Extraordinary People Sharing Their Stories:
Alyssa Goodman, Ph.D., Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University
I first met Dr. Alyssa Goodman in Lexington, Massachusetts in 2008, when our daughters, now 16 & 17, were in the same 4th grade Girl Scout troop and then continued as fifth grade classmates. Besides being “Girl Scout and Classroom Moms”, our families spent time together socially.
Alyssa has always intrigued me. I admire her deep intelligence, humor and authenticity. She is easy to connect with and is truly “down to earth” vs. “up in the clouds”, considering she’s a tenured Astronomy Professor at Harvard! There’s no arrogance about her, she is not a diva, has a great sense of humor, and she does not intimidate others. She has a keen sense of awareness of her environment and the state of the world to include the skies, and loves making sense out of patterns of all kinds. As an aside, she also always wore the coolest colorful earrings!
Although my family and I moved to San Diego in 2010, we have kept in touch periodically. Dr. Goodman travels extensively and always lets me know when she is in my neck of the woods and vice versa. It’s my pleasure to interview Dr. Goodman as an “Extraordinary Person Sharing Her Story”
Alyssa Goodman, Ph. D.: Biography
Alyssa Goodman is Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution. Goodman’s research and teaching interests span astronomy, data visualization, and online systems for research and education. Goodman received her undergraduate degree in Physics from MIT in 1984 and a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard in 1989. She became full professor at Harvard in 1999, and was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009. Goodman recently served as Chair of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and on the National Academy’s Board on Research Data and Information, and she currently serves on the both the IAU and AAS Working Groups on Astroinformatics and Astrostatistics. Goodman’s personal research presently focuses primarily on new ways to visualize and analyze the tremendous data volumes created by large and/or diverse astronomical surveys, like COMPLETE. She is working closely with colleagues at Microsoft Research, helping to expand the use of the WorldWide Telescope program in both research and in education.
And now, our interview:
SJF: You are extremely intriguing to me! Tell us a bit about yourself…
AG: Sure. Wow, this goes back awhile! I was born in NYC grew up on Long Island. When I was 8 years old, I was captivated by and in awe of marine biologist oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Oh how I really wanted to be a marine biologist at Woods Hole someday.
My eventual plan was to go to college first and study marine biology, but as time passed, I changed my mind. My new plan was to become a Physician, but a family member was very sick at the time and passed away. I soon decided that dealing with illness and death wasn’t for me either.
I was a good student and always had a love for science. I applied to the undergraduate program at Harvard (but ironically was not accepted)! About the same time, my younger sister discovered (while reading stack of college application material) that MIT only “early accepted” or “deferred” applicants but didn’t “reject” any. I was accepted into MIT and majored in physics.
My Dad helped me to find a summer Internship at an engineering company, where I subsequently interned for two summers, after high school graduation and after my freshman year at MIT. When it was time to plan an internship after my sophomore year at MIT there were two possibilities: An “underwater archeological dig” and NASA! I was one of 60 applicants for a scholarship to an underwater archeological “dig” that one had to pay for and missed out on the scholarship by one spot. I also boldly called NASA (no Google then…I merely looked the number up in the “yellow pages”) and accepted and was paid for a NASA internship.
After graduating from MIT in 1984, I was offered a job at the Bank of Boston, but said no and decided to delay working by going to Graduate School.
I was accepted to Harvard for graduate school and received my Ph.D. in Physics 1989. I did my post doctoral at University of California at Berkeley for three years. My first post-graduate assignment was teaching Astronomy in 1992, (which was ironic, since I had only taken one Undergraduate and one Graduate Astronomy course and didn’t believe that I had the “credentials”)!
Harvard Professor of Astronomy, Alyssa Goodman, speaks about the new capabilities of Microsoft WorldWide Telescope 5.0 at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington D.C. (Photo: Microsoft Corporation)
SJF: Very interesting that your awe of the ocean led you to your gazing at and studying the stars & galaxies! What have been your life hurdles? successes?
AG: While it wasn’t a “hurdle” I did have uncertainty as to when I would become a tenured professor at Harvard. In academia, all those years of education weren’t enough, even with a Ph.D. I was initially an Assistant Professor 1992-1995 and was considered Junior Faculty, then became an Associate Professor from 1995-1999. Normally Associate Professors are tenured, but that was not the case at Harvard. I taught for seven years and balanced an uncertain future, worrying that I would need to relocate, wondering if I could have a family, etc. before I was tenured as a full professor in 1999.
SJF: Your “uncertainly” has certainly led you to a highly valued tenured position at Harvard and many amazing opportunities to educate and inspire us! Which leads me to the next question: Who are three people that you admire?
AG: Jacques Cousteau, for his lifelong work as an exceptionally bright marine biologist, Albert Einstein for his views of Judaism as a ” philosophy” vs. a “religion” and Meryl Streep for her versatility as an actress.
SJF: What have been three significant/pivotal events in your life?
AG: My first memory of a pivotal event? Well, when I was in 9th school, I gave my National Honor Society speech. One of my friend’s moms was there and heard my speech. She told me way back then that I had a “natural talent” for public speaking. I didn’t realize what she meant at the time! Incidentally, that friend’s mom is actually now the mother of an undergraduate student studying violin at Harvard today! Another pivotal event was when I became tenured at Harvard. And of course, becoming a Mom to my daughter Abby was a very special pivotal event and remains so.
SJF: What are your fears?
AG: I fear that our beautiful planet Earth will be ruined due to climate change (as well as how some people treat it).
SJF: What are some of your strongest assets?
AG: I learn things well. I stop talking, listen and pay attention. As an observer, I see patterns and connections. I also remember things that don’t connect. I stay fit.
SJF: Those assets are definitely words of wisdom! What do you usually dream about?
AG: Some dreams are vivid and memorable, some that are bad, I instantly forget!
SJF: That’s brilliant and concise way of describing your dreams! Speaking of dreams, how do you support dreams of others? Do you “give back”? if so with which groups?
AG: I give back with my time, efforts and donations. I donate to several charities, including KIVA which gives out micro loans, Women for Women and Habitat for Humanity. I am a Worldwide Telescope Ambassador, I’ve participated as a science fair judge, and I do community outreach as well. I’m also a a former Girl Scout Mom volunteer.
SJF: Do you have any regrets in life?
AG: Not being fluent in another language. Although I have studied French, I feel I could have studied a bit more.
SJF: Who are your role models? Male or female, in or out of your profession?
AG: This is very interesting, because they are both serendipitous friendships. A female role model I admire is Astronomer Vera Rubin (Dark Matter) and a male role model would be Bob Kirshner , a Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University who studied dark energy, and was a Wolf Medal Recipient.
SJF: What qualities should the younger generation aspire to have that you think are important in this day and age?
AG: There should be less emphasis on grades and more on actual curiosity and learning.
SJF: Agreed! How do you feel about the enourmous use of technology is being used today? Do you think we should connect more in person?
AG: I definitely use tech a lot, but have a love-hate relationship with it. I like it when it is associated with learning. I don’t like it as a time waster!
SJF: Any funny anecdotes about astronomy?
AG: I occasionally take a look at xkcd.com; It’s what I call “nerd humor” and it’s such a hoot!
SJF: I took a gander at it! Cool! What’s been happening lately and what is up next for you???
AG: I just taught a one day advanced workshop in San Francisco in February, 2015 called “See Think Design Produce” with Jonathan Corum, Mike Bostock and Edward Tufte: world-class design architectures for information, data, images, videos, diagrams, interfaces, presentations. We spoke about how to convey information graphically. In March I will be presenting at and attending “Tools for Astronomical Big Data” speaking about “Wide Data vs. Big Data” in Tucson, Arizona.
SJF: Those sounds like interesting workshops! Speaking of San Francisco, and Tucson, where have you traveled? Where is your favorite place in the world??
AG: My job has taken me many places in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres! My favorite place is Martha’s Vineyard.
SJF: Thank you so much, it’s been such a pleasure interviewing you and getting to know you even more!
AG: My pleasure too!
Alyssa Goodman, Ph.D., Interesting Links:
About the World Wide Telescope: http://www.worldwidetelescope.org/
Astronomer on a Mission (Scroll) : http://alumni.harvard.edu/stories/making-magic-happen
World Wide Telescope News: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~agoodman/wwtnews.html
Alyssa Goodman, Ph.D., Videos:
Video: Visualizing the Universe – An interview with Prof. Alyssa Goodman: