Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Meet the CSWA: Maria Patterson

In our newest series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.  After earning a PhD in astronomy, Maria Patterson spent several years at the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Intensive Science, where she worked on cloud-based pipelines for automated analysis of NASA satellite imagery and architectures for interdisciplinary scientific clouds or “data commons”.  During the initial stages for NOAA’s move to the cloud with the Big Data Project, Maria worked with the Open Commons Consortium to ensure the interests of the academic and scientific community were represented.  She is currently a Research Scientist at the University of Washington, working on scientific data pipelines for managing streams of real-time data from large-scale astronomy projects, including the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).  Maria is passionate about open science, diversity in computing, and making everyone’s life easier through tech and was recently named a modern hidden figure in STEM in PepsiCo and 21st Century Fox’s “Search for Hidden Figures."

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

I’m not sure when the very first time was - I grew up with a constant close connection to all things space because my Dad has worked at NASA all my life.  I have pictures of me when I was little, dressed up as an astronaut, and we had a huge space shuttle mural on the wall.  My brother and I would go with my Dad to work, and I spent a lot of time at the visitor’s center at NASA Glenn (then Lewis) Research Center just staring at the piece of the moon and all of the exhibits on display.  I remember one time in particular being in the car with my Dad on a road trip when he was telling me about gamma ray bursts, and I was mesmerized.

How did you end up working in the field?

I grew up really enjoying science in general, and in high school I decided I wanted to major in Physics in college.  At the University of Chicago (UChicago), I worked for a couple of professors in Astrophysics who worked on the VERITAS gamma ray telescope project.  They sent me to spend a couple summers in Arizona, pulling cables and doing other manual labor to assemble the telescopes.  I got to stay up on the mountain at Mt. Hopkins for a little while, and that was the first time I’d ever seen a sky so dark.  I think I decided then to go for a PhD in Astronomy.  I got some good observing time at Kitt Peak during graduate school at New Mexico State, and I really enjoyed that.  

In graduate school, I started to get more interested in programming and developing tools.  I decided not to look for a traditional postdoc to continue with my research, and instead did a summer fellowship program working in Scotland jointly with professors at the School of Informatics and at the Royal Observatory.  I worked on a project helping them test the performance of different types of databases for a big data astronomy project.  After that I spent three years working in a computing laboratory at the Center for Data Intensive Science at UChicago.  I worked on a few projects - mining electronic medical records for geospatial patterns of disease, classifying pixels as water or other types of land coverage in satellite, and pipelines to run the codes over large datasets in the cloud.  When I saw the job posting for my current position, which is a mix of astronomy and large scale data management, it called out to me to apply because it fit my weird background really well.

Who inspired you?

Both my parents are very inspiring.  My mom moved from the Philippines to the US and raised 4 kids who were all handfuls while owning her own business for a while.  My Dad has worked on a number of cool projects including the thing that grounds the International Space Station and protects astronauts from shocks on spacewalks, called the plasma contractor.  He won an Inventor of the Year award from NASA for that.  How do you ground the Space Station?  You have to be really creative.

What is a Research Scientist, LSST Data Management Group?

I work in a group at the University of Washington that is writing the pipelines for the nightly real-time processing of data from the LSST to look for changing or moving objects.  For my contribution to the project, I am working on building the component of the pipeline that will stream transient alerts out to the world and be able to do real-time filtering on detections of interest.  Mostly, I write a lot of code in Python and deploy a lot of Docker containers.  Right now I am doing performance testing and tuning on a large simulated testbed of streaming alerts, which involves a lot of messing around with software in the cloud.  It’s very much like a technical job.  We use Agile project management and work in sprints, etc.

What community issues are important to you and why?

I was happy to see a recent cross-post in the Women in Astronomy blog about mental illness/wellness as mental health is an important issue to me.  One in five are affected by mental illness each year, and one in 25 have a serious condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.  Those are strong statistics when you think of how many people you’ve lectured to in class or how many Facebook friends you have and how invisible mental illness can be.   Academia can be very isolating, and I imagine that for many people without strong support systems it may be very unkind to their mental health.   

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

Last year after having done a lot of work with the NOAA Big Data Project, an open data in government project spearheaded by Presidential Innovation Fellows under the last administration, I got to go to the White House and participate in a roundtable about how to build effective partnerships and collaborations around open data.  It was a roundtable put together by the Office of Science and Technology Policy to build a set of recommendations for data providers.  That was the first time I’d ever done something like that, and it was really great to bounce ideas around and feel like I was making a contribution to something important.  And it was super cool to go to the White House.  They had really tasty cupcakes with the Presidential seal on them.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

If you’re interested in doing something closer to tool development or software, I’d say take any code you work on, find best practices for that language, generalize and modularize your work, and make it open source even if you don’t think it’s any good.  No one really thinks their work is any good, and that’s fine.  

I bounced around having “left” the field of astronomy for a while, and I’d say don’t feel limited by the obvious and traditional job options in astronomy.  I turned down an astronomy position I was offered right after grad school with no other options because it didn’t feel right for me, and I’m so glad I did.  Also, switching fields is hard and requires a lot of patience and willingness to continue learning, because nothing quite makes you feel as dumb as having a PhD and yet not being able to keep up with your colleagues’ discussions.  If you want to do that, give yourself time and don’t jump ship when things seem hard - change jobs when you find the right next thing not just to get out of your current situation.

What do you do for fun?

I like to eat old fashioned doughnuts and pizza, so much so that I have to run a lot to balance out my calorie intake.  I’ve run a bunch of half marathons and ran the Chicago marathon last year.  I’d just say I like to run for fun, but this explanation is closer to the truth.  I’ve also started learning how to play guitar.  I think arts and music is a good escape for a mind that is caught up all day with math, logic, and programming.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

Having a good support system is really important for good mental health, so I’d like to work towards anything that fosters a strong sense of community, especially for those at the intersection of race and gender, like myself.  I benefited from a Kuya/Ate (Filipino big brother/big sister) program in college, and something like that or the Lean In Circles in the technical world are good examples.  I’d also like to work towards collecting more data about career paths after grad school to help inform graduate programs.  I don’t think that “leaving the field” is much of a “non-traditional” career path any more, especially with the rise of data science, so I think it would be good to work towards supporting a diversity of career paths from day one of graduate school and also to find out more about why people move in or out of academia/astronomy.

What is your non-astronomer alter ego doing in an alternate universe?

She’d live in Chicago as a Cubs season ticket holder and boutique pet food and supplies shop owner with a fleet of dachshunds.