I am a commissioning engineer at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory on Cerro Pachón just outside of La Serena, Chile, a project formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope before it was renamed for a badass scientist. Specifically, I support the integration and testing plans for the observatory’s detector, a 3.2 gigapixel digital camera designed and built at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. The camera is known as the LSST Camera, where LSST now stands for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time because we’re pretentious, and because conserving acronyms is useful.

Currently based in Chile, I am working on preparing the observatory’s camera maintenance facility, testing interfaces and procedures at the summit facility with a Camera mass simulator prior to the arrival of the real Camera, finalizing a shipping plan for the Camera to travel safely from California down to Chile, and doing preliminary onsite testing of the camera’s complicated refrigeration system to ensure full functionality. If none of that makes sense, take a gander at this video as a general overview/explainer of the project.

I started work as an engineer at SLAC in October 2015 on the LSST Camera team, mostly working on test fixtures for use during assembly and testing of the camera. In 2018, I transitioned to the Commissioning team, which is responsible for bringing all parts of the Rubin Observatory together in preparation for operations (telescope, camera, data management) and making sure they play nicely. The camera won’t arrive in Chile until late 2022, so that’s my deadline for making this dang refrigeration system work. Wish me luck.

Rubin Observatory progress over time, 2015 - 2021


Why mechanical engineering?

The short story is, my two-year-old self had a favorite book entitled “So You Want To Be An Astronaut” and my nine-year-old self loved the stargazing project we had to do in school but then my twelve-year-old self discovered that the vast majority of aspiring astronauts don’t get selected for the space program and didn’t think it was worth doing all the schooling, so engineering was the backup plan. I wrote about the slightly (but only slightly) longer story in this post.

How did you end up as an engineer at SLAC/Rubin Observatory?

In 2015, I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology totally disenchanted with science and engineering as a career, even though I had loved it at the beginning. It was disheartening to be in a place where a 50% on a final exam makes you feel like you learned nothing but gets you an “A” in the class because apparently no one else learned anything either and curved grading is magical. Anyways, in college I spent a lot of time volunteering in robotics classrooms, and ended up interning one summer as a robotics teacher and curriculum developer for the local public middle schools. And that led me to post-college actually working semi-full-time as teacher for after-school robotics classes as well as weeklong summer camps. Actually, my job title was “inventor mentor” because the Bay Area can be exceedingly pretentious. It was awesome, and I was passionate about the work, so theoretically that should have been my thing. Unfortunately, I learned along the way that it wasn’t quite mentally stimulating enough. I mean, there’s only so much complication you can introduce to a 10-year-old writing code with pictographs. But I still wasn’t stoked about the engineering I’d studied, so I spent a while considering pursuing curriculum development, or a higher level kind of teaching at a boarding school such as my high school.

Clearly that didn’t happen, so what did happen is my mother finally convinced me to apply for engineering jobs by reminding me that it’s relatively easy to go from engineering to teaching, but much harder to go from teaching back to engineering if too much time has passed. And my mother has this annoying habit of being right. So I took a chance, and applied to this crazy telescope job mostly because I had wanted to be an astronaut when I was little and it seemed close enough. Somehow the planets aligned and I landed at SLAC as a junior engineer, and here’s the kicker: I absolutely hated it for the first year. I felt all sorts of useless, because, spoiler alert: no one is good at their job at first, and I felt kind of icky for abandoning this teaching thing that I loved, and a bit out of place among all these very-experienced very-male engineers, and it was a tough first year. But I stuck with it, for various reasons. I wanted to prove to myself and to my team that I was good enough, and give myself time to get better at my job. At SLAC I had this awesome work-life setup where I got to play soccer at the gym every day at lunchtime, so that was pretty motivating. And, of course, there’s still the whole astronaut thing and being super excited about building the biggest digital camera in the world. Those all seemed like good enough reasons to stick it out for at least a little longer. And here’s the second kicker: it worked. Nowadays, I actually really like my job. I’m good at what I do, I’m much less nervous about asking dumb questions (which happens all the time) and much better at knowing who to ask said questions (which turns out is a skill in and of itself), and I care a lot about this project. So even though I wasn’t “passionate” per se about this whole engineering thing at first, once I gave it a real chance I kind of grew into it.

What do you actually like about your job?

Besides the usual and accurate themes of working with incredibly intelligent people and solving fun problems, I really love the fact that we are doing science for the sake of science, to enrich human knowledge and satisfy our curiosity. Unlike big companies such as Apple, or Facebook, or Google, or any of the numerous other tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, we aren’t designing this thing for a customer. I guess you could sort of argue that the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation are our customers, because they’re providing the funding. Or, maybe the scientists that will eventually study the data that this telescope produces. But even then, everyone just wants to produce the best possible instrument that we can. It’s not about breaking into a market or turning a huge profit. It’s about searching the unknown for answers to unsolved mysteries. It sounds all lofty and idealistic, but in this case it’s true.

I specifically like being part of the Commissioning team for the Rubin Observatory project, because it means I get to have some experience with every aspect of the project and am really in the trenches troubleshooting things until they work. That also means that I’m … stuck in the trenches troubleshooting things until they work, which is sometimes never, and but at least I’m not going to get trench foot because it’s super dry at 3000 meters of elevation in the desert.

What’s next?

One of the nice things about the Rubin Observatory project is that it has an end date – my role is part of the commissioning team, and once the observatory moves into operations I’m technically done, assuming the camera works. After commissioning, I want to take an extended sabbatical (a couple months? a year?) so I can live in the mountains and go adventuring while I’m young and able. There may be some options to continue as an observatory mechanical engineer during operations, but that’s still to be determined.

Longer term, I’d love to teach in some capacity some day (probably not traditional teaching, but something more like starting a robotics program at a school or teaching a community college physics course or developing engaging curriculum material), and do more science communication, and maybe still be involved in an engineering project, and ideally none of that is full-time work. Reach for the stars, right?

A milestone that involves neither miles nor stones

Getting straight to the point, last week we finally installed the test camera onto the telescope! A huge milestone for the project, although it really should be called a kilometerstone since we’re in Chile. Minor quibbles. This smaller camera is called the Commissioning Camera, or ComCam for short. “Smaller” isn’t the best terminology because ComCam…

When the engineer becomes an astronomer for a night

In a strange twist of fate, the one person who is mostly likely to leave a party awkwardly early in order to go to bed (a.k.a. me) was tasked with staying up all night at the observatory to help with an observing run. The main Rubin Observatory is still under construction, but we have a…

Another degree, another holiday

Sometimes I have good ideas and sometimes they only seemed like good ideas at the time, like enrolling in an online bachelor’s degree program in math. To be clear, I already have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and also a master’s degree, so this one is a fun bonus. The backstory here is that…