Thursday, August 14, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to President of a Defense Industry Company

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 Eric Rubenstein, an astronomer turned President and Chief Technology Officer for Image Insight Inc., a company he created which develops software products for radiation detection. He left academia at age 37 to work in private industry. Along the way he developed an astronomy-based procedure to detect ionizing radiation threats and began to build first the technology then the business. 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 http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.


What field do you currently work in?

I work in the defense and software industries, but it isn't as far from astronomy as you might think.

What is the job title for your current position?

I am the President and Chief Technology Officer, and also serve on the Board of Directors.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?

Image Insight Inc, http://ImageInsightInc.com

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

Image Insight is based in East Hartford, CT

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

Ph.D.

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?

I was a visiting assistant professor.

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

I was a post-doc at Yale (my PhD institution), then an NSF International Research Scholar (post-doc in Chile at CTIO), then back to Yale as a Lecturer, then a visiting Professor for a year at Smith College (2001-2002). During that year I joined the US Navy Reserve.     

In 2002, I left academia to join private industry as a Senior Scientist (later Director) at Advanced Fuel Research Inc. doing applied research and development with NASA (spacecraft radiation shielding and alternative energy), NSF (astronomy) and DHS (gamma-ray detection). 

Along the way I filed for patent protection, and subsequently led the development of, an astronomy-based procedure to detect ionizing radiation threats. We began to build first the technology, then the business. We spun out a new company, Image Insight Inc, in 2010 and continue to develop the technology and business with DOD support; I'm the President and Chief Technology Officer. If you want to see cosmic ray detection wrapped in an App, see http://GammaPix.com. We have toyed with the idea of making a planet-wide, crowd-sourced, cosmic ray shower detection project (powered by GammaPix software); if  you are interested in coordinating such an endeavor, please contact me!

In parallel, I have worked within the Navy as an officer (management) in three different units (Naval Aviation System Command, Office of Naval Research, and Navy Space & Network Warfare Command). In that capacity I've worked on research projects, performed fascinating analyses, used astronomy tools, and learned a lot.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

#1: Desire to work in a more applied area that felt more impactful for the country and society.  
#2: Desire to "give back" more than some papers.  
#3: Satisfy the need to work in more than one main area, which is possible, but hard as an academic.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

I left academia at age 37. 

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

  • Critical thinking. 
  • Effective writing and presenting (public speaking) skills. 
  • Intellectual triage (prioritization of tasks when overly time- and money-constrained). 
  • Facility with cutting-edge technology. 
  • Programming & scripting. X-ray astronomy. 
  • Calibration techniques.
What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

Business education, picked up on the job. It is critical to ask the questions you need to ask; don't be embarrassed.     

Working in the software sector, there is a lot to learn. Hire or work with pros if you can; talk to them and read books by them if you can't talk with them directly.     

Working in the defense industry, it was incredibly helpful to have joined the reserves. You don't do astronomy without knowing the language; the same applies in other industries. It takes time; plan your career accordingly.

Describe a typical day at work.

  • Coordinating teams (internal and external), tests, events, funding.   
  • Writing proposals, reports, patents, presentations (and making them).   
  • Travel to make presentations, perform tests, meet business partners.  
  • Telecons: legal questions, marketing questions, evaluating new technology options, potential business partners...  
Typical isn't a word I would use to describe my days.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
  • I investigated companies doing work that I was interested in and sent emails. Chance favors the prepared. 
  • Network. Ask questions and network. 
  • Go to meetings and talk to colleagues, old friends, old acquaintances, people whom you have heard of.... Send emails and call. 
  • Work the web to find people/companies working in areas that intrigue you. 
  • Do your homework before reaching out so that you are at least somewhat knowledgable. Ask good questions.
What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

IMHO, faculty advisors should ensure that students have outside people with whom to speak. They should invite old students, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, etc. to come interact with the students.

How many hours do you work in a week?

60-65 hours. 20-30 hours in the office and another 25-50 hours at home. Travel weeks are more hours, sometimes much more.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Very satisfied. My job is extremely satisfying. I have the opportunity to build a company with close associates from the ground up... based on an innovation that occurred to me by combining my astronomy, programming and defense interests. It is very cool and exciting. 

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

Most exciting/enjoyable: technical and business accomplishments (tests at national labs, new contracts signed)    

Least enjoyable: Expense reports after work travel  

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

Work with my outstanding colleagues is wonderful. Opportunity to contribute technical innovation is likewise great. 

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

Non-stop.

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

Satisfied. While I would like to spend more time with my family, the time I spend at work is satisfying
and well spent. Much of my work is from home, so I have great flexibility to stop/restart as necessary. There is a bit too much travel, but not nearly as much as many of my friends have.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family friendly. Flex-time. Tele-commute 2-4 days/week. Floating holidays. Life is good, if busy.

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

I've only worked at very small (<15 people) companies. If the leadership of the small company is stable and accommodating, balance should be achievable most of the time. At large companies or those with unstable (rapidly changing) leadership, who's to say if policies will stay family-friendly once you have hired-on.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

Yes. The occasional side project relates to astronomy.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?

No. I spent many, many months being afraid of exactly these fears. Once I switched I had a "duh!" moment and realized that I had really been afraid of the unknown. Ask lots of questions. Going back may not be easy, but if it is what you want, there's always a way. I've found ways to do astronomy around the edges of what I do. I still volunteer at schools to do Project Astro-like activities with students and teachers. I haven't once thought I made a mistake and it has been 11 years!  Sometimes I miss teaching/mentoring students, but I make up for that by volunteering in schools (my kids' and others). Also, mentoring junior enlisted and junior officers in the reserves is very rewarding. Overall, the navy reserves has provided several opportunities to be involved in space-related activities. I'm even in the Space Cadre--space-knowledgable professionals--how cool is that?

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

Read the news & "serious" books (history, business, foreign policy and military); read sci-fi/fantasy; hike; swim; lift weights; canoe in the summer. Keep up with family, house, car....