Faculty Spotlight: Jessica Werk

Jessica Werk recently joined the UW Astronomy Department as an Assistant Professor, and is the new faculty advisor to undergraduate students. She grew up in Simsbury, a suburb of Hartford, CT. Her research aims to unravel the mysteries of the circumgalactic medium and the role it plays in galaxy formation and evolution. In her own words:

Jessica-Werk“I am currently building a research group of graduate and undergraduate students focused on the broad topics of galaxy formation and evolution. Specifically, my work addresses the physics of and interplay between the interstellar, circumgalactic, and intergalactic media — all the stuff between the stars and galaxies, which is, as it turns out, the vast majority of the stuff in the universe. I follow the gas using both multi-wavelength observations in space and from the ground,  and by considering a range of cosmological simulations. I love working with, teaching, and advising students, and consider it to be the best part of my job.”

Q & A

What got you into astronomy?

When I went away to college, I left behind my TI-83 calculator thinking I was done with math and science forever. I had thought I wanted to double major in international politics and economics and I was going to learn to speak at least 3 additional languages. But that was before I had ever really pondered a vast universe beyond our relatively minuscule planet, and, before I enrolled in Astronomy 155 – an introduction to astronomy course – taught by Professor Kathryn Johnston then at Wesleyan University. The first day of class I learned that photons from the sun take approximately 8 and half  minutes to arrive at earth, and that fact just hit me hard like a punch to the gut. I thought: I need to understand this incredibly vast universe. My first course in astronomy changed my goals and outlook tremendously, in a large part due to the encouragement and enthusiasm of Professor Johnston. After she gave me the opportunity to carry out research modeling stellar tidal streams in a growing gravitational potential over the summer of my freshman year, I was truly hooked. Later, when I packed for my Sophomore year, the TI-83 came with me and my goal was to become an astronomer.

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

Good advice is the type that reaches you at exactly the right moment when you need to hear it. So, instead of offering general advice, I’ll share a piece of career advice that resonated with me at precisely the right moment. During my first postdoc, I was feeling a bit untethered and generally pessimistic about my future as an astronomer. (I’ve since come to realize this is common experience, especially for first postdocs.) I had even been exploring other career options, having recently interviewed at a management consulting firm — which was itself a near soul-crushing experience. At this particular moment, I was having lunch at an international astronomy conference with a very prominent astronomer, Joss Bland-Hawthorn. I may have mentioned my lurking feeling of career disillusionment, although I can’t recall the specifics of the conversation. However, I vividly recall his response. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Don’t give up. Just do not give up.” That was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. There were many times after that conversation that I wanted to give up and leave the field in defeat, but those words haunted me. As simple as his advice was, it gave me that little bit of extra strength I needed to continue to face the rejection after rejection that comes with continuously applying for fellowships, jobs and grants.

That said, for many astronomers, leaving the field is the right choice. There are more lucrative and potentially rewarding options for someone with analytical, teaching and coding skills. I know astronomers who have left the field because they realized they would be happier doing something else, not because they gave up. If you’re contemplating a career in astronomy, it is important to be honest with yourself about whether your heart is in the research.  You should reassess your goals at every stage.  It was this process of continual self-evaluation that led me to realize that I have to do astronomy research, that I really do love it, and that most of my doubts involved a fear of rejection and failure at some level. Rejection is difficult, but it gets easier and you get stronger the more you face it. Failure is entirely a figment of your imagination.

What is your favourite aspect about Seattle?

The stunning, dog-friendly and incredibly maintained city parks are my favorite aspect of Seattle so far. Between Magnuson, Discovery, and Carkeek parks, it is very difficult to choose a favorite. My dog Marlowe’s favorite is Magnuson Park for its huge off-leash area and dog beach. On the human beach at Magnuson, I enjoyed swimming this summer while marveling at the Cascades in the distance. Just last weekend at Carkeek park, I watched salmon run up the creek, and when I was down on the beach saw a salmon jump out of the water several times. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the exhilarating feeling of standing on the bridge just above an oncoming freight train. I consider Carkeek Park to be my happy place in Seattle, since I live very close by. Discovery park is just a true gem, with amazing views and large open fields.