Faculty Spotlight: Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque grew up in Taunton, MA and is a new Assistant Professor in the UW Astro department (welcome!). Her research program is focused on stellar astrophysics and using massive stars in particular as cosmological tools. In her own words:

levesque_emily“The light from star-forming galaxies is dominated by their young massive star populations, and transient phenomena draw our attention to the death throes of these same stars, sometimes at really extreme distances. At the same time, massive stars are uniquely available as local laboratories: we can detect the earliest generations of massive stars exploding as long-duration gamma-ray bursts across the visible universe, while also closely examining the physical properties of their evolutionary and chemical twins right in our own cosmic backyard. Right now my research is focused on observing nearby massive stars and stellar populations and using these results to test and improve the same theoretical models of stellar evolution that we then apply to the high-redshift universe.”

Q & A

What got you into astronomy? What’s your first memory associated with astronomy?

My answer to both of these is the same! When I was 2 years old Halley’s Comet was making its most recent fly-by, and my older brother, Ben, had a school assignment that asked him to go out and observe it. The whole family headed out to the backyard, and according to my parents I was completely transfixed. From then on as I got older people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and my answer was always some variation on “an actor or an astronomer”, “a marine biologist or an astronomer”, “a violinist or an astronomer”, and so on. Astronomer is what stuck!

What do you find most challenging and rewarding about being an astronomer?

One challenging aspect of being an astronomer is balancing the core scientific motivations that drive you with some of the more mundane day-to-day tasks that keep everything up and running: arranging work travel, making slides, writing budgets, debugging code. This can actually go either way: sometimes you hate dealing with the little things, and sometimes it’s much easier to cross “book flights for conference” off your to-do list than “formulate five-year research plan for studying Thorne-Zytkow objects”. It’s important to step back periodically and go “hey, I’m doing all of this because I’m studying the evolution of massive stars a billion light years away!”, but you also don’t want to let the big picture overwhelm you and keep you from the little individual steps that drive your day-to-day progress.

For me, the most rewarding aspect of being an astronomer is getting other people excited about science and astronomy. I love giving public talks and answering questions from people who aren’t in the field. Little kids are always a blast, but I really love seeing adults get drawn into the topic. Inevitably someone will say “Oh, I’m sure this is such a silly question, but…”, and then go on to ask something really thought-provoking or fundamental to current astronomy. I like reminding people that “silly” questions are often the starting point for great science, and it’s always fun to ignite some enthusiasm and curiosity in people about astronomy and how our universe works.

What advice do you have for post-docs / grads / undergrads that you wish someone had told you earlier in your career?

I always tell people to build up a team of advisers and mentors rather than just relying on a single person. Sometimes this is just practical; if you have a question and one person is busy or unavailable, someone else can help you. It’s also really helpful to have multiple perspectives, whether you’re talking about research, teaching, or professional development. Getting this kind of varied feedback is really important to growing as a scientist and to developing your own personal perspective on your research and career.

Another piece of advice is to do as much presenting and writing as you can! Building up a good foundation of scientific knowledge is important, but it’s only part of the skill set that you’ll eventually need. Giving a presentation and writing about your research is crucial if you want to be a professional astronomer, and those same skills are also highly transferrable if you want to move into a related field. Since we don’t often teach “how to write a proposal” or “how to give a conference talk” in classes, the only way to get good at these things is to seek out as much practice and feedback as possible.

Share a short, personal story (family, pets, hobby, fav. quote or song or poem or book) – why is this important to you?

I have a pair of photos in my office: on the left is my grandmother graduating with her LPN from nursing school, and on the right is me graduating with an S.B. in physics from MIT. Like all of my grandparents, she had to drop out of school in her early teens to go work in a factory and help support her family. It broke her heart at the time because she loved school. Eventually she and my grandfather both went back and earned their high school diplomas, and she then went on to get a nursing degree, all while raising five kids! Throughout her life she always emphasized the immense value of education; two generations later I was the first person in my family to get a Ph.D. I love having this photo to look at: on my grouchy or tired days it’s pretty motivating (nursing school! with five kids!), and it reminds me that one of my jobs as a professor is to help make this kind of story possible for my own students from all kinds of backgrounds.

In the not-so-distant future, you’re sent to explore and live on a habitable planet in a nearby star system. What 3 items (physical or abstract) would you make sure you bring and why?

Assuming that people are disqualified as “items”, and that whoever/whatever is sending me will throw in the basic survival provisions (food, water, power source, a Hitchhiker’s towel, etc.)…

–My laptop, so that I can take notes on what I see, keep a journal, take a few pictures, and have some basic portable research tools at hand.

–A simple handheld spectrograph. I’m primarily an observer and mostly work with spectroscopic data, so that’s probably the first thing I’d want to point at anything interesting that I might spot!

–My little stuffed frog. He’s a travel good luck charm, and that’s going to be a pretty long trip. Plus those would be some pretty funny photos from a new planet…

What is your favourite aspect about Seattle?

So far, the weather. I’ve only been living here since mid-August and we’ve had crisp sunny fall days pretty much the whole time! It stays like this all year round, right?

Did or do you have a science role model? What makes this individual’s qualities important to you?

Carl Sagan. He was a talented scientist, a wonderful writer, and I think he’s largely responsible for our modern picture of what a successful “science communicator” or “science celebrity” should be. He got an entire generation interested in science and space (I was very nearly named “Sagan”; my parents were both big Cosmos fans), and I think we need a lot more people like him working in today’s media!