Rob Cardinal - Research Associate in Planetary Science

Rob Cardinal

Research Associate in Planetary Science

I specialize in developing high-performance computers and software to search for near-Earth asteroids

What is a typical day like for you?

There really is no typical day, which is great! The most common thing about all of my work is that I'm generally solving problems with math, science, and technology. Over the last several years, this has meant everything from getting greasy and twisting wrenches while rebuilding telescopes, to designing and building computers and writing software, to meeting with science team members to discuss the details of our experiment, to performing observations and image analysis for research with telescopes. Most recently, I have been tightly focused on designing/configuring the computers and software we will need to find asteroids with the Near Earth Space Surveillance experiment due to fly aboard the NEOSSat microsatellite. I tend to keep office hours between 10am and 6pm (to avoid traffic) and start my day with email, moving on to either writing or debugging software, communicating with other team members, or configuring and fixing computer systems. I generally meet daily with my boss to discuss whatever is currently happening with our project. I tend to always be working on something in the back of my head, and I often will work late into the night on some idea to solve a problem. Some aspects of my work require that I be “on-call” to solve problems at nearly any time of day or night.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

I really appreciate the independence of working both on my own and as a team member on very unique and fascinating projects that involve a wide variety of activities. Some days (or even weeks) are spent in Zen-like meditation on computational problems, while others are spent hurriedly rushing to and from meetings/labs/computers and interacting with all sorts of people. It's awesome that my job involves working with high technology in really cool places, like observatories and the Canadian Space Agency. I absolutely love computers and programming them, and I get to design/work/play with cutting edge high-performance hardware and software.

What is the least enjoyable part of your job?

I'm not fond of paperwork or documentation, although I respect its place in the general scheme of things. And there are some meetings that I attend which cause me to count the number of better things I could be doing instead, and I have come to realize that we should always try to make the most of opportunities to communicate effectively and efficiently – in the hopes that it might mean one less meeting!

Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).

Without a doubt, I took a non-traditional route. When I was 17, I suffered a debilitating depression that required hospitalization and a long recovery. This led to my withdrawal from high school after almost completing grade 11. A few years later, I was back on my feet, and attended the University and College Entrance Program (UCEP) offered by Concordia College in Edmonton. This one-year program allowed me to apply to university, and I was accepted into the Physics and Astronomy program at the University of Victoria when I was 25 years old. As I was raising a family at the same time, I took six years to complete what is normally a five-year co-operative education program, while also teaching labs and performing research. Participating in the co-op program allowed me to get work placements in my field for four months each year, which were extremely valuable experiences. I even got to work for a semester at the James Clerk Maxwel Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii.

Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?

Although I was always very interested in science and technology, and I loved the usual science fiction media in my youth, I would have to say that the greatest actual influences were some of the people that taught me. Specific teachers in school, professors from upgrading and undergraduate courses, as well as some of the professionals in the field which I met, were undeniably the most influential mentors which inspired me to go on. In particular Dr. Anne Gower, a radio astronomer who taught Astronomy 120 at UVic in my first year, an overview of astronomy for non-scientists. Memorably, she took the time to get to know each of her 200+ students, and would always point out the most intriguing places where science was still grasping for answers. Her passion for astronomy, human ingenuity, and her wonderful style of teaching was what really made me first consider Astronomy as a career.

What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?

Although it may sound trite – do what you love, and love what you do! It's always easier to succeed at subjects you enjoy, and you will be far more likely to innovate and excel when you involve yourself with topics that really intrigue you. For anyone interested in astronomy or planetary science, there are countless avenues of research which are incredibly rewarding and interesting, where huge strides in research are still needed. Don't let the math get you down – although it can be daunting, never give up! Math is the language of science and technology, because we live in a logical, self-consistent universe. It's incredibly gratifying to grasp its beauty and power in action! Also, learn about computers and how to program and get into the Linux operating system as soon and as deep as you can – in a world without walls or fences, nobody needs Windows or Gates!

How does your job make a difference?

Oddly enough, searching for rocks in space is one of those things than can have profound consequences. There are three main reasons to search for asteroids: 1) they can really mess up your whole civilization with little or no notice, and while that is a very remote possibility, 2) they are scientifically very valuable as primordial remnants of the formation of the solar system and if this doesn't really interest you, then 3) they are worth trillions and trillions of dollars as future resources for humanity's journey into space. We need to start mining them! Discovering, tracking, and studying asteroids adds valuable information to humanity's knowledge about it's surroundings and future resources.

How do you use science, math and technology in your job?

Programming high-performance computers to find asteroids in astronomical images is the very essence of science, math and technology! I take scientific theory and methods and translate them via mathematical formulas into computer codes that run on the latest technology. In order to do this properly, I need to understand all the details from the time the light leaves the Sun, bounces off the asteroids, sending photons passing through the optics and landing on the detector, causing electrons to be trapped and counted in an electronic circuit, and finally how to turn that into a measurement from which I can calculate the orbit of the asteroid, and estimate it's size and distance. Every step in that sequence entails some very fascinating details of nature, materials, and logic.

Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?

Looking back, I wish that I'd had the guts to take some Drama classes, but I was far too self-conscious. Then again, I also wish I'd taken more computer classes, and hadn't skipped so much math class!

What makes this job right for you?

This job really suits me, because it has so much variety and opportunities to solve problems with technology. I get to travel to neat locations, work with fascinating people, and develop cutting edge computer systems and programs. There is always something exciting to look forward to.

What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?

During long winter observing runs searching for asteroids, the night shifts could stretch to over 14 hours, and after several nights of this, I would be bleary eyed with exhaustion. Thus on many occasions I have been known to take roughly Pi minutes-long naps while waiting for the next image to download. Each exposure would take 120 seconds and another 80 seconds to download at which point the computer would emit a loud “BING!”. Then I would have to inspect the focus, and move the telescope to the next field. Sometimes, the “BING!” wasn't loud enough, and I'd mess up the survey sequences!

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

My favorite pastimes include downhill skiing, playing darts and backgammon, and cooking. I also like to read non-fiction and some science fiction, when I have time. I don't watch much TV or movies, but enjoy Discovery Channel and HGTV sometimes. I also enjoy my involvement in the community as a Rotarian and volunteer with the United Way, as well as public speaking and mentoring at-risk youth.

You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?

I'd probably burst into a medley of Queen and AC/DC songs and play air guitar until someone slapped me, then I'd buy a bunch of telescopes and computers, of course!

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