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, Zheng Meyer-Zhao, Science Data Centre Development Lead, shares her story. She joined ASTRON in 2018.
Published by the editorial team, 25 August 2020
What was the happiest moment in your working life at ASTRON?
It is actually very difficult to choose the happiest moment because I enjoy my work together with the members from the ASTRON Science Data Centre team every day. We are a very dynamic team; everyone is quite different from each other in terms of personality, yet we are very complementary to each other. We have lots of fun working together with each other every day. As a team, we can roll out new versions of software prototypes on weekly bases for the projects we are working on. Every week, there are new challenges, and we as a team enjoy tackling those challenges and bringing out concrete solutions.
Which person was the most important in your career?
Before I came to ASTRON, I worked at a few different places after my master’s study in Computer Science at the Free University of Brussels. My first job was at Utrecht University, working on a research project in Multi-Agent Systems, but after 1.5 years I noticed that I was not very happy with that job; I wanted to do something else for a change. To be honest, I didn’t get much support from my family for that idea. Luckily, I was not alone, my husband (back then my boyfriend) gave me his full support to choose something that I like. He was working at the University of Groningen (RUG) at that time, so I decided to find a job in Groningen. I started at CIT (Center for IT) at RUG as a junior Grid specialist, where I got involved in the BiGGrid project, a collaboration among Nikhef, SURFsara and RUG. I learned a lot from my colleague Fokke Dijkstra in terms of Linux skills, Grid Computing and High Performance Computing (HPC). After three years, I moved to Taiwan together with my husband, where I worked at ASIAA (Academic Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics). There, I learned a lot regarding VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) from colleagues in the VLBI group. After I came back to The Netherlands again, I worked as an HPC consultant at SURFsara, where the colleagues in the Cluster and Supercomputing group taught me many things in bash programming, and scientific support in cluster computing. When I applied for my current job at ASTRON, I was not sure whether it would be possible for me to work here at all. Not because of my professional capability, but because I live in Soest, about 140 km away from ASTRON, and moving to this part of the country is not an option for me. I was very happy that Michael Wise, my former manager, head of the Astronomy Group back then, agreed that I can work 50% from home and be in the office two days per week. When Michael left ASTRON and became the director of SRON, I got to know Michiel van Haarlem, who took over all project management tasks from Michael. I am really glad that Michiel understands my way of working and encourages me to bring up my ideas.
What inspired you to choose this field of work?
I like math a lot and I like solving puzzles. I always try to find the most efficient ways for doing things, e.g. when I make dinner, I would think: ‘What's the fastest way to get food ready given the number of pans (fire pits) I have?’ The work I do is like solving puzzles, there is a challenge with no solutions yet, so I will need to figure out what the best way is to tackle the challenge and make plans given the resources we have.
Why did you choose ASTRON?
I got to know ASTRON when I was working at CIT in Groningen, where I got involved in the LOFAR project, trying to get the LOFAR pipeline running on the Grid cluster and computing cluster at the University of Groningen. I got really excited with the kind of work ASTRON is doing, making discoveries in Radio Astronomy happen. After working as an HPC consultant for many years, I believe my knowledge can contribute to the future challenges we are facing in Radio Astronomy, i.e. processing the immense amounts of data and to make these data available and easily findable for scientists. ASTRON is located in the national park Dwingelderveld. It feels so relaxed when I am here, having a run in the forest, taking a walk during lunch time while still having the brain working in the background to solve the puzzles. I also have very flexible working times tailored to my personal situation. This allows me to perfectly combine my fulltime job with my family life as a wife and a mother.
What does your day look like?
Instead of a daily routine, I have more of a weekly routine. Every weekday is a bit different for me, but if you look at it weekly, you will notice the rhythm in it. Normally I am at ASTRON three days a week, mostly Tuesday to Thursday. After bringing my son to school on Tuesday I will drive from Soest to ASTRON. I arrive around 10:30 am, put my bag in the office and have coffee together with my colleague Yan, where we bring each other up to speed with many things, i.e. work, life, planning of the week etc. Tuesday is a kind of meeting day for me, where I run from one meeting to another after my coffee with Yan. I normally go for a run in the forest on Tuesday evening, after which I am completely fresh (mentally, of course). I will take a shower in the building and do some coding afterwards till whenever I feel like stopping. Wednesday is mostly a quiet day, where I arrive around 9 am and continue solving the puzzles I left the day before. Thursday is a day where the SDC team members interact informally during lunch, or ad hoc meetings where we discuss progress, define new tasks, etc. I leave ASTRON around 4 pm every Thursday to drive back to Soest and pick up my son from the day-care. Monday and Fridays, I work mostly from home, but two to three times per month I also go to Nikhef and/or SURFsara in Amsterdam, to meet the colleagues there.