Assistant Professor of Physics
Hometown: I was born in California and grew up outside Syracuse in upstate New York.
Where do you live now? Oberlin
BA, physics, chemistry, and math, Rice University, 1994
MA, physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1997
PhD, physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1999
I wintered over twice at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station while working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where I spent five years as a postdoctoral fellow and staff astronomer.
What made you want to teach at Oberlin? The chance to interact with great students. I love to teach.
You are leading the Herschel Inner Galaxy Gas Survey, one of the key projects of the Herschel Space Observatory, which is scheduled to launch next week. What does it mean to be one of the key programs?
The Herschel team defined key projects as those that will examine broad and compelling scientific questions and that would require more than 100 hours of observing time. Team members had an idea of the kinds of projects that could benefit from Herschel, but they wanted the scientific community as a whole to refine those themes into the driving questions that would be important for Herschel to answer.
Your team is the only one not led by an individual from a major research university. What is the significance of that for you and for Oberlin?
It certainly is an honor to have a project I'm leading be selected by the Herschel team. They don't really care about the category of institution team leaders are from, though. They care about the science. To make best use of the observatory time, it is important to have a team of people who have a variety of skills and resources. No one institution could successfully do this on its own. And I am excited and pleased to be able to involve Oberlin undergrads in this process. [Read more about Chris' project in the Fall 2008 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.]
How are Oberlin students involved?
I have students who are writing software code that will be used to reduce the data we get. I have students working on computer modeling to understand how the clouds of dust and gas we're looking at actually behave, which we'll be able to refine once we have actual experimental data to inform those models. And I have seniors and juniors training younger generations of students.
Last summer, you submitted an application to NASA. Was that for a "teacher in space" type of program?
No. It was NASA's selection cycle 20 and was open to anyone who wants to be an astronaut. NASA's first selection cycle was for the Mercury 7 astronauts—open only to military test pilots. The first civilian scientist astronauts were selected in cycle 4 (1965).
Why did you apply?
I always wanted to be an astronaut. I went to space camp when I was young.
What was the application process like?
I submitted a 10-page application. It is a big form, and it goes to NASA with about 3,500 other applications, not including those from military personnel. Military applicants—there were about 3,000 of them this cycle—have a separate process in the first stage.
Around Halloween last year, I learned that I had made the first cut—from 3,500 to 450. That is when they ask for letters of recommendation and for you to prove that you are healthy by having a physical exam and submitting the results. From that group, they selected 111 people to go to Houston for more testing and an interview. I made it to the group of 111.
What were the tests like?
They split the 111 into groups, and my group went to Houston in January. We spent roughly three and a half days doing all sorts of different things. We had every conceivable body measurement taken. They measured the strength of all of our joints. We did five hours of psychological testing. But the key thing was an hour-long interview with the astronaut selection board. You sit at a T-shaped table with a group of 15 people, mostly astronauts. They start off with ‘tell us about yourself, starting with high school' and it just goes from there.
After they completed all the interviews, they cut the 111 to 47, from which they'll choose 10 to 15 new astronauts. Unfortunately, I did not make the cut to 47.
Did they tell you why?
They don't tell you why you don't make it, but I eventually may be able to find out. Height may have been a part of it. They have very stringent rules about body measurements, because astronauts have to fit in very tight quarters. But I'm honored I made it to the group that gets to interview. I was at the point where I had a 10 to 15 percent chance of being an astronaut.
Do you think you'll try again?
I hope to. Who knows when they'll accept applications again. It used to be every two years, but lately it has drifted to every four to five years.
Recent Highlights: In May 2007, I was invited to speak on the same program as several Nobel laureates. It was at the Smithsonian Institution's symposium celebrating the International Polar Year 2007-08. I gave a talk, "Feeding The Black Hole In The Center Of The Milky Way: Ast/Ro," about the work I've been doing at the South Pole.
What do you do for fun?
Hiking, biking, flying planes, and being an EMT.
You're an EMT?
Yep. I have an EMT certificate, but I don't do much with it. It is very hard to volunteer as an EMT. Liability has become a huge issue.
What about flying? Is it a stereotype that people who want to be astronauts also like to fly planes?
Many people who have become astronauts have had fun flying, too. But they didn't take up flying to become astronauts. The classic question astronauts get is ‘what should I do to be an astronaut.' The worst version of it is, ‘how should I change my entire life to become an astronaut,' which is entirely the wrong attitude to take. You should do whatever you enjoy. If it, as a complete side benefit, happens to improve your chances of becoming an astronaut, great! But that shouldn't be the reason you are doing it. You should be doing it because you enjoy it.
Which professor would you most like to take a class with if your could?
I want to take them all! Right now, I'm taking Introduction to Sociology with Greggor Mattson. It is really interesting; we're currently learning how society has changed in the past 100 years.
What three words best describe you?
Curious, focused, distractible.