Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Meet your CSWA: Vishnu Reddy

In our series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.

Vishnu Reddy is a tenure-track faculty member at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson. His research focuses on detecting and characterizing natural and artificial moving objects for NASA and DoD. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, in 2009 and worked as a research faculty there till 2012. Prior to working at the University of Arizona, Reddy worked as a research scientist at Planetary Science Institute, a non-profit based in Tucson.

Reddy served as the press officer for the Division for Planetary Sciences of the AAS for six years and has actively participated in NASA community service activities. He is married to fellow planetary scientist Dr. Lucille Le Corre and they live in Tucson, Arizona with their cat Loki and horse Hokuloa.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?

I grew up in rural India where electricity was not readily available. So part of my early childhood was spent in darkness after the Sun had set. We had nothing to do but do homework under candlelight and look at the stars. We also used to sleep under the stars during summers, as it was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat. So the night sky was my playground and the stars were my friends.

How did you end up working in the field?

I did not do great in school. So I ended up going to school to study motion picture. I worked in the production of some movies in India and made a few documentaries. All along I was doing astronomy as a hobby. Later I went to school and got a MA in journalism and worked as a science journalist for several years in India. During this time I interviewed Prof. Tom Gehrels who started the Spacewatch asteroid survey at the University of Arizona. He encouraged me to take up studying asteroids, as they are capable of threatening life on Earth. Long story short, I went back to school and got a MS and PhD focused on planetary sciences. I was hired in 2016 at the University of Arizona to the position left open after Tom passed away in 2011.

Who inspired you?

My mother. She taught me everything I know about being successful in life.

What is an assistant professor?

My responsibilities are divided between teaching, research and service. I teach one course a year at both graduate and undergraduate level. Preparing lectures takes a significant amount of time and I teaching very seriously. Research work is a lot more fun because of the collaborative aspect and a sense of discovery. My research is split between characterizing near-Earth asteroids for NASA and artificial moving objects in Earth orbit for the DoD. I use data from laboratory, telescopes, and spacecraft for my research.

What community issues are important to you and why?

The care deeply about the success of young scientists in our field. Often we focus too much on academics and not much on teaching life skills to be successful in the field. There is also a bias that success is defined as getting a tenure track job. I would like students to pursue whatever aspect of science that appeals to them (research, service, education, public outreach, etc.) and be successful doing it.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

When I was a post doc, Lucille and I wrote a paper on contaminants in meteorites from asteroid Vesta. We hypothesized that when Dawn spacecraft would get to Vesta, then we would see dark contaminants. Other scientists proposed before similar hypothesis. Since I worked on the camera team on Dawn, I was privilege to be one of the first people to see the images as they arrived on Earth. It was exciting to see dark contaminants on Vesta just like we and others had hypothesized.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

My career path is pretty non-traditional because I did not get into planetary sciences right out of high school or undergraduate degree in physics or geology. I feel passion is equally important as academic education. Often I have seen students who did not get perfect GREs do far better in the field because they have the passion and drive to do science. I value that a lot and tell students it is never too late to get into science or never let your low test scores from reaching out to faculty you want to work with.

What do you do for fun?

Astronomy used to be my hobby since I was a child and I just get paid for it now. So I do a lot of my research work as a hobby. But for non-work related fun I do wildlife photography, gardening and taking care of our animals.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

My goal is to help maintain our blog and provide a healthy venue to communicate with our members and the public.

How much time do you spend doing public outreach?

Communicating the science we do with the public is very important to me. I spend about 10% of my time doing education and outreach covering schools, amateur astronomy groups.

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