Jan Cami - Associate Professor, Astronomy

Jan Cami

Astrophysics at the University of Western Ontario and Director of The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory

I was born/grew up in: Aalst, a small town in Belgium

I now live in: London, Ontario

I completed my training/education at: Astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam

Describe what you do at work.

From early September until the end of April is teaching season at our University. During this time my day starts early, at about 5--6am. A good part of the morning is devoted to my teaching duties. These include preparing lectures and assignments, marking and course administration, and meeting with students. I also deal with the most urgent e-mails. On days that I’m not teaching, I try to use the mornings to do a bit of research of my own or go over the latest research papers in my field. I also try to review some of the work of my students and collaborators. This includes writing telescope or research grant proposals. In the afternoons, I normally meet with one or more of the researchers in my group and discuss their projects and progress. I also schedule my administrative or organizational tasks, meetings, and teleconferences in the afternoons. In between, I do computer and software maintenance, and I organize activities around our on-campus observatory and develop new programs there. Often, I still spend a fair bit of the evening preparing for the next day’s class.

From early May to the end of August, there’s no teaching, and then there is no typical day really. I travel a lot in this period – some for holidays, but mostly for work visits to my international collaborators and for attending conferences. When I’m not travelling, I will spend most of my time on research – either my own projects or those of the researchers in my group. Over the summer I also run events for groups at the Observatory. By the end of July, I start thinking about teaching in the fall.

Almost anything I do in my job requires the use of science and technology. The telescopes or satellites I use are all operated by computers – astronomers never get to look through the telescope ourselves anymore. After we have collected the data, we have to process it using specialized computer software. Sometimes we have to write our own computer programs to get the best results out. To analyze the observations and make sense of them, I use physics, math, and sometimes a bit of chemistry or mineralogy. Each of these areas offer a piece of the much larger puzzle that I am solving. In essence, astronomers use math, physics and computing (and sometimes a bit more) all the time as tools to do our research.

When I was a student I enjoyed:

How does your job affect people’s lives?

I encounter many people that are convinced that science is beyond them. They think that it requires hard-core math skills and intellectual superpowers to understand even the most basic physics. And because of that, they often give up. I believe that one of the most important missions of a scientist is to make those people realize that they can make sense of the world around them.

When I am at public astronomy events, such as where spectacular telescopic views of Jupiter or Saturn are presented, I try to make people understand the process of science. I also help them understand how that process is very different from the many flavours of pseudo-science that they’ve heard of and maybe even believe in.

At the same time, I offer them a unique perspective of the world we live in. Astronomy research is about figuring out our place in the Universe, tracing the cosmic roots of life, and predicting the far future of our planet and our species. Those questions go through many people’s heads at one point in their lives. I find they are generally very grateful when they realize that they can indeed understand some of the answers to their questions themselves!

What motivates you in your career?

There are many enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my job – after all, I turned my passion and hobby into my job. I still get very excited when I’m observing at a telescope. When I see a new set of observations (especially when I’m the first to see them), or when I figure out a piece of a problem I find that really motivating. I’ve always loved solving logic puzzles, and in a sense, my job is about solving puzzles that haven’t been solved before. But one of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet a lot of bright young people that love talking about science as much as I do. In some cases, I have the privilege of teaching them or guiding them to become independent researchers. I find that very rewarding!

When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:

Describe your career path to this career.

I got interested in astronomy as a child about 5 years old. My father was a physics and chemistry teacher and he showed me the constellations and a few planets in the night sky. I was instantly hooked! The Space Shuttle program started when I was a kid and most certainly boosted my interest in space and astronomy. When I graduated from high school, I first completed a degree in physics. This gave me a very solid foundation on which to build additional expertise as an astronomer and astrophysicist. Without that very thorough physics education, I would not have become the researcher I am now. I have also learned a lot from others, by seeing how they approach specific problems and “stealing with my eyes”.

After my studies, I actively pursued my dreams and interests. You can’t sit around and wait until somebody offers you your dream job. You have to go out and search for that job and sometimes create the opportunities yourself. For instance, one of my childhood dreams was to work at NASA. But to do so, I had to define my own research program in an official proposal. I made sure to get as much feedback as possible from senior researchers before officially submitting the proposal. That helped a lot, and the proposal was approved – which is how I got my dream job.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy playing music – I own several guitars, a bass guitar and a digital piano and I have a jam room set up at home. I like traveling, scuba diving, flying, and snowboarding although I haven’t done much of the latter two in recent years. I love playing games, and I will gladly play live poker when I get the opportunity.

What advice or encouragement would you give others seeking a similar career?

First, get the best possible education, and try to get the most out of it. You can’t be a good researcher without a good education, no matter how smart you are. Try to learn more than just what’s in your textbook. For instance, get involved in out of class activities and learn from other people as well, or learn more from teaching others. It’s also important to be passionate if you want this job. I don’t know a single successful researcher that is not a hard worker, and I think it’s very tough to keep up that pace if you’re not passionately driven. Finally, don’t wait for good opportunities to come your way – take initiative to make things happen and go out, actively pursuing what you want.

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