Featured Graduate Student: Spring 2016
Dmitry is a Ph.D. candidate in Astrophysical Sciences and Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He speaks here about himself and gives some advice to other aspiring astrophysicists.
I was born in Moscow, Russia but I’ve lived in the US for a long time. I went to high school in Chicago and I earned by Bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Although I was always interested in science, I only became passionate about research after taking an observational astronomy class with Dr. John McGraw, late in my undergraduate program. Now, I’m at RIT, trying to make my own small contribution to the field.
1) How would you describe your field of study/research to a friend who is not in your graduate program?
I design, build and calibrate new instruments for current and proposed ground-based and space-based telescopes. I work on several projects that focus on very different measurement modalities – conventional imagers, multi-object spectrometers, coronagraphs, and polarimeters. On some projects I do most of the research and for others, I am a small part of a much larger effort.
2) What brought you to RIT for your graduate studies?
When I was looking for graduate programs, I was very interested in single-photon detectors. I became interested in RIT because of the research being done at the Center for Detectors on a new generation of avalanche photodiodes (which can measure individual photons). Also, I really liked the ability to take elective courses from the Imaging Science program, because it offered many classes on detectors, optics and image processing. There was even a course on noise! It was the most attractive curriculum of all schools that I considered (which were all very similar).
3) What's been your best experience so far?
It’s hard to pick a single experience, because my time at RIT has been (in retrospect) extremely fun. For example, in the spring of 2014 I went to 6 conferences/workshops in the US, Netherlands, France and Canada. It was a blast to meet so many astronomers and especially people who work on instrumentation. Recently, I spent 2 weeks on an observing run at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where I got to test an imaging polarimeter that I’ve been working on for close to 4 years. It was extremely rewarding to finally get results from something that I’ve worked on for so long.
However, I think what I will remember most is the everyday experience of working with my advisor. I really appreciate the amount of freedom, guidance and responsibility that I have, which can be a difficult balance to find. It’s really satisfying to feel like a member of a team, rather than an underling.
4) What do you most enjoy about Rochester?
Rochester has a lot to offer for its size. It’s small enough that anywhere you want to go is at most a 30 minute drive away. However, it also has almost anything you want from a city – an art and music scene, some great coffee shops and decent restaurants. Plus, I really love sailing on Lake Ontario in the summer.
On a more esoteric note, Rochester is an amazing place to do optical instrumentation research. Due to Rochester’s heritage as a world optics center, I am surrounded by experts and manufacturers of almost all types of optical components. I’m not sure where I will end up after Rochester, but I know I will really miss these great resources.
5) What are your plans for after graduate school?
I would like to keep working on optical systems for astronomy in an academic or industrial setting. After I graduate, I plan to stay at RIT as a post doc to continue working on the many projects that I’ve started as a graduate student.
6) What trait do you find most necessary to succeed in graduate school?
Passion, drive and perseverance are the most crucial traits. If you are not passionate about the projects you’re working on, you won’t be very successful. Astronomy is very frustrating. Data is scarce and never as good as you want it to be. None of the software works exactly right. The competition can be fierce. However, the limitations you have as a grad student are mostly the same ones that other astronomers struggle with. This means if you are passionate and driven enough, your work can compete with the top researchers in the field.
7) Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program or someone considering graduate studies in astronomy?
If you are considering studying astronomy at the graduate level, you should carefully consider your reasons. There are many good reasons to study astronomy, but also several terrible ones. If you are convinced that you want to be a professional astronomer, then graduate studies in astronomy is a great way to start your career. However, a PhD in astronomy is not a “safe” plan. Although many astronomy PhDs get jobs outside of astronomy, this is not a very efficient way to create opportunities for yourself or to make yourself more employable in general.
If you’ve just started your graduate program, congratulations! The most important advice I can offer is: figure out what you want from this experience. Start thinking about the end game. Do you want to get a post doc at a fancy institution and shoot for the stars? Start focusing on research. Are you interested in education and science outreach? Get involved early! These five or six years will go by quicker than you think and at the end the connections you’ve made, the skills you’ve learned and the accolades you’ve won will determine what your options are.
Finally, don’t assume that you can’t do something just because you’re a grad student and “that’s just not what grad students do” and don’t wait for people to offer you opportunities. If you have an idea, explore it. Create opportunities for yourself. Be your own champion (but don’t be combative).
My little website is at people.rit.edu/~dxv2686