Thursday, July 31, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Image Processor for STScI

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Lisa Frattare, an astronomer turned Master Astronomical Image Processor at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Coordinator for the summer student program. She is very satisfied with her work-life balance within a very family-friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?

Research Institution of a Space Mission

What is the job title for your current position?

Master Astronomical Image Processor AND Summer Student Program Coordinator. 
  • Planning and executing observations with the Hubble Space Telescope. 
  • Working with astronomical data from many telescopes to create composite color images for science and outreach. 
What is the name of your company/organization/institution?

Space Telescope Science Institute, Research center of the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

Baltimore, MD

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

Masters in Astronomy. 

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

Due to the fact that I had two independent undergraduate degrees (a 4 year B.S. Psychology Major with Astronomy Minor and an additional 5-year Physics Astronomy Degree) I opted for a 2-year terminal masters program. Eleven years of university total. 

Paid and non-paid positions during academia: research assistant, teaching assistant, lab instructor, planetarium operator, telescope observer, outreach coordinator. 

STScI was my first job outside of graduate school. Coming up on 17 years. Some lateral moves within the institute. First hired as a data analyst. Became involved with outreach. Mentored semester and summer interns. Project manager on various projects. Hubble Heritage Project key player. News and outreach image processor. Became head of the summer student program. Some community college teaching.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

Having a degree in astronomy makes me knowledgeable in working with a telescope as well as understanding the dynamics of the objects we observe.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

On the job training of digital image processing, working with image specific software. Working in the astronomical community gives you training that you do not get from school: how to serve on a committee, how to lead a project, how to invoke change.

Describe a typical day at work.

  • 5:30 - 9:30am: get family up and out, return some e-mails, 45-minute commute  
  • 9:30 - 3:30pm: meetings, deadline-driven work, technical computer work, telecons, longterm planning  
  • 3:30 - 6:30pm: work late - or- pick-up kids/run errands; after-school activities  
  • 8:30-10:30pm: work on longer projects, image processing.     
  • On weekends I might put in 2 - 6 hours per day on lower-level work (deleting e-mail/files); digital retouching.     
  • I also give lectures on Hubble and my job both onsite and offsite.
Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

STScI is very reputable in astronomy-related careers for technical and scientific staff. I believe the actual job listing was in Chronicles of Higher Education.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

I think that a career can be made in astronomy without obtaining a PhD. I think faculty advisors should not see this as a failure.

How many hours do you work in a week?

50-55 hours. 30 hours at work, 25 hours at home. 

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Very satisfied. It is varied. There is never a dull moment. Each day brings about 50 different items onto my plate. I work towards making things happen. We are deadline driven, which keeps the momentum up. I am not micromanaged and enjoy the ebb and flow of the work. 

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

I like the environment. People are easy to work with. There is not a lot of pressure. Things get done.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

It provides much opportunity to be creative if you have the personality to do so. I make the job what I want it to be. I take the good with the bad. I don't whine about the stuff I don't like. If I feel underused or under challenged, I go looking for more. I like to put  a lot on my plate.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?

Very satisfied. I live and breathe my job, not because I have to, but because I want to. I like facilitating, being accountable, being the go-to person. I like that I don't have a PhD. I would not have been this successful if I had a PhD. 

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family friendly. I can telework if I choose, but right now, the flexibility of putting in hours before being at work, at work and after work daily and on weekends helps me raise three children.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

I believe it is totally doable to have both. There is no sacrificing for astronomy. It will be there. And if you are feeling it is time to have kids, don't worry about the impact to your job. You will make it work.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

Involved with fundraisers at the kids' school. I am project manager/co-chair for several projects. Volunteer for committees. Teaching girl scouts about space, quilting, image-retouching. We are family oriented especially in the spring/summer/fall. Lots of outdoor play/gardening.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?