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From Campus to Cosmos: It’s A Great Big U-Niverse!


Welcome to the Fall 2022 edition of Peaks and Valleys!  Don’t panic!  For the beginning of the semester, we’re taking it back to the beginning of the Universe with Dr. Anil Seth, Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the U.  Dr. Seth shares his career journey, his advice for choosing yours, and his work with the James Webb Space Telescope:

Peaks and Valleys:   Can you tell us about your career journey?

Anil Seth:  I’ve had mostly a traditional academic career path – undergrad in physics and astronomy, plus a music major.  I got my PhD in Astronomy from the University of Washington, then did five years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  Five years as a post-doc is typical for academics in astronomy today.

PV:  What sparked your interest in astronomy?

AS:  I was always interested in astrophysics, especially the way astrophysicists can learn so much from very slim data.  For example, we know how stars form and evolve, and we learned that from star clusters in our own galaxy.   We’re able to see stars of different masses born at the same time, and stars of the same mass at different points in their lives.  We know our sun will become a red giant star in 5 billion years because we’ve seen it happen with other stars of similar mass.

PV:  What advice do you have for students choosing their careers?

AS:  We encourage physics students, for example, to be really open about their careers.  The academic career path is exciting, but there are very few jobs.  Physics students gain very transferable skills in math, data modeling, and data visualization, as well as problem-solving, and use them in great careers in fields like data science and healthcare.  It’s great to follow your passion and see where it takes you, but it’s also important to keep an open mind.

PV:  Can you tell us about your work with the James Webb Space Telescope?

AS:  We’re collecting data on seven nearby galaxies where we know there’s a massive black hole at the center.  They are not lit up by anything around them, but the Webb Telescope allows us to study them using infra-red light, in longer wavelengths than we can see.  So, this will allow us to find black holes where we previously couldn’t, especially in lower-mass galaxies, where we don’t really know what role they play in how those galaxies evolve.

PV:  What might this tell us about our place in the Universe?

AS:  The story of black holes and how they evolve in galaxies is an important part of the story of how we got from the Big Bang to us.  We really want to know about different populations of black holes, and how black holes and galaxies formed in the first place.