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Spotlight 41: Jill P. Naiman

A couple of weeks (or months) ago, I met Jill at the amazing Blender Conference in Amsterdam. Jill inspired me with her story and I’m very happy that she was willing to take some time for this interview. Thank you Jill and hopefully we’ll meet again one day! 

 

About Jill
I am currently a astrophysics postdoctoral fellow and my research involves theory and numerical simulations of feedback in small galaxies and clusters of stars. I’m also interested in outreach and educational activities, particularly in the mentoring of students and the development of visualization tools for scientists.  Hobbies include weight lifting and ballet, and also occasional tinkering with electronics.

 

 Name: Jill P. Naiman
 Job: Full fancy title: National Science Foundation and Institute of Theory and Computation Postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Favorite website, app or gadget: Probably Adafruit, since they end up taking a lot of my money for making blinky things.  Since I’m becoming more of a fitness-buff as I get older I also really love my fitbit, since I get to look at graphs of my own data.  For general distraction, I love http://nobodyhere.com/
Favorite book: Oh dear, that is a tough one.  I liked House of Leaves a lot, but it is super creepy.  A Thousand Splendid Suns moved me to profuse tears.
Twitter: @astroblend
Site: Science: www.astronaiman.com. Visualization: www.astroblend.com. Blinkies blog: www.avriot.com

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in Science?
 I got interested in astrophysics during an astronomy course I took in junior college when I learned about how hydrogen fuses into helium in our Sun, and that this is responsible for light, and indeed necessary for life on our planet.  I just thought that was so cool that I had to learn more!

 

What does your working day look like?
It can be really varied.  Right now, I’m working on writing up a few papers, so usually I’ll spend a few early days in the week at home or at a coffee shop reading and writing, and then the last few days of the week at work coding.  We also have a lot of science talks at the CfA, so some days I go to a lot of those as well as some group meetings to chat with others working on similar topics and simulation codes.  I also travel a good deal for conferences, so some weeks are spent in completely different places!

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Right now I’m super into the visualization package I’ve been working on.  In brief, it’s a Python package for Blender that allows scientists to easily upload their observational and simulation data into Blender and interact with it in 3D.  This is cool because as our data sets get larger and larger, we need new ways to quickly visualize and analyze our data in multiple dimensions and I think this package is a good way forward.  On the more science side, I’m excited about the new large simulation the group I’m working with is currently running.  My part involves tracking the production sites of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium – elements that are produced in the winds of stars and supernovae (when massive stars die and explode).  This will tell us a bit about the origin sites of the elements we currently observe in our and other galaxies and how these elements move around these galaxies as the Universe evolves.

 

Do you have a hero, or someone who inspires you?
Totally my mom and dad, who taught me to follow my passions and try to be kind and understanding of others.  My mom is definitely sort of a feminist hero to me since she became a medical doctor during a time when few woman did and certainly paved the way for younger generations of female doctors.  As I’ve gone on in academia, I’m more and more inspired by academics of color who not only produce amazing science, but also have to put in a lot of emotional labor to combat the institutionalized racism that still exists in academia (and, heck, the world really) – Jedidah Isler, Jorge Moreno, and my former advisor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz specifically come to mind.  I realize that is a lot of heros!  I am so lucky to have so many amazing role models.

 

Why do you love working in  Science/Tech?
I love coding and problem solving.  And getting paid to literally think about space is sort of an amazing job to have.  The freedom to follow my own research path is both liberating and daunting for sure, but I can’t think of a more fun job.

I love coding and problem solving.  And getting paid to literally think about space is sort of an amazing job to have!

Do you have a degree in IT? If so, what taught you the most? And if not, did you miss some important knowledge?
I got a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, which you sort of need if you’re going to continue in academia.  I think I learn best by doing – so doing more coding, breaking simulation programs, that’s certainly how I learned how to code.  I feel like I’m constantly missing information about the topics I’m researching – there is so much literature to read and I’ve got too many interests!  One can certainly always be better at physics and math.

 

What would be your advice to everyone who is interested in a career in tech? (or learning to code?)
Admittedly, my knowledge is more based on how get into an academic career (and only as far as getting a postdoctoral fellowship!).  I’d say take as many math classes as possible, and if you think that you aren’t good at math, you probably have a bad math teacher.  Good math teachers are far more rare than people who are good at math.  Improve your scientific reading and writing skills – it won’t seem important at the undergraduate level, but its SO important the further you go along in academia.  Coding you learn by doing, and its fine to break things, you probably aren’t going to break the internet, so don’t worry about it.

 

Extra question from Erika: Could you share a quote from a book you are currently reading?
It’s not very deep, but knowing a lot of Italians in astronomy, this quote from Under the Tuscan Sun about drivers in Italy made me laugh out loud: “A green light is a green light, avanti, avanti,” the mayor explained. “A red light – just a suggestion.” And yellow? he was asked. “Yellow is for gaiety.”