Career Profiles: Jason Spyromilio

What is your name?

Jason Spyromilio

  1. Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

 

I work at the European Southern Observatory in Garching near Munich. My job is telescope scientist for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

 

  1. What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

 

I have been blessed not to have had to make real career decisions. Things just moved from one project to the next. I have been exceptionally lucky.

 

  1. Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My PhD supervisor at Imperial College Peter Meikle, who taught me physics and how to be a physicist and Dave Allen at the Anglo-Australian Observatory (my first postdoctoral job) who taught me how to be an experimental astronomer.

 

  1. Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes. Research must be one of the greatest jobs you can have. You are challenged continuously. At the same time, as any great job can be expected to be, it is extremely competitive. You don’t get to sit back and enjoy the ride. You make the waves and ride the surf. There are no patents on ideas in science. It is an open field. Just because you can do something, you may even be very good at it, it does not mean that you will get to do it in the academic environment.

 

Questions about your current Job


  1. How did you go about getting your current job?

I was staff at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and decided that Australia was too far from Europe where my soul belonged so I applied for a job advertised at the European Southern Observatory. I was hired as an infrared astronomer to work on one of the first instruments for the Very Large Telescope. After a year I was moved to head the New Technology Telescope project and after that was completed, I headed the commissioning of the Very Large Telescope. After a decade in Chile, I was recalled to Garching to head the design of the European Extremely Large Telescope. When that moved to the construction phase, I spent a year leading the Square Kilometre Array project at Jodrell Bank before returning to the ELT as telescope scientist.

  1. Describe a typical day.

Email, meetings, some coding for computer simulations of the behaviour of the system, lots of reading and writing of documents and discussions with people.

  1. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

I am responsible for taking the as built machine and making it work as a telescope that other astronomers can use. Since it is a prototype, there are many things that have never been done before so it is a bit like trying to set up the first television station when all that has been done up to now is radio. In principle it is the same, radio waves over the ether. The devil is in the details.

 

  1. What are the main challenges?

The details. Finding the things, you thought you knew but didn’t. It is a continuous questioning.

 

  1. What’s cool?

A telescope with a 1000 m2 of collecting area (that is 20 times more than when I was a student) is cool. A telescope with an adaptive mirror that changes shape 1000 times a second with 5000 actuators is cool. Being able to resolve the motions of stars inside globular clusters is cool.

 

  1. What’s not so cool?

Nothing.

 

  1. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

 

I can read, write and am willing to work. I think I can read so that I understand what is written, I think I can write so that others understand what I have written, and am willing to work to help others succeed. If in a workplace you have people with these skills you are set.

 

Questions about education and training

 

  1. What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

Physics and maths.

 

  1. What is your education to date?

I have a Batchelor’s degree in Physics and a PhD in astrophysics.

 

  1. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Learning to read and write.

 

  1. Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

My job teaches me things every day.

Questions about yourself

 

  1. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

My participation in the discovery of the accelerating universe in 1998. The first light of the VLT in 1998 and the birth of my son in 1998. It was a pretty good year 1998.

 

  1. What personal qualities do you have that help you in your career?

I would not be able to answer this. You would need to ask someone else.

 

  1. What is your dream job?

 

Mine.

 

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

 

  1. What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Only do this if you are having fun along the way. The statistical chances of academic employment are ridiculously low. So just enjoy the ride and get off when you no longer do. The skills you will acquire along the way are going to be useful in any field. Have fun because the time isn’t coming back.

  1. What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

You need to be able to be wrong. You need to be able to admit that you are wrong. You need to be able to accept that someone else is always going to be smarter than you.

 

  1. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Any summer job at a University Lab working with apparatus or data will inform.