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Kimberly Kowal Arcand

Visualization & Emerging Tech Lead, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian

 

And - Co-author of 5 popular science books 

Coding was sort of the key that unlocked the Universe for me. But it also cuts into so many other fields these days. 

What do you do?

I like to say that I use data to tell stories about the Universe. Sometimes those stories will be in the form of a 2D image of a stellar nursery, a 3D print of an exploded star, or a Virtual Reality application a supernova changing over time. 

My work includes studies in emerging technologies, from the production of the first-ever data-driven 3D print of a supernova remnant to experimentations in scientific data sonification. The work goes beyond technical content creation however to better understanding user response, perceptions and misconceptions around content in such scientific and technological applications.

 

I recently led a team of researchers to launch the first-ever data-driven virtual reality application of a supernova remnant using actual NASA data, in close collaboration with Brown University.  I led a team of researchers to help improve NASA 3D printed data sets by working with students and professionals who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind and other partners.  This work led to the creation of a tactile/Braille/3D-print based astronomical kit of recent scientific discoveries. The kit was launched and piloted at the International Astronomical Union, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center.  The kit's evaluation has shown impacts on BVI users but also on sighted individuals, helping to demonstrate the benefits of more universally designed science content. 

Why did you choose this field?

I’ve always been curious, from the time I was very small. I loved science – asking questions, figuring things out, hopefully helping people along the way. I wanted to be an astronaut, then a doctor, then an environmentalist, then a veterinarian, then a.... you get the idea. I just knew I wanted to work in science somehow.  

 

I completed my undergraduate work in molecular biology. My interests then were on bacteria and disease, so I was looking at things like Ixodes Scapularis(the Deer tick) and the spirochaetes that can be transmitted to humans which can cause Lyme Disease. But as I neared the end of my degree I found that I was more attracted to the computer as a tool to tell stories about science than I was to any bugs or bacteria. (The physics and chemistry courses I had to take for that degree, however, would become incredibly useful in my work for Chandra.)  I moved into a computer science graduate program after graduating in biology, and the programming /coding /application development of that was a key tool in my future work with Chandra.  I would say it was really the mix of science and computer science that helped move me into astronomical data visualization and related projects. Going from data via microscope to data via telescope did not at all seem odd. Whether you’re creating visuals for something at the micro level or the macro (or really, macro-macro) level there is a similar visual language.  

The telescope I work on, Chandra, is one of NASA’s great observatories, a sister to the Hubble space telescope. Chandra was launched back in 1999 and in orbit, it goes about 1/3 of the way to the moon at its farthest point from Earth. Chandra studies the very high-energy regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and black holes. It’s pretty extreme physics. 

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"I saw more clearly and wanted to address the challenges for people who didn't fit the scientist stereotype."

It's hard for me to look back like that because I really do feel that the path I was on led me to where I needed to be, when it was time to be.   But when I was younger,  I was not active enough on the issues facing women and other underrepresented groups in science and technology.  I didn’t try to address the barriers or the biases then, I had my head down perhaps, focused on learning the things I needed to do. But after having children, particularly my daughter, things changed for me.  I've spent much more of my time since then trying to learn and to help make the challenges even a little bit smaller for my daughter, or anyone else’s child.  

Why do you love working in STEM?

"Also, the sky belongs to everyone. Whether you live in Boston or Budapest or Bombay, everyone should be able to explore the universe. I enjoy being part of a program that helps make the Universe more accessible."

I literally learn something new every day in my job.  


Black holes for example, are often cast as the ultimate vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything that comes close to them. It is true that some material passes the “event horizon,” that is, the point of no return, and will forever be lost within the black hole’s gravitational grasp. However, the event horizon is a relatively tiny region around the black hole. Instead, black holes have a bigger influence on the material around them through their powerful jets and flares that send material away from the black hole and back into the cosmic environment. It's pretty special to be able to think about these things every day.

On many days, I feel like I get a front row seat in the Universe’s cathedral -  these gigantic towering places that have seemingly been around forever. You can simply absorb the beauty of the architecture and the stained glass windows, but often you start questioning, how was this made, how does it work?  I get – and we all get really, through the public space program – a front row seat into that deep, infinite beauty. Images of our Universe can help us reflect on those timeless questions for humanity: what are we? where are we going? where do we come from?  I just love asking questions. 

 

Best advice for the next generation


I would recommend a good background in coding if you’re interested in STEM fields. Just one example? There was a survey done (by the American Astronomical Society I think) a couple years ago that showed perhaps 95% of astronomers needed to code to do their jobs, and only about 5% had formal training in coding.  Coding was sort of the key that unlocked the Universe for me.  But it also cuts into so many other fields these days. 

Role model 

At seven years old, I proudly announced to my parents that I was going to be an astronaut. I had one of those little white plastic Space Shuttle models with a working cargo bay, and I would fly it around my room and make up pretend missions with pink and blue Care Bears serving as the crew. Alas, it was not the career for me.  

 

But it was for Cady Coleman.  While pursuing her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she went to a talk by Sally Ride, the first woman in space.  This singular experience of seeing someone not that different from her do something so incredible was an important marker in Coleman’s career, and she indeed went on to become an astronaut herself.

 

Coleman was accepted into the NASA astronaut corps in 1992. Her second mission into space would be as the mission specialist on STS-93 in 1999 for the Chandra X-ray Observatory (which is how I met her). Coleman would go on to be the Chief of Robotics for NASA’s Astronaut Office, an aquanaut (underwater astronaut) living and working underwater for eleven days, and 6-month resident of the International Space Station. Coleman logged more than 4,330 hours in space. Today, Cady is retired from the Astronaut Corps but she now spends much of her time meeting with people, leading new initiatives, talking about the excitement of space exploration and the technology that makes it all possible. It's been about two decades since I first met her and she's still an inspiration and mentor to me.