Sunday, August 13, 2017

Interview with Myles McKay

Myles McKay is currently a Research and Instrumentation Analyst at Space Telescope Science Institute in the Instrumentation Division.  Dara Norman spoke with him in the summer of 2016 just after he had participated in the March 2016 solar eclipse over Indonesia.  At that time, Myles had just finished his undergraduate work in Physics at South Carolina State University, an Historically Black University in Orangeburg.  They spoke as he was spending the summer at the National Solar Observatory before starting his position at STScI. Dara spoke again with Myles as he prepared to participate in the upcoming solar eclipse across the US that will happen in August this year.

DJN:  You traveled to Indonesia to see the solar eclipse. Tell me what that experience was like.

MM:  From South Carolina, it was a very long trip, something like 24 hours in the air, but it was amazing when I got there:  The culture, the people, the history and being able to walk down to the shoreline to feel the breeze especially since it was crazy humid there!  We got a flight from Jakarta to a small island called Ternate where we’d view the solar eclipse.   We were in the middle of the island with a Mosque down the street that would wake us with the call to prayer at 5 in the morning.   Everyone was extremely nice and there were no bad experiences. 

DJN: So what was the eclipse like?

MM: The eclipse was amazing and I could not take any pictures to do it justice!  I can’t really describe it. I had never seen an eclipse before and to have it be a full solar eclipse was absolutely amazing!  What made it even better was that we were in a populated place, a festival in the village square, and as the eclipse started happening, we were on the hotel balcony and could see everyone getting excited, honking their horns, it was just such a great experience.

DJN: So you were on the balcony of your hotel taking the data?

MM: Yes, so the original plan was that we were suppose to go to a site in a field where other local people would be.  We were the only ones on the island taking data for the Citizen CATE project.  But my advisor and I decided it was going to be a lot more hectic there and we’d have to drag the heavy equipment all the way downstairs and set up and we had already been stuck on the elevator the second day! So we decided that the balcony was actually the perfect place to take the data.  We wouldn’t have to be interrupted by other people, we had a good sightline and we didn’t have to worry about the time for setup.  The balcony worked out perfectly.

DJN:  I talked to Matt Penn [(NSO and leader of the Citizen CATE project)] and he said that your group was one of the few that actually got good data on the eclipse.   So how many were in your group?

MM:  On the island of Ternate, just two of us, my undergraduate advisor at SCSU, Don Walter and I, but there were 4 other groups in the CATE project spread along the path of totality across Indonesia taking data.

DJN:  Did you have any good food while you were there?

MM:  Yes! We had lots of good food, although I was skeptical at first. ‘Breakfast’ food was always what I would consider ’lunch’ food so no eggs and bacon.  Usually there was chicken and little fish on a stick.  The food was very good!

DJN: What are you working on this summer at NSO?  The data from the eclipse?

MM:  We actually have a lot of projects we can work on, but the first step is calibrating the data with darks and flats.  But after that one thing I know we will move on to is a making a tutorial.   This was kind of a test so that we can write instructions for others to use the equipment for the next eclipse. Then, hopefully, we can get a lot of good data that will be easier to reduce.

DJN: Will you be involved in the 2017 solar eclipse across the US?

MM: I am trying to find a way to get back to South Carolina to help my former advisor.  I definitely plan to be there but don’t have the money yet. The plan is to get 60 sites along the path of totality to make a movie of the eclipse, which is something that hasn’t been done before. The professors and academic advisors who went to Indonesia are to be site coordinators for those states where they are located.  Then there will be amateur astronomers and others interested in the eclipse to help. So we’d provide telescopes and all the equipment needed and the detailed solar procedure will make it easier to collect good data.   We will also have training workshops to train the volunteers on assembling the telescope and operating the software.

DJN: Tell me something about yourself and how you decided to get into astronomy.

MM:  I’m from Bronx New York and of course I saw stars, but very few stars growing up.  But then my mom decided to move us to upstate New York and that is when I finally did see some stars, but that was not when I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.   I really got into astronomy when I was in my physics class in high school.  It was because the class got into a big debate because our teacher gave us a test where all the answers were yes and then there was one question that no one was sure about. The question was, is there gravity outside the Earth’s atmosphere?  I thought yeah there has to be… see the moon, duh! But everyone was against me, debating me.  I held my ground though and the teacher eventually pointed out that I was right!  But I didn’t know a lot about it, and I wanted to know more, like what about gravity around the sun, and more about the Universe in general.  That made me think this was something that I might want to do as a career because up until then I had not been really interested in anything.  The teacher actually gave me an award for my academic performance in the class. It was one of the first awards I got in high school and that was one of the high points in my life at the time.  After that point, I really wanted to do astronomy.

When I got into college, granted there were only about 3 astronomers in the physics department but that was more astronomers than I had ever met in my life.   They told me all about their research and my adviser turned me onto all these amazing opportunities, such as internships and research projects.  These experiences made me into the astronomer I am today!

DJN: You’re doing a solar project now, but you told me your real interest is in galaxies and galaxy evolution, so why have you been interested in that?

MM: That interest came from being at the National RadioAstronomy Observatory working with Sabrina Stierwalt and Kartik Sheth in the NAC program.  The goal of the project was to measure the metallicites of gas rich dwarf galaxies to understand why these galaxies have low start formation when they have the “ingredients ” for star formation. When I was doing that project I got to make amazing pictures of the galaxies, for one thing, but I just wanted to know more and more about these galaxies I was working on.   Before that most of my research had been on stellar topics like measuring light curves of variable stars and studying the magnetic activity of ultracool dwarfs, but it didn’t excite me the way working on galaxies did.  Plus within working on galaxies there are so many interesting areas of research, like AGN, or galaxy mergers… there just seemed like endless possibilities. 

DJN: As a person-of-color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career and how have you over come these?

MM: As a African American I was always told that I have to work twice as hard as my white counterparts.  I went to an HBCU and the department was very small. There were very few students and in the upper level classes, I had to take a few classes by myself.  It was tough to get through the classes AND to get as much as I could out of the classes.  This made me question myself, you know, sometimes you wonder if you are as smart as everyone else because you don’t really know what you got out of those classes and how it compares to everyone else. This really affected me when going to conferences because there is a very small percentage of people-of-color in this field and this made me question if I could actually compete in this field with my background and lack of resources.  Those were struggles, but I had the attitude that if someone else can do it, I definitely can do it.  I am very ambitious and my attitude was always, it is cool you know this, but I will probably know more by the end.   I stuck with my studies, took advantage of mentors and opportunities and continued to gain knowledge of the subject.   I also try to always appreciate myself, and the people who are around me.   I don’t spend time looking at what I don’t have.

DJN:  How about your family?  What so they think?

MM:  My older sister’s in Chemistry and I’m in Physics and my family loves it!  I also have two younger brothers and I try to be a good role model for them.

DJN: What advice would you give to young men of color interested in following your path?

MM: Don’t get discouraged! Others may seem smarter, but everyone is smart in there own way so just because you are the one in a few does not make you less knowledgeable than everyone else.  And when you get to an advanced level yourself, give back and mentor the ones who are trying to come up.  Keep the idea of each one, teach one.  Also, find Black astronomers, there are some around.  Join the group!   Finally, be proud of the culture that you come from!

Myles will be at the participating in the CATE project this August 21 during the solar eclipse across the US.   He has been involved in training multiple groups across South Carolina in the use of the equipment to take data on the eclipse.  He’ll be in Orangeburg, SC with his former advisor on the campus of South Carolina State University, telescope and eclipse equipment in hand!

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