Article - Kartik Sheth

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This article is reproduced from the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Diversity Careers magazine.

At the NRAO, Kartik Sheth Studies Galaxies and Mentors Students


He's also using his communication skills as part of the North American ALMA science center, a clearinghouse for the astronomy community


You might say that Dr Kartik Sheth is a time traveler. As an associate scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, Charlottesville, VA), Sheth studies both "nearby" galaxies and the far-off ones. Because light travels at a finite speed, he explains, the images of distant galaxies actually show what they looked like billions of years ago.

"It's like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle using a time machine," Sheth says. "We're able to trace in detail how the universe changed over time by slicing it into different bins of time. Eventually we will be able to piece together the whole history of galaxy evolution.

"Inorder to anchor our studies of galaxies back in time it's important to understand the galaxies as we see them today," he explains. To that end, Sheth is leading a large international team working to get "the best picture of how stars in nearby galaxies are distributed," using the Spitzer Space Telescope. He leads a team that has grown from twenty-nine to forty-five people.

Founded in 1956, NRAO provides state-of-the-art radio telescope facilities for use by the international scientific community. Astronomical observations at radio wavelengths let scientists address fundamental questions about the universe: When and how did galaxies form in the early universe? How do super-massive black holes form at the hearts of most galaxies? How are stars and planets born?

NRAO is also working on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. When completed, it will be among the most powerful telescopes ever built.

When Sheth joined NRAO in 2009 he was expected to spend thirty to forty percent of his first two years at ALMA in Chile. "There are many management challenges, and scientists have to also be good managers," he says with a smile. "The telescope is one of the most complex systems ever built in astronomy and the status of the hardware and software are constantly changing and improving."

While he was there an earthquake hit, hastening his departure. Instead of returning to Chile, Sheth was asked to use his communication skills as part of the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC), a clearinghouse for everything to do with the North American astronomy community. "All of us on the NAASC team are responsible for learning about the ALMA and communicating it to experts and novices in the North American community so they can exploit the telescope and utilize its transformational capabilities," he explains.

In addition, Sheth is a diversity advocate for NRAO. He works with minority-serving institutions to bring in students for research projects. His job is a complex one, including a lot of meetings and a lot of work at the computer, writing documents, testing software, then participating in conferences with colleagues around the world, as well as teaching a class and mentoring.

Sheth's family lived in Bombay, India until he was fourteen. His father, who worked at the Bank of India, came to the U.S. in 1986 and was an accountant for the Children's Hospital in central New Jersey. His sister has a degree in microbiology.

Sheth graduated from Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) in 1993 with a BS in physics and completed an MS in physics at the University of Minnesota in 1995. In 1997 he received an MS in astronomy from the University of Maryland, and he completed his PhD there in 2001.

He moved on to postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, and in 2004 became a staff scientist at Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. In 2009 he joined NRAO.

In addition to his fascinating work with radio astronomy, Sheth makes mentoring students a priority, especially those from underrepresented groups. He also teaches a course on professional development and ethics in astronomy.

His advice: "To be successful, be single-minded and focused. The field is competitive and not always gracious.

"You have to love what you do."

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