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? In this episode we interview Dr. Harish Vedantham, junior scientist and working at ASTRON since 2018.
Published by the editorial team, 17 November 2020
What was the happiest moment in your working life at ASTRON?
That was when we discovered the first brown dwarf (objects more massive than planets but not massive enough to be stars) with LOFAR. No one had discovered a brown dwarf directly with a radio telescope before, so there was an element of uncertainty to what we were doing. Along with Joe Callingham (postdoc) and Tim Shimwell (ASTRON staff), I put together a list of sources that had been detected with LOFAR that had the hallmarks of being a brown dwarf. But we could not be sure until we got an infrared image. We applied for time on the Gemini telescope to get the infrared images.
It was my first time processing infrared telescope data so I was already quite excited about all the new things I was learning. But when I made the image and saw the infrared detection, it became clear that this had to be a brown dwarf and that we had just achieved the first radio detection of a brown dwarf. I was very excited, not just for the discovery itself but also because I immediately knew what this meant: LOFAR had the sensitivity to detect these cold objects that are a close cousin of Jupiter-like exoplanets. We have not been able to study exoplanets with radio telescopes so far but this is the stepping stone to achieve that goal.
Which person was the most important in your career?
It is difficult to name one person. I have been lucky to have had excellent mentors and collaborators throughout my career.
By formal education (Bachelors and Masters), I am an electrical engineer. I feel indebted to Ravi Subrahmanyan (then at Raman Research Institute, India) who took me, a young electrical engineer, under his wing and showed me the astronomical path. I learned a great deal from Leon Koopmans and Ger de Bruyn, my PhD advisers. Leon taught me to see the bigger picture around a scientific problem and Ger introduced me to so many topics in astronomy.
I got lucky thrice when I went to Caltech to do my postdoc. There, I learned the art of choosing the right problem to work on from Shri Kulkarni and Gregg Hallinan. Another postdoc at Caltech, Vikram Ravi was my sparring partner with whom I learned to hone my arguments. I am where I am today because of all these people.
What was your inspiration to choose this field of work?
Most of my colleagues have a story of how they saw through a telescope as a teenager and decided they wanted to be an astronomer. My story is far less romantic. I always thought physics was very interesting, but never really thought I would be an astronomer until I was close to finishing my PhD. I like thinking deeply about a problem and going down rabbit holes to solve some mystery, so it felt natural to me to gravitate towards academia. But I ended up in astronomy as opposed to another field in the physical sciences due to happenstance!
Why did you choose to work at ASTRON?
LOFAR was a big reason for me to come to ASTRON. It is a really unique instrument that allows you to make new discoveries and being at ASTRON is like having a front-row seat.
The other reason was the mix of instrumentation and astronomy expertise here. My own background is part astronomy and part engineering, so I knew I would fit in culturally well at ASTRON.
'I like thinking deeply about a problem and going down rabbit holes to solve some mystery'
What does your day look like?
Right now with the COVID restrictions it is all a bit haphazard. We have two young children who make working from home challenging. Regardless, I have the typical work-day of a researcher: meeting with mentees, writing grant proposals, writing and refereeing papers, writing and debugging code, attending staff meetings, organising talks, hosting scientific visitors and of course teaching. I try my best not to split my day into too many tasks because I like to work intensely on one thing at a time. So for example, there may be a week where I will try to keep everything else to a bare minimum to concentrate on writing a paper. And then, I may do something else the week after and so on. Arranging this kind of schedule is easier said than done, but it makes me more content and productive.