[me] How did you become an astronomer?
My career path was very irregular, but it shows you that it doesn't really matter. I think I've made the most of opportunities that came my way, but I also think that if you do what you want to do, and especially if you do what you feel passionate about then you'll probably do better than if you just take some job because you have to make some money. There were points of my life where I did things because I had to just make money but mostly I did what I wanted to do and that was really great. I've always had what I now see at this stage of my life as the luxury of being able to be completely honest and not compromise myself and that was important too.
I grew up in Scotland in a very small town of 19,000 people, near Edinburgh. I was good at science. Well actually I was quite good at history and English
Oh no, I was not good at Latin; I was really not good at Latin
[me] I took some Latin and I thought it was very formulaic and well suited to scientific minds.
Not my mind. I’m not a very linear thinker.
[me] how did you start to study astronomy?
I did science, I went to Edinburgh, and I did a degree in physics. By chance I went to a summer astronomy course at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and then I went to work there and met my husband who is also a professor at Caltech now. He suggested I go to graduate school in the United States where he had been offered an assistant professorship at UCSD. Within a year, he was lured away by Caltech and I became a graduate student here. I dropped out to have two kids and then thought "I think I'd like to finish my PhD" so then I went back and finished at Caltech.
[me] How did you decide on the field you are in?
When I went back, astronomy at millimeter wavelengths had started and that was lucky for me. I was able to pick up in a field that was new so that most people were as new in the field as me. In a way, you could point your telescope, find something interesting, and then think, "What the heck does it mean?" I started in millimeter astronomy looking at clouds of gas and dust in the interstellar medium around stars. For my thesis I mapped clouds forever. At first it seemed a bit dull and then gradually, various aspects became more and interesting. Science can be like that
[me] What was one of your most exciting projects?
A friend called one day as he was coming back from observing in Hawaii and said "You know we just found this star with peculiar infrared emission, you should look at it with your telescope [points at picture of OVRO]" and I said, "oh, that's a good idea." And we went from there. The first observations were not really very exciting but we did find enough to write a paper about them
[me] There's something up there?
Well, there was something, but as I say, it wasn't very exciting. We thought a bit about it and decided to look for a rarer isotope of the molecule we were observing. Instead of looking at 12C16O we looked for 13C16O, which is much less abundant, down by a factor of almost 100 in the interstellar medium. The time allocation committee for the Owens Valley array was not enthusiastic but eventually agreed to allocate some time. It took months of before all the observations were complete. The night before I finished the data reduction was I was really worried and thought I might have wasted 40 hours of telescope time. But next morning to my great surprise, there I saw a structure around the star that was very thin and narrow like a disk – as we had hoped. The truth is sometimes you have to have a feeling that what you're doing is the right thing, and you have to believe in yourself. That's somehow one of the most exciting things about being a scientist. You can’t do this lightly but have to work though the problem, while combining it with a gut feeling.
[me] You have been at Caltech a long time.
I stayed here because my husband had a professorship here. We also had kids in school here. I was on the research ladder for quite a while as a result. But that meant I was free to take on other interests because I didn’t have the responsibilities of an assistant professor working towards tenure. I did research that I wanted to do, gave presentations at astronomy meetings took on astronomy service tasks in the community, advisory committees and so on. Along the way I got professorial offers from other places but Caltech always made it more attractive for me to stay here.
[me] What was your position before you were Vice President for Student Affairs?
Before I had this job I was the director of Caltech’s radio observatory for 11 years. I've loved being an astronomer but I also loved the experience of expanding the Caltech array into a larger facility, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter Wave astronomy. Some of the advisory committees were also fantastically interesting. For example, as the chair of a NASA advisory committee I had to testify in front of congress. It was fascinating to understand decisions about NASA and NSF funding are made.
[me] Have you always worked in millimeter astronomy?
I'm a kind of restless person and astronomy lets you try different observational techniques. I started in optical astronomy then moved into infrared and millimeter. One of the more unusual experiences was balloon borne astronomy. At that time the launches were from Palestine, Texas, which was very different from the kind of world, I knew in California.
[me] So it was pretty early in your career.
Oh, very early, probably around '78-80. I was only a postdoc. But it was my first experience of contributing financially to a collaboration and that gave me my first real feeling of independence professionally.
[me] Why did you become Vice President of Student Affairs at Caltech?
Oh, it was very much a surprise. I didn’t recognize that the committee was interviewing me and then President Chameau asked me to take the job. I thought that it would be “different”, and it is. My husband is also an astronomer, as you probably know but we have never spoken to each other much about our scientific work at home Since I took this job my husband asks "what happened today?" almost immediately because I now see a whole different part of Caltech life. But it is much more time-consuming than I expected and I think I might be more frustrated by the impact it has had on my doing science if I was at an earlier stage of my career.
[me] You talked about a telescope array in Chile was that built already or is it under construction?
It's under construction. It’s called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, and there will be 54 12-meter dishes at 17,000 feet above the Atacama Desert. That picture shows the first 9 [pointing at picture on the wall]. Currently there are 21 antennas up there. It's really beautiful. The very first allocations of time with a limited number of the telescopes have now begun. The results will be spectacular.
[me] Have you been there?
Yeah, I was there 3 weeks ago. This is just a simulation of the telescopes [handing over postcard with a picture on it], but you can see there are even higher mountains around. It's a spectacular place. In fact, Caltech wants to build a sub-millimeter wave telescope on the top of that mountain that you see [pointing to post card]
[me] Even higher?
Even higher - a single telescope at 5,500 meters that will operate at sub millimeter wavelengths and look at gas and dust in the interstellar medium. In particular it will look for gas and dust in galaxies not long after the Big Bang. It's really exciting because it enables cosmological studies that can’t be carried out at optical wavelengths. Astronomy takes you to telescopes in great
places like Chile and Hawaii. Have you seen, for example, one of the latest James Bond movies where they blow up a place near a desert: Quantum of Solace. Have you seen that?
Well you know at the end, the desert is the Atacama Desert.
[Juliette] Because you mentioned that you had taken time off from working to have kids, I've heard it's difficult to have kids if you're working in academia.
Oh no, I think academia can make it easier because you don't necessarily have regular hours. So if the kids got sick for example, we'd take turns staying at home. I didn't have a problem with it, and I actually did my PhD with small children. They said they didn't like it because they knew I put them to bed then went back to the computer, but I think they actually grew up fairly normal.
[Juliette] It seems like you were on a bunch of committees, I don't know if you can count being the head of an observatory as being on a committee, but you did a bunch of other things than just working here. Is that common?
Maybe not as much as I did.
[me] Your list is fairly extensive.
My list is a bit ridiculous actually.
[me] I compiled a short list of some of the things you did: so you had the Owens Valley, CARMA, ALMA, you're the president of AAS, the chair of NASA's space science advisory committee
And I was also on the NASA council, which was a revelation, it was quite fascinating
[me] Then chair of the National Research Counsel Board of Physics and Astronomy, recipient of NASA's Public Service Medal, Caltech's Woman of the Year, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Associate of the Royal Astronomy Society, and then of course the National Science Board nomination, plus I'm sure a lot of other stuff.
I did a lot of these things when I had more time and was not on the professorial faculty. If you have kids and you have a powerful professorship, it can be very hard. I actually divided my life in a certain sense in that I felt that there were three things you could do. You could do family, research and/or teaching. And until my children were grown up, I only ever did two of these at one time.
[me] How do you manage to still get research done? You're on a paper that was published in January.
Well I have a student and a postdoc and I read the paper, and I'm excited by it but it's pretty vicarious nowadays. So yes, I can look at the data, and I can help interpret it, and I can give advice but I haven't gone out there and rolled up my sleeves at the telescope for quite a while.
[me] You're in charge of Student Affairs; you're giving back to the students.
Oh, yeah, but in many ways they're giving a lot to me to me. It’s very energizing.
[me] I have one final question: what do you wish you knew when you were our age, if anything, that you know now?
I don't know. I think what's really most amusing to me is that I could never have imagined that this could have happened to me. I like to think that I have lived in a terrific age for astronomy: lots of fantastic things happened, lot of things got built, lots of new discoveries, I would wish for everyone that they could work in such exciting times. I don't know what else I can say.