Operation Innovation

Well, it’s finally official. As of today I am no longer a postdoc, but rather have been appointed the Innovation Scientist for the Center for Astrophysics and the American Astronomical Society!

You might ask: “What’s an Innovation Scientist?” Good question! This is a new role created at the CfA and AAS thanks to the vision and leadership of Charles Alcock, director of the CfA, Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the AAS, and especially Prof. Alyssa Goodman of the Harvard Department of Astronomy. The basic context is this: it is clear that the new technologies of the 21st century offer an immense opportunity to transform the research enterprise for the better. We want to seize this opportunity. But it is also clear that working scientists are — and should remain — too focused on their specialities to be able to chase every new fad that comes out of Silicon Valley. Many scientists are, of course, pushing the cutting edge of technology forward every day — but in ways specific to their particular fields. Meanwhile there’s just as much room for advancement, if not more, in applying new technologies to the ways we do research itself.

Enter the Innovation Scientist. I view my job as helping make other astronomers’ jobs easier. This might mean that I put together workshops to train CfA graduate students in the principles of scientific software engineering. It might mean that I help faculty identify and pursue novel funding opportunities to support their innovative ideas. It might mean that I build a new software tool myself, something that will help researchers be a little bit more productive every day but that no one person is strongly motivated to turn into a widely-usable product. The role certainly focuses on technology, but I think that it’s important to take a broad perspective. Not every problem can be solved with a gadget, and the word “technology” is not synonymous with “microchips.”

My duties will be split between the CfA and the AAS, which is going to be fun (if a little hairy logistically). I’m excited to become involved in the AAS since it works on behalf of the whole US astronomical community, and so is the natural home for community-wide resources. Two such resources that I’m particularly interested in are the AAS journals, which strive to innovate their delivery for the 21st century while being run for the benefit of the whole community, and the AAS WorldWide Telescope project, a powerful all-sky visualization engine. Today I also became the Director of the WorldWide Telescope, and I’m looking forward to seeing the awesome research and education tools that we can help the community build with it over the coming years.

Meanwhile, on the CfA side, I’ll be working side-by-side with excellent researchers, in many fields and at all career stages, at one of the top astrophysics institutes in the world. In particular, there’s a lot of great buzzword-compliant work going on at the CfA: we’ve got teams doing cutting-edge work with Big Data, data science, machine learning, the whole gamut. I’m going to help these teams get their hands on the tools, training, and funding they need to do the best work they can. I’m particularly keen to see what bridges I can build, both between different teams here at the CfA and among the broader Harvard community. We all know that “interdisciplinary” sounds cool but is hard to pull off in practice — but I’m convinced that there really are great treasures to be discovered in interdisciplinary-land, and I’m excited to try to unearth them.

I’ve spent the past several years searching for a “post-postdoc” job, and I’ve been open about the fact that my search focused on faculty jobs. After the sixty-ninth rejection, I decided that it was time to focus on different paths, even though I was pessimistic that I would be able to find something that had autonomy, stability, and frankly prestige competitive with the tenure track. Thankfully, my pessimism was excessive! I still think that academia needs to create more roles with long-term stability for researchers outside the tenure track, but they are out there — especially if you’re simultaneously strong in research and technology. Honestly, I’m not feeling much in the way of regret about what might have been. Who knows what the future holds, but I’m very excited to start this new stage in my career and find out where it will take me.