The Friday interview: Science Ambassador Tom O’Donoghue’s career combines astronomy and photography. Here he talks about what his job is like, the cool things in his work, and what skills you need.
Our Science Ambassadors include newly qualified and well established Irish scientists. They work in science and technology, love their work and want to help others learn about what it’s really like working in their particular areas of research and innovation.
What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
In secondary school I studied physics and chemistry, but also one of our teachers had an interest in astronomy, and he started a club. It was this which kickstarted my love for the subject.
I was never very good at maths, so courses in astrophysics were out of my reach, but I continued with the physics and chemistry in college, gaining a general science degree.
My first job was as a field service engineer, working on semiconductor thin film deposition equipment.
The practical applications help a great deal in operating the astrophotography equipment, and in understanding any issues that arise from night to night.
Who influenced your career direction?
My science and physics teacher in my secondary school had a great a passion for science, and this made the classes more interesting. He wanted us to all gain a good grasp of the practical side of science. This included us building our own radios in class.
I remember seeing Sir Patrick Moore on the television as a kid, so he would have to be one of my influences. I also used to read any astronomy magazines that were available, and the pictures amazed me. Seeing the Eagle nebula, the Trifid and the Horsehead made me want to try astrophotography.
It was only later that I found out that most of the pictures I was looking at were by David Malin, a superb astrophotographer, working in the days of film photography with manual guiding. He also developed many techniques in the darkroom needed to create his pictures.
I was fascinated by the space race too, and many of the astronauts and cosmonauts were an influence on my love for space and astronomy.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I have moved to the desert in the southeast of Spain, north of Almeria, where the weather gives me many clear nights throughout the year. While I do work at night, and the winter nights can be harsh due to the cold, I am very happy with my working conditions and lifestyle.
I get to enjoy Spain during the afternoon and evening, and on those days when the weather prevents me from my photography. In summer, I can still sit out at 3am in shorts and a T shirt, and just watch the stars pass overhead. Also not having to get up in the morning suits me a great deal.
How did you go about getting the job?
There are no qualifications in astrophotography, or none that I’m aware of. In my case I chose to try and set up a business selling my pictures, as I felt the quality was good enough to sell.
I had taken many holidays at a friend’s astro gîte (self-catering holiday home) in France. Here I was able to get many clear nights taking pictures and put together some good quality photographs.
I felt that I could do the same if I moved to a region in southern Europe on a more permanent basis, or at least for a few months to avail of the weather and good conditions.
Describe a typical day
If I’ve been working the night before I generally don’t get up until about noon. I’ll begin recharging any batteries, review the pictures that I took on the laptop, and keep the good ones, and delete any with issues. I also register the images and begin stacking the master files.
If I have completed collecting the data for one image, I can then also begin processing the image from the master files. Depending on the image it can take a few days to a few months to finish the processing.
The rest of the day is for relaxing, or doing the day-to-day chores, before setting up the equipment again for the night’s work, approximately one hour after sunset.
What are your main tasks and responsibilities?
As I work for myself, everything is under my control. I try to take the best data that I can, and then process it in the best way that I can. The main tasks are running the equipment, and maintaining it throughout each night. Many unforeseen issues can arise on any given night.
What are the main challenges?
Constantly outputting high quality images also requires keeping up to date with all of the latest techniques, software, and even equipment.
As I live in the mountains where there is no internet connection, I can feel that I am losing out on the latest ideas and discussions on the user groups. So any chance I get when I go to an internet café is spent catching up on things.
Even after I have a fully processed image, there is the challenge of getting it from the laptop to the framed picture. I go to a professional printer, where we sit down and transfer the image from my laptop to his set-up.
There are small differences between our set-ups, so we need to print test runs, colour comparisons, and even tweak some parts of the image until I’m happy.
When you have an image that you are happy with, it’s very difficult to stop staring at it. The best ones get hung on the wall. Taking images of objects in space is cool in itself. The link in the titles that I use, with the light years from Earth in the pictures, also brings people in and gives them a sense of place in the universe.
All in all it’s a very cool job to have. With so many objects in the night sky, I won’t run out of pictures to take either.
What’s not so cool?
Working at night doesn’t bother me too much, but the cold winter nights can get very difficult. Fixing rogue pixels in an image on a 35mm frame can be testing also. Frequent power cuts in the area can leave you with heart palpitations that an electrical spike hasn’t destroyed a camera.
And what’s your pet hate at work?
As I work alone and outside at night, I would say insects, strange animal noises and power cuts.
What particular skills do you need?
You need a lot of patience in this line of work. You need to be prepared for any little mishap to ruin a night’s imaging. Working on the semiconductor equipment for nearly 10 years also gave me insights into how systems work. While the telescope and mount set-up in conjunction is simpler, the basic principles remain the same.
Most importantly, though, is probably the love for the job, the interest in space and astronomy, and the desire to constantly try to improve and make the best images that I can.
What is your education and training to date?
Science was my main interest in school (St Jarlath’s Secondary School), and after the Junior Cert I moved into physics and chemistry. This allowed me to go to UCD to do general science degree, with physics and chemistry as the main modules.
After that I got a field service job in semi conductors. This in turn gave me the chance to purchase some equipment, and more importantly the job taught me how to fix machinery.
I did attend a one-day course by two English astrophotographers a few years ago, but most of the process of learning in my field is through online tutorials, advice and discussions online. The most useful training is practice, and trial and error, whether it is setting up the equipment or in processing the images.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Getting shortlisted for the Royal Greenwich Observatory astrophotography competition was rewarding, and I have won several prizes in photographic competitions. In general, though, the most rewarding is when someone gives a positive response after seeing one of my pictures.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
You need a lot of patience for this work. With so many things that can go wrong, you need to be able to remain calm, and accept a wasted night, or equipment damage. Sometimes you need to walk away and try to fix the issue the following day.
What is your dream job?
To be part of something that made advances in science. I would enjoy working on the machinery in CERN, or on a probe for the European Space Agency. I would also like to be part of the processing team for Hubble, or the upcoming James Webb Space telescope.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
As most of my job was learnt, and is still being learnt from experience, I would just say an interest in space, astronomy or photography. If you had knowledge of graphic packages, that would be useful.
Also I guess understanding the weather would be useful – I have spent a lot of time reading pressure charts trying to decide if it’ll be a good night or not.
Of course knowing the constellations in the sky is very useful. You want to make sure that for those dim objects you’re pointing your telescope in the right place.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Patience, to like staying up late, not being afraid of the cold.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Any kind of photography in general, work in Photoshop, even graphic design, as the software side of things is such an important part of processing the image. Some knowledge of mechanics helps in fixing equipment problems.