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NRAO scientist Alison Peck broadens horizons with ALMA

She took a roundabout path to her scientific career, but “based on my experience, I believe that anyone can reach their goals if they work hard,” she says

'I always tell people to keep their options open,” says Alison Peck. “Don’t feel locked in. I threw everything familiar out the window to do something completely different.”

Peck is the ALMA deputy project scientist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, Charlottesville, VA). The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international partnership among North America, Europe and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile, is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence. When it’s finished, ALMA will be a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed initially of sixty-six high precision antennas located on the remote Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile.

ALMA will be the lead instrument for studying what is called the cool universe: the molecular gas and dust that constitute the building blocks of stars, planetary systems, galaxies and perhaps life itself, Peck explains.

“I returned to the United States from Chile earlier this year,” Peck reports. “In Chile, I was responsible for the commissioning and science verification of the ALMA telescope. We made sure the telescope met all the technical specifications that scientists are expecting. This is cutting-edge technology, so we had a team of about thirty scientists from all over the world testing the array. People learned from each other’s diverse backgrounds, cultures and technical expertise. It was phenomenal for everyone involved.

“I was there at the beginning, setting up a scheme for staffing the project. We needed a dozen scientists dedicated specifically to commissioning the array. We were getting assistance from people who would be in operations later but needed training ahead of that. The best way to teach people how to use the telescope is to have them in on the ground floor while you’re building it.”

During the past five years, Peck has spent about half her time working in the Santiago, Chile ALMA headquarters and the other half with the telescope in the Atacama Desert, about 1,000 miles away. “In Santiago, it was mainly meetings with the technical teams, reviewing test outcomes and confirming delivery dates. We had equipment coming from all over the world.

“When I was at the telescope, we worked late into the night with scientists who were operating the array, seeing how the tests were going, and talking with engineers and software people to make improvements.”

It’s pretty heady stuff for someone who never considered astronomy as a career, and instead was halfway to a degree in a completely different field. “I was interested in astronomy and general relativity as a kid,” the Lawrence, KS native recalls. “My dad was an armchair scientist who read aloud to me from astronomy magazines, and I watched Cosmos on PBS. I was halfway to a degree in comparative literature when I realized I didn’t want to become a professor. I just didn’t think it would hold my interest for fifty years.”

An unorthodox education
Both Peck’s parents have PhDs in English literature. “My parents moved almost every year, and when I was eleven, we moved to Europe. But I graduated from high school in Rhode Island and enrolled at the University of Rhode Island (Kingston) when I was fifteen years old through an early-entrance program. It wasn’t necessarily a good idea,” she says, “but it seemed like one at the time.

“I took mostly general studies classes emphasizing languages. After a year, I was getting stressed so I went to live with my dad in Switzerland. I spent a year at the American College of Switzerland (ACS, Leysin) doing computer science, which I found very interesting.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I spent a couple of years backpacking around Europe, another idea I don’t recommend. I realized that the thing I was most interested in as a kid, astronomy, was something that I could take a shot at but it was going to require a lot of work. My mom was in Nebraska so I went there and attended the University of Nebraska-Kearney.

“I was working on a double major in physics and math because I knew it would be competitive getting into grad school. I also took advantage of all the internship programs I could find. In astronomy, there are National Science Foundation (NSF) programs for summer research. They have locations all over.”

Peck went to Puerto Rico for ten weeks to work at the Arecibo Observatory, part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. From there, she went to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. “I was working in physics rather than astronomy,” she says. “I loved it but in the end, I decided to go back to astronomy.”

She returned to the University of Nebraska in 1994 and got her BS degree in physics and math. From there, her third internship was with the Joint Institute for Very-Long-Baseline-Interferometry (VLBI), a radio astronomy institute in the Netherlands.

For grad school, Peck chose New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology (Socorro). “It’s a great school, and it’s small. That was a great environment for me.”

Peck earned an MS in physics in 1997 and a PhD in physics in 1999. She took a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. “In astronomy and astrophysics, people are expected to travel around and get experience in different institutes before they apply for faculty or long-term positions,” she explains.

“The Max Planck fellowship was a pure research position and, as much as I liked it, I found it hard to sit in an office all day,” she remembers. “I found that I was interested in the technical side of astronomy: how telescopes work and how to make them better. In 2001, I started working with a team commissioning the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hilo, Hawaii, working for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The SMA telescope was still under construction so I learned a lot about the tests that must be completed to make sure that it’s working as expected.

“I applied for a permanent position, became a staff person and gradually took on a more supervisory position over the telescope operators.”

To Chile, sight unseen
In 2007, Peck joined ALMA. “Members of the ALMA management team knew me and they asked me if I would consider working in South America. Many North Americans won’t; in fact, staffing was our biggest hurdle. People worry that South America is not as technically savvy as the U.S., but I think Chile is very technologically advanced. I went sight unseen; they described the job to me and I said okay.”

After five years in Chile, she is back in the U.S. helping support users of the telescope. “Now that the telescope is mostly built, our goal is to make sure that astronomers around the world can use it effectively.

“If somebody writes a good proposal and makes a good suggestion as to what they want to use the telescope for, we take their idea, set it up on the telescope, and send back images of whatever part of the sky they are interested in.

“It’s a very formal process. Once or twice a year, we send out an e-mail saying that we will be accepting proposals by a certain date. An international team of more than fifty astronomers pores over these proposals. At the last deadline, we received more than 1,000 proposals but we can only schedule about ten percent, so it is very competitive.”

Peck belongs to the American Astronomical Society (Washington, DC), the International Society for Optics & Photonics (Bellingham, WA), and the International Union of Radio Science (Belgium).

She wants to stay in Charlottesville for a while, continuing in user support. “It’s very different from what I’ve been doing over the past ten years,” Peck admits, “but I’m thinking it may be something I want to stick with. I’m also making time to catch up on my own research and write my own telescope proposals.

“Everybody should think about what possibilities might be out there no matter what people around you are doing,” she sums up. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” And clearly, she has.


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