Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology
I was always interested in physics but didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with it until halfway through college. I always thought astronomy was interesting but figured that I was about as likely to start a band and become a rock star as I was to land a full-time job as a professional astronomer. Then I spent the summer after my sophomore year working at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is the home of the Hubble Space Telescope and also happened to be right across the street from the physics department at Johns Hopkins University, where I took most of my classes. I loved the summer spent soldering wires together in the building’s basement, surrounded by literally hundreds of astronomers searching for answers to the mysteries of the universe. I enjoyed it so much that I went back again the following summer, and after that I was hooked.
I ended up studying exoplanets almost by accident — I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I arrived at Harvard for graduate school, and one of the older grad students mentioned that there was a newly arrived professor who seemed to have a lot of good ideas and was looking for students. As it turns out, it was very good advice!
I admit day-to-day research can be pretty boring — it’s often a long slog with very little progress to show at the end of the day. As my grad school adviser was fond of saying, “If it was easy, someone would have done it already.” However, there’s always the hope for that “Aha!” moment, where suddenly everything falls into place and the answer to your question is staring you in the face. That’s what I love about my job — that moment when I get to learn something new about the universe. Now that I'm a professor, I also have the privilege of sharing that moment with my students when they come to show me a new result.