Article - Aaron Evans

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This article is reproduced from the October/November 2009 issue of Diversity Careers magazine.

Dr. Aaron Evans works on ALMA at NRAO


His basic goals: delving deeper into the universe through the ALMA telescope grouping, and helping talented black students get their chance at astronomy


In the thin dry air of the Atacama Desert, 16,500 feet above sea level in northern Chile, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope grouping, an astounding new window to the universe, is under construction.

Five thousand miles to the northeast at National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) HQ in Charlottesville, VA, Aaron Evans, PhD is concentrating on work needed for ALMA’s completion. The world’s top astronomers, he explains, will be able to execute their best research efforts once this latest and greatest telescope array is ready for use.

ALMA isn’t Evans’ only responsibility. He’s also an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia (U VA), and is working on a partnership to help HBCU Howard University (Washington, DC) expand its astronomy program and curriculum. NRAO is supporting the partnership.

Evans notes that African Americans are “very much a minority” in his field, so he’s pleased and excited about the Howard venture. “The hope is to get students involved in research during the academic year or through summer internships. It’s likely that students would come from all over for that,” he says happily.

Work on ALMA continues on a stringent schedule. The array will consist of sixty-six high-precision antennas, like huge satellite dishes: more than any previous telescope ever dreamed of. When it’s completed, two or three years from now, scientists from around the world will be able to probe the earliest stars and galaxies, and planets of other suns than ours. “It’s wonderful for the study of the gases out of which stars form,” Evans notes.

During the ramp-up phase, Evans and his colleagues at NRAO are testing the software observers will use, getting the help desk together, setting up archives “in a data-safe and secure fashion,” and designing Web pages so scientists and the public can see what ALMA is all about.

"Think of us at NRAO as the interface between the scientific community and the telescope,"he says. "We do all the things that aid the observer or the scientists with the telescope."

Before Evans started work in Charlottesville in 2008, NRAO and U VA worked out an agreement for him to have a joint appointment. “I was interested in continuing teaching,” he says. “This way I can do the teaching I like and also branch out into the operation of ALMA.”

Evans was born into a military family and spent much of his first ten years in the Philippines and Japan. His father was an Air Force engineer and his mother a nurse.

"While I was a kid living in Japan I read an article about Newton, Galileo and Kepler. It talked about their lives and what they did.

"I was captivated by a picture of Newton holding up a prism and light passing through,” Evans recalls. “I can point to that as the beginning of my interest in astronomy.”

From then on he looked for math and science courses to get him to his goal. In 1990 he completed a BS in physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan, in 1993 he finished an MS in astronomy from the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy, and he got his PhD there in 1996.

The new Dr Evans spent 1996 to 1999 at the California Institute of Technology doing postdoctoral work with the Hubble’s infrared camera and with the Owens Valley Millimeter Array. “I had done previous millimeter observations as part of my thesis,” he explains, “but this allowed me to use the unique facility at Caltech to continue my research.”

Evans then taught at Stony Brook University (Long Island, NY) from 1999 to 2008, when he joined the team at NRAO and arrived at the University of Virginia.

Evans' goals are quite clear. One is to help more African Americans get into his field, expanding on ventures like the one with Howard University. The other, of course, is to approach some of the most basic mysteries of the universe.

"An issue that’s become of major interest to many of us in the last ten or so years is the connection between star formation in galaxies and super-massive black holes,” he notes. “We’ve been approaching it primarily by sampling galaxies with active black holes and looking for evidence of star formation as a first step.

"With ALMA, we’ll be able to study these systems at a higher resolution: how much gas there is and what the gas is actually doing. It’s one of the main things I’m eager to get into at Charlottesville.”

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