In Humans of ASTRON we share stories about the people at ASTRON. Who are the people behind the discoveries and innovations and also, who are the people that make sure that everything runs smoothly? This time we interview Dr. Bernard Duah Asabere, science operations & support officer at ASTRON. He is from Ghana, where astronomy is not offered at the higher educational level. He joined the team of ASTRON in early 2019.

Published by the editorial team, 6 October 2020

What was the happiest moment in your working life at ASTRON?

The ASTRON environment is very cordial, receptive, and nice to work in. I really enjoy my work schedules and the easy going colleagues I work with. I have had many lovely moments since I joined the institute. However, I have yet to identify that particular happiest moment in my working life here at ASTRON. With that said, I must mention that I could not hide my excitement when my short work contracts were extended in June and December 2019 respectively, which is why I am still working here right now. Those were moments for which I am incredibly grateful.

In the course of my work, there are some trivial things that make me happy. One of those things is when observations (with LOFAR, in which I am very much involved right now) are successful and the data subsequently get ingested into the LTA, the Long Term Archive of LOFAR.

I am also happy when I have to close a ticket for the helpdesk or JIRA, which is our bug/issue tracking system, because it means the issues of the user have been sorted out and can then proceed with his or her work.

Which person was the most important in your career?

Many people have – directly and indirectly – contributed immensely to my career to this date. So, it is difficult to point out a single person.  I am from Ghana, a country where even to this day, astronomy is not offered at the higher educational level. That means that, if you want to become an astronomer as a Ghanaian, you will spend most of your life outside your country. That is my story: after my bachelor’s degree in Physics from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, I have spent the rest of my academic journey and work life abroad. Most of my travels I had to undertake without my family, but they have been understanding and supportive. So, I will say that my immediate family, my spouse, and kids, have been instrumental in my career.

During my master’s education in engineering at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden I was under the tutelage of Prof. Cathy Horellou. She was very nice to me and accepted to be my academic referee. And she has been supportive of me ever since. Not only did Cathy introduce me to the SKA Africa Postgraduate programme, she also offered to be my PhD co-supervisor when I secured the funding to study at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa and Onsala Space Observatory, Sweden, where Cathy works. Surely, she is the person who has played the most important role in my career.

Bernard Asabere

I also want to mention Prof. Thomas Jarett of the University of Cape Town, South Africa – my PhD co-supervisor – as another important person in my career. Tom opted to supervise my work when my primary supervisor at the University of Johannesburg had to leave for a post at another institution when I was almost two years into my study.

What was your inspiration to choose this field of work?

When growing up, astronomy was not one of my interests. No, the interest started during my study at Chalmers, where I had to take some mandatory astronomy and space science courses as part of the study programme. Whilst in Sweden after my Master’s study and busily looking for a PhD position in engineering, I received an offer from my home country to take up a position in astronomy development, since by then Ghana had joined the SKA African partnership in support of South Africa’s SKA hosting bid, and there was no resident Ghanaian with a background in astronomy to add to the mix. Three main drives were on top of the country’s agenda at the time: local human capacity development, support for the South African SKA hosting bid and preparation to hosting a remote SKA station in the event of SKA phase 2.

These drives first resulted in the introduction of the African VLBI Network (AVN) concept where luckily Ghana was chosen as the starting point with the refurbishment of a redundant 32 m Satellite Communication Earth Station Antenna for use as radio astronomy facility. Not long afterwards, the Development of Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project, led by Prof. Melvin Hoare of Leeds University in the United Kingdom, followed. It was a great privilege, and I was very excited to be a part of these events, which led to my increased desire to move further into astronomy. Luckily, around the same time I got the offer for a PhD position in astronomy, an opportunity which I grabbed with both hands.

Why did you choose for ASTRON?

I heard about ASTRON during my master’s programme study days at Chalmers in the late 2000’s, but back then I didn’t get the chance to visit the institute. Eventually, I was lucky to be one of two persons selected for the first edition of the ASTRON/JIVE traineeship on science operations with a massive array programme in 2018. I found the 12-week programme extremely exciting and I gave it my best, as I always do. I also tried to learn as much as I could, because I could see myself as a part of the institute. What I mean here is, I saw ASTRON as the place for me, but I had no clue as to how that was going to happen.

If I remember correctly, during the 10th week of the 12-week programme, my manager, Roberto Pizzo (now Head of Science Data Center Operations) called me into his office and asked me if I was interested in a six-month contract after the traineeship. This was because at that time the Science Operations and Support group was short on staff: some colleagues had left at the end of their contracts and another colleague was about to go on maternity leave. I remember saying yes to Roberto even before contacting my family and my employer of that time. At that time, besides my great interest in being involved in LOFAR system operations and support, I needed time off from my previous employment due to personal reasons. The working environment there was becoming unbearable for me.

Even more lucky for me: after six months my contract was extended, and I am still part of the great ASTRON family.

The work environment, the facilities, nice people around to interact and work with; these things are everything I want for personal development and growth as a young astronomer with passion in technical and telescope operations stuff. And that is what I have found here at ASTRON. It is a great working and learning environment for me.

What does your day look like?

What I do on a daily basis changes significantly, but on the average, my work is defined by my position as science operations and support officer. In a nutshell, I am involved in the processes that get pre-processed LOFAR data on the desk of LOFAR users for their scientific, engineering, and technological research. I thus support operations and maintenance of the LOFAR telescope, users, data processes and archives. Above all, I try to learn more about the LOFAR system and the other ASTRON operated facilities.

In simple terms, what I do on a normal day include projects administration and LOFAR system performance monitoring, preparing LOFAR observations, ensuring observations are scheduled, making sure pre-processed data ingested into the LTA reach the astronomer or user, compiling and maintaining documentation in the form of manuals, confluence pages, and websites, user support and information dissemination: respond or distribute user questions and queries, disseminating useful systems and system information, coordinate with my colleague astronomers, operators, software engineers and system administrators to ensure the LOFAR system works and data delivery to PIs of run observations go smoothly, learn more about the LOFAR system and other ASTRON telescope facilities, and making sure that I am always available to take up any administrative and project support tasks from my managers and colleagues when needed.

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