,500 ft on Mt. Graham, three hours northeast of Tucson, AZ. We are headquartered on the University of Arizona campus, which is where I spend most of my working hours.
We are indeed one of the largest telescopes in the world, but we are also extremely unique! The LBTO has two identical 8.4 meter mirrors situated side-by-side on a common mount (like a pair of binoculars). We have three pairs of facility cameras that can observe in the optical and near-infrared, a very high resolution spectrograph, and an interferometer that allows us to combine light from both mirrors. LBTO also has two adaptive optic secondary mirrors, one for each primary mirror.
Before I talk about my current role, it is probably useful to know my background. I attended graduate school at the University of Florida where I worked with Drs. Stephen Eikenberry and Reba Bandyopadhyay on the Canarias Infrared Camera Experiment (CIRCE), a near-infrared camera for the 10.4 m Gran Telescopio Canarias. For my dissertation project, I analyzed and toleranced complex, aspherical reflective optical design, completed opto-mechanical designs of the brackets and mirrors, and designed cryo-mechanical filter box and related mechanisms. After I received my Ph.D. I was hired as Gemini Science Fellow at Gemini Observatory in Chile. Gemini is another of the world’s largest telescopes with two identical telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. As a Fellow, my initial responsibilities include troubleshooting instrument and science issues, performing nighttime observing and day-to-day work with a mid-infrared camera called T-ReCS, and pursing my own astronomy research. During my second year at Gemini, I began working with a camera called the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI). GSAOI was specially designed for use with a state-of-the-art Multi-Conjugate AO system, GeMS. I was appointed lead commissioning scientist and was responsible for managing project resources, writing on-sky operations plans, interfacing with software, science, and engineering teams, and interacting with the build team. It was an amazing opportunity!
When I was first hired at the LBT, I was an Instrument Support Scientist with many responsibilities similar to my position at Gemini. Several years ago, I was promoted. Now, as ObsDev Lead, I manage and participate in development that impacts our scientific community. This includes user-facing software, novel operations strategies, projects to improve observing efficiency, and acceptance and commissioning of new instruments. As a group lead and manager, I sit on the internal managing body of LBTO, the Observatory Council, and answer directly to the Observatory Director. I supervise 4 people, who help operate many of our AO-related instrumentation, including the interferometer, our Ground Layer Adaptive Optics System, and our AO-ready facility camera.
For some reason, most of people enjoy staring at the stars. However, it is not that usual to develop a scientific career to study them. Which was the reason that motivated you to do so?
I had a very interesting path to astronomy. I was told when I was younger that I was not very talented in math or science. I focused instead on history, politics, and economics. I dreamed that I would go to college and become a lawyer!
With that in mind, I went to a very small, but very demanding, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, called Dickinson College. Liberal arts colleges believe that every student should be well-rounded and take courses in all fields, not just the one they want to pursue as a career, so I was required to take two semesters of a lab science. I was encouraged, based on my math scores, to take Introductory Physics. This particular introductory class, called Workshop Physics, is a revolutionary course developed by award-winning physics professors in the Dickinson Department of Physics and Astronomy. We had no lectures — instead each week we participated in three 2-hour hands-on classes where we worked with our teammates to discover the basic laws of physics through experimentation and the Socratic method. To my surprise, I loved it.
Two of the astronomy professors took notice of my efforts in class and invited me on a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona to observe with a 31” telescope at Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was discovered). When I saw the telescope and started working with it, I was in love; that first night I knew I had found a new career. I loved everything about observing — the quiet late nights, the complexity of the instrument, the hours of analysis and troubleshooting, the grandeur of the sky; I was hooked. In the coming years I changed my major to Physics and Astronomy and learned all I could. I traveled back to Flagstaff every semester to observe and started my own research projects, attended my first conferences, training as the resident expert on Dickinson’s 24” telescope, and completed undergraduate research opportunities at the Naval Observatory in Flagstaff and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. I applied and was accepted to graduate school — I specifically wanted to study optics, telescopes, and the special cameras astronomers design and use and so I chose a school with that focus.
There are a lot of physics students that want to develop a career as astronomers or astrophysicists, but not all of them know about the role of optics and photonics experts in this field. How would you encourage them to learn about the “technical” part of this area, and maybe, to motivate them to do research and to work in this area?
Many observational astronomers focus on the research and data analysis and are not experts in optics, telescopes, or astronomical instruments. They will train to use these tools, but may only have contact with larger, complex telescopes a few nights a year. Obviously, they must understand the basics or they could not design good science projects, however their formal schooling might be a single course in observational techniques in undergraduate or graduate school. After that, they rely on their own experiences and the observatory’s astronomy staff to help them strategize and use the facility to their advantage.
Meanwhile, astronomers who specialize in instrumentation or observatory science, those who build the instruments or work at observatories maintaining, troubleshooting, and using the facilities everyday, follow a different path. Many work closely with hardware from the earliest stages of their careers and specialize in designing or building instruments in graduate school or as postdoctoral fellows. While many of our colleagues are siting in front of computers writing computer code to analyze data, we are in a lab soldering and wiring, filling dewars, and aligning mirrors.
When physicists or astronomers approach me and say they have an interest in this subfield, I encourage them to spend as much time as they can at observatories. When it comes to understanding how instruments and telescopes work, how they fail, and how to fix them, there really is no substitution for using the equipment day in and day out. I likely have hundreds and hundreds of nights of 8-m telescope time built up over 11 years and further hundreds on smaller telescopes before that. Most of my colleagues can say the same.
Another piece of advice is to find a physics or astronomy instrument lab accepting students. For a beginner, the lab’s focus does not matter much, simply learning to be comfortable handling optics, cryogens, pumps, electronics, etc. is the most important part. If one can make arrangements with undergraduate or graduate faculty at one’s home institute, that is ideal. If not, one might consider summer internships elsewhere.
I would tell anyone interested in working at an observatory in particular that the very best part is that you will likely never have a boring week! There may be a day or two where things slow down, but sooner or later something will need critical attention, either a complex instrument or a visiting astronomer! The environment is frenetic and the tasks change often. If I find myself stuck on one issue, there are ten other issues to pick up and solve!
As you know, this interview intends to highlight the work of women in optics and photonics. It is not very common to find women working in these areas, and specially women who are responsible of the optical instrumentation used in this kind of facilities. What’s your experience as a woman in this area? Have you ever felt the gender bias in this male-dominated field?
Unfortunately, I have. In graduate school I had a very jarring and unwanted physical encounter at a conference with a more senior male attendee. I reported it, but at the time, nothing happened. I felt violated by the man and unprotected by my field. Sadly, many female friends my age report the same treatment.
Things have changed for the better — many astronomy conferences now have “allies” in attendance; volunteers in the community who will record reports of harassment or assault, take the necessary actions with conference organizers, and provide support to the victim.
I have also experienced gender bias in other ways. At LBT, in an organization with 100 employees, only 4 women, including myself, are in technical positions. When I started 8 years ago, not a single manager or board member was female. It was hard, with few or no mentors or role models, to picture how my career would advance. I had to display a great deal of confidence. For instance, I remember when I started at the observatory, I was informed by some of my colleagues that they only hired me “because they were looking for a woman”; I replied that they hired me because they were looking for the best — and I was it! That is not something I would normally say, but I wanted to take a stand immediately against that kind of bias.
Throughout my career I have had to be very assertive. There are times I even interrupt my colleagues to finally be heard. There are times I call someone out for repeating what I’ve just said. It has earned me a bit of a reputation, no doubt, but it has also allowed me to progress my career in a male-dominated subfield of a male-dominated field. Now that I am a manager with a staff, I make it a point to hold non-biased interviews when I hire and educate the other managers about unconscious bias and diversity issues.
In the last years, in Spain, the efforts to highlight the role of women in science have grown exponentially and, also, international scientific societies have open sections dedicated to minorities (not only women, but LGTBQ+ or LatinX, for example) in STEM. How is the situation in the United States? Are there meetings organized by women and minorities (and men) to address gender and other bias and discrimination in STEM?
Yes! Our national professional organization, the American Astronomical Society (AAS), has two standing committees dedicated to addressing bias and discrimination. These are the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA) and the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). Both host sessions at our semi-annual meetings, publish newsletters, make strategic recommendations to address glaring issues in the field, and facilitate the advancement of women and minorities through job placement, job advertisement, and networking.
The community also hosts topical meetings to address these issues. The first «Women in Astronomy” meeting, held in 1992, produced a then-groundbreaking document called the Baltimore Charter. It declared women’s equality in the sciences and outlined 5 recommendations for improving the lives and careers of women astronomers. Similar meetings are held every few years. In 2009, at Women in Astronomy III, I presented a poster outlining the career paths of women at Gemini Observatories that focused on the lived experiences of our brilliant female staff collected through extensive interviews.
Since 1992, the field has grown and changed. Many women recognize that fighting for gender equity is simply not enough and that focusing solely on one type of bias is not acceptable. I was proud to attend an excellent conference in Maryland called «Inclusive Astronomy», hosted by Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI, better known as the home of the Hubble Space Telescope). The meeting focused on making our field more inclusive for all and had special sessions about bridge programs for minorities, LGBTQ+ issues, bullying, codes of conduct, engaging deaf and blind communities, and creating safe environments and workspaces for individuals who define themselves as not neurotypical. The meeting produced recommendations for the 2020 Decadal Survey, a review of all facets of our field that we undertake as a community every 10 years.
Currently there are more and more activities addressed to children and, in particular to young girls, to let them know that science is a perfectly valid career for all of them. This was not so common when we were little girls. Did you miss to have scientific women as role models when you were a child/teenager? Some people think that these activities are not necessary, and that girls should decide whatever they want to study without the need of such role models. Which is your opinion about this?
I was the first person in my family to leave home as a young adult and go to a four-year college — what most US citizens would call a “first generation” college student. I was the first to earn a Ph.D. However, my mother attended a local community college and studied as a Medical Lab Technician (similar to a phlebotomists) when I was a very young child. Her experiences showed me that these opportunities existed, so I would say my mom was my first role model. Still it was many years until I met a female scientist. As I mentioned earlier, I was not interested in science at all as a child and I am certain that the absence of strong scientific women in my life was a reason why. I simply did not think science was for me.
Given my experiences (or lack of them) I now strongly support science programs for young girls. I have volunteered with the Girl Scouts and a variety of organizations focused on increasing the participation of girls in science fields. I think that visibility is critical. Helping young girls and teenagers to understand that they are just as capable, just as creative, just a brilliant, is important work that we must do if we want science to progress. As the Baltimore Charter quoted in 1992, “Women hold up half the sky”. Denying women their place in science diminishes the field for all, halving the genius and doubling the work as we aim toward a better understanding of our universe! Showing young girls that they can succeed and standing up as visable role models is an important mission.