Article - Fred Lo

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This article is reproduced from the October/November 2008 issue of Diversity Careers magazine.

Diversity Goes Astronomical

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It's not happening at the speed of light, but inclusion is gradually permeating the world of radio astronomy.

Diversity Careers Editor in Chief, Kate Colborn, talks with Dr. Fred K. Y. Lo, who formerly directed (sic) NRAO (Charlottesville, VA), the largest and most powerful radio astronomy observatory in the world.

 

Dr. Fred K. Y. Lo, who now heads up the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, Charlottesville, VA), came to the U.S. in 1965 to attend MIT because there weren’t many universities offering science degrees in Hong Kong at that time. MIT, he says, was a wonderful experience.

"When I graduated from MIT in 1969 with a BS in physics, I was offered a graduate assistantship by my undergraduate advisor,” says Lo. “He essentially paid me to go to school to become an astronomer.”

Here's how it worked: young Lo thought he would like to stay on at MIT for grad school, and his advisor said, “Well, in that case, why don’t you work for me?”

There was one problem: his advisor was in radio astronomy, not pure physics. “But I said, ‘Why not? Sure, I can do that. I’ll go to school, and if I don’t like it I can always change.’ But I never did.”

At that point, says Lo, “I really had very little knowledge of astronomy at all, let alone radio astronomy. I was thinking of doing something practical, like solid-state physics,” he says with a smile.

Lo did, in fact, get to do solid-state physics. “What we do in radio astronomy involves a lot of solid-state physics,” he notes with a laugh. “We work with solid-state detectors and other solid-state electronics. Besides, radio astronomy is actually astrophysics: the universe, and that’s what I’ve always been interested in.”

When Lo started his grad work the pulsar, the quasar and black holes were new. Interstellar masers were new. “It was a really exciting time and a burgeoning field,” he says.

Lo made that field his own. When he completed his PhD in 1974 he spent ten years at Cal Tech and the University of California at Berkeley, researching and teaching. He moved to the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign as professor of astronomy and later chair of the astronomy department. In 1997 he joined the Academia Sinica in Taipei as distinguished research fellow and director of its newly formed Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

What research was he doing? Among many other projects, Lo has worked on star formation in dwarf galaxies, starbursts, and the structure of the compact radio source in Sagittarius A. He’s been intimately involved in construction and use of all the millimeter-wave interferometer arrays in the U.S., and he made the first millimeter-wave interferometric map of CO emission from an external galaxy.

In 2002 he came to NRAO as its director.

He feels that, in a way, what he’s doing is still academic. His job as director is to make the way smooth for staffers and visiting scientists in the astronomy community to do their research. “NRAO’s Charlottesville HQ is on the grounds of the University of Virginia, with another branch at New Mexico Tech. So we’re all somewhat involved in teaching, and we pride ourselves on having a largely academic attitude and tradition.”

The NRAO is funded by the National Science Foundation. There’s no formal connection with NASA, but “Over the years we have always collaborated with NASA.”

NRAO partnered with NASA for the Voyager mission almost twenty years ago, and recently helped with the Phoenix Mars Lander. The big Green Bank telescope was used to directly track the signal from the Lander, and the VLBA, which has very high positional accuracy, tracks the course of the orbiter. “We tracked the spacecraft approaching Mars and orbiting Mars. It’s all pretty exciting,” Lo says.

Almost half the users of the NRAO telescopes come from outside the U.S. The observatory has about 500 staffers in North America, and hosts several thousand users per year at its various facilities, working on the four major instruments and others, Lo says. In addition, about half the support staff is technical. “That’s quite a sizable group,” Lo notes with pride.

NRAO scientific staffers are expected to do their own research as well as helping visitors, because “Only if you are an active researcher can you be sure that the scientific instruments are at the forefront. The active staffer/researcher will know if we need more sensitivity or more bandwidth, so we can improve the facility over time. The whole scientific community benefits,” Lo explains.

There are, of course, a multitude of projects going on at once, using NRAO’s many telescopes. Researchers are studying quasars and black holes in the galaxies. “We are studying how stars form, how planets form, how galaxies were formed and have evolved. A number of people are working on cosmic microwave background radiation, the remnant heat left over from the Big Bang,” Lo says.

"All our staffers are involved in research of some sort, which is supported by the observatory budget. They may work alone or in collaboration with others, including professors at our host universities.”

There aren’t as many people of color in astrophysics as one could wish, Dr Lo comments, but nevertheless NRAO is pursuing diversity. It’s doing quite well with women staffers, some tenured or on the tenure track. “We have one new woman assistant director and will have another one soon. She is on the short list for the position,” Lo discloses.

In fact, at NRAO-associated universities “Half the graduate students in the astronomy departments are women,” Lo notes. “That is a huge change. When I was going to MIT we would have twenty women out of 1,000 per class!

"As we move into the future there is no question but that the demographics will continue to change. I think we are definitely moving in the right direction across the board.”

Dr Lo recently hired an African American astronomer, “one of only a handful. He is a very good astronomer, and the more I see him in action the more excited I am that he is here. He is very interactive and has many ideas, and I’m expecting him to stir things up a bit and be very stimulating.”

Lots of undergrads and even occasionally a keen high-schooler or two spend time at NRAO. In the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, undergrads come in for a ten-week stint working with the staff. Sometimes they’re analyzing data, sometimes working on a specific problem.

REU is a longstanding program. To his delight, Dr Lo often discovers that a distinguished astronomer or astrophysicist he’s just met is an NRAO REU alumnus.

Dr Lo himself is strongly international. He has taught and lived in several different countries. “I certainly feel my background and experience help me tremendously in doing my job,” he says. “I get to know everybody in the world of radio astronomy, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and mainland China as well as Europe and the Americas. I travel a great deal.”

As to the NRAO he loves so well, “We’re a very special organization. We attract and keep a lot of really good people from all over the world.

"If anyone is interested in NRAO they should come to see us,” says Dr Lo.

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