Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 34 - Sarah Horst - LOOK TO THE STARS - Part 3 of 3

So, okay, this takes me back, way back to the beginning of our conversation you mentioned your, I’ll say mentor, calling in a favor to Hawaii for the telescope. How does it get decided, who gets to pull data from Hubble at any given time or from the new James Webb?
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 34 - Sarah Horst - LOOK TO THE STARS - Part 3 of 3

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JESSE: So, okay, this takes me back, way back to the beginning of our conversation you mentioned your, I’ll say mentor, calling in a favor to Hawaii for the telescope. How does it get decided, who gets to pull data from Hubble at any given time or from the new James Webb? Can you call up a friend at NASA and be “Hey, remember how I won in that Poker game and I didn't make you pay? You owe me a favor. Can you point the telescope?” How does that work? SARAH: So, it really, really, really depends on the telescope. So, for things like Hubble, for the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, the really big telescopes, the ones that are very expensive to operate that are in extremely high demand because they're so powerful for those telescopes. And there's something called a TAC which is a telescope-- Sorry, a Time Allocation Committee. And so basically, you write a proposal and you kind of make the science case for what the question is that you're trying to answer, what the data are that you need to answer that question, and then you have to have sat down and done the math to figure out how much time you need on that telescope to answer your question. Now, maybe you need 10 minutes, every night for a year, because the measurement that you need is very short, but you need to do it over and over and over again, because you're trying to look for changes, seasonal changes in an atmosphere or something like that. Maybe you just need to sit and stare at the same part of space for the entire night. And so, one of the challenges is trying to figure out how to maximize everybody getting done, what they need to do when some people are just going to want the whole night for like three days in a row where other people are going to want like 20 minutes once a week for a year. And there's also something and this was what the program that I had mentioned for Titan was doing, which is something called an interrupt. And so if you have a-- If you're studying something that doesn't necessarily happen all the time, which turns out to be a fair amount of astronomy is like a supernova or a storm on Titan or something like that, where you can't necessarily predict exactly when it's going to happen; you can basically put in proposals where you are like using a smaller telescope to monitor something and then if you accomplish a certain threshold or trigger or whatever, then you get time on the telescope. And then the other thing that we have are things called Director's Discretionary Time. And so the big telescope facilities including Hubble, and have the opportunity for you to, it’s not quite as much as like calling, but to write a very short proposal that basically says, holy shit, this thing just happened. Like, we need to go look at it right now. And if we don't look at it right now, we're never going to be able to look at it again. Or we're going to miss this really important opportunity or whatever. And then the director has the discretion to look at that proposal and say, okay, you know what, that is really important. And now we're going to shift around some of these other observations, so that we can make sure we get that. So, it's definitely an interesting scheduling problem in astronomy, because you have these things that happen very regularly that people want to do. You have observations that don't necessarily matter when they get done as long as they get done. And then you have things that just like appear, like effectively out of thin air sometime, and that people are going to want to study. But one of the things that will happen is Hubble not so much, because Hubble is definitely a special case. But with a lot of the ground based telescopes, if they're still operating on a model where a person is physically going there to observe or sometimes we do something called remote observing now where you are sitting in a facsimile of the control room, but you're not actually at the telescope, and you have control over the telescope for the whole night or half the night or whatever. People will for sure, like email or call, if they know who's on the telescope that night, and ask for a favor. And my feeling is that it's a lot less kind of like the backroom deals that that people might think, and more just we're all at some point, just in our own different ways, engage in the same collective endeavor. And so I think the vast majority of the time if people can help each other, they for sure will because at some point, it's going to be you on the other end of the phone wanting to be can you please just go look at this one thing for us real fast. And so people try really hard to work together on those kinds of things, especially realizing that these are all very precious resources, all of these telescopes, and trying to maximize the science that gets done with them is important to all of us. Yeah. JESSE: I think it's almost like you just, you mentioned backroom deals, which I kind of prompted you. But it's almost like just view it through the lens of goodness of humanity, rather than the greedy side of humanity, and you'll view it correctly. Or it's everybody's in this endeavor together. We're all trying to help each other. It's not you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back, any kind of weird thing going on. I do want to ask you about, I think it was your postdoc you spent at NASA. You spent time at NASA? SARAH: I was actually at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between undergrad and grad school. Yeah. Yeah. JESSE: Okay. I’m trying to figure out where that got sandwiched in. You spent a year there? SARAH: Yeah. Yeah. JESSE: So, this is, again, most of these questions are layman's question, so you’ll just have to go with me, but at least from a layman's standpoint, it seems like NASA is like the place to be for studying anything space, like the mecca of space. So, I mean, you spent time there. You're Johns Hopkins now, which is not bad. But did you want to go back to NASA? Is John Hopkins a better place than NASA? Do you feel like you're in the right place? Or is it there's like an aspirational place where any kind of special nerd wants to be? SARAH: Yeah. So, I guess that's-- I mean, I think that's something that-- I think that that's actually kind of a common question, although may be framed differently, most of the time I get asked it. But when I tell people what I do, they always assume I worked for NASA. And so I think people don't realize that and, I mean, this is true for all of science, but I think it's particularly true for space science. There's lots of different types of places where planetary scientists work. And so a lot of people are obviously employed at NASA centers. Those people, if they're scientists tend to be working on NASA missions all the time, whether that's things that are being developed or things that are currently in flight. But for the most part, that's what those people are doing for most, if not all of their time. There are also people who work at various scientific institutes, which are kind of a similar idea, but they are kind of fully supported by grant money that they have to write proposals for. And again, they're spending most of their time doing science, but not necessarily NASA mission related. So, it could be theoretical, it could be analysis from previous missions, it could be working on other things. And then the rest of us are at colleges and universities and maybe doing research related to current missions or maybe doing other work, but we're also teaching as part of our time. So, in my case at Johns Hopkins, during the school year, I'm supposed to be spending about 30 to 40% of my time teaching, rather than doing science. And so it's just a different way of doing the job because I was interested in teaching. And in that sense, we're teaching both undergrads so I sometimes teach a kind of planets 100 level class for non-science majors who are just interested in knowing more about the solar system. But I also teach graduate students and have my own graduate students who are actively working on research for their PhDs. And so it's just a different type of job. And the fact of the matter is, we're all working together. So, some of my closest collaborators are still at NASA centers, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or since I'm out here in Maryland now at NASA Goddard, which is pretty close by. And so we all kind of work together on various things just depending on what missions are happening and what else is going on in the world. JESSE: Could you divide it is-- Is it possible to divide it in saying NASA is more, we have to figure out how to make things work right now. Whereas you're in a more academic environment, so you have the ability to do that kind of almost like esoteric research that doesn't necessarily have a straight application. I'm thinking about-- I had another guest on, Richard Fineman, who, he just finished his PhD at MIT and he was at NASA working on like increasing the mobility and usability of spacesuits, which is a very functional problem. Like how do we make these more usable when people are inside of them? So, I didn't know if it was as easy as saying, well, if you are at NASA and you're working predominantly on missions, then it's going to be things that are put into use right now versus almost just data collecting I'll call it, it’s obviously more complicated than that, but towards like what you're doing. SARAH: Yeah, it really depends on the person. So, a lot of the scientists work at NASA centers have the same ability to put in research grant proposals that I do. And in fact, we all apply to the same pots of money. And so they can get funding for part of their salary or, I guess, in some cases, all that I think that really happens to work on whatever science questions they want to work on. So, it really just depends on the person's position and their career stage and their interest and stuff like that; what kind of work they're doing there. But certainly, a lot of the scientists that are employed at NASA centers are spending at least a fraction of their time, either working on missions that are currently in development or missions that are currently flying. JESSE: Okay. Before we were at a time I want to ask you about, I'm gonna go off the deep end here. I want to ask you about your Etsy store and what you're doing over here with your artistic side. SARAH: Oh, gosh. Yeah, where do I start? So, about a year and a half ago, about two years ago-- JESSE: I should ask, do you care if I like pull some images and then superimpose them on the video so people can see? SARAH: That's fine. I’m a little nervous about which ones you’re gonna pull though. But it’s fine. So, about two years ago, and I got an email asking if I was interested in participating in this program, here in Baltimore. So, there's a bunch of other universities in Baltimore besides Johns Hopkins. And one of those Universities is called MICA, which is the Maryland Institute College of Arts. And MICA has a joint program with a Research Institute at Hopkins called HEMI, which is the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute. It's a HEMI MICA partnership. And what they're calling the extreme art, which probably sounds a little weird. JESSE: I'm imagining like since you do triathlon, we're like on the bike trying to paint at the same time, or like surfing-- SARAH: ?? 13:33>. I will eventually answer your story-- your question. This is really the answer... So, I had gotten asked if I was interested in participating. And so what happens is the art students from MICA and some of them are undergraduate students, and some of them are masters students if they're interested to apply to this program, which pairs them with a professor at Hopkins who's part of HEMI. And then you just kind of do stuff. So, the program is, I guess at this point it's not that new but basically, the students write a proposal and kind of talk about what they're interested in and what kinds of things they might want to collaborate on. And so you end up with this huge range of things because some of the MICA students are really interested in trying to better understand material science because they're trying to figure out and this is no exaggeration. There was an intern who got the orange peels and like lemon peels and stuff like that, that were leftover from the juicer at Whole Foods. We're trying to figure out how to make them into material that you could then like make into like tables and sculptures and stuff like that. And so they were working with somebody in material science to figure out how to-- because they had been messing around with this in their studio and they were trying to figure out how to really make it into a scientific process so that the material was reproducible, so that it did exactly what they wanted, whatever. So, that's like one type of example of what they did. So, I swear I'm getting there. So, the woman who had applied to work-- who had mentioned that she was interested in working with me, had-- whose name is Amy ?? 15:32> she's amazing. She had, up until that point, been really interested in the microscopic and so a lot of her art had to do with the human body with the interaction of humans with the medical system, so particularly people who have chronic illnesses, those kinds of things. And so she had as she tells the story, and she tells it much better than I do. She had been looking at the HEMI website and there were some people who do that type of stuff and biophysical stuff like that. And so she was “Oh, great, this would be really cool. I can go learn about the research and whatever.” And then she saw the description of what I do. And as far as I can tell, she hadn't ever really been a space nerd before, which is hilarious now because she's such a space dork. But she also was “Oh, well Dr. Hurst’s research looks interesting or whatever.” And for various reasons, I was kind of primed to be interested in working with an artist when I got this email and her work is spectacular. And so, and I tease her about this to this day, because I didn't actually read her application. I never read her application. I scroll down to the portfolio pieces that she had included pictures of at the bottom. And this one piece in particular, I felt like just went like straight to like the depths of my soul. Almost like I could physically feel it and I was just I don't know who this woman is. I don't even really understand what's happening with this program. But I need the person who made this piece of art in my life. And so I responded and asked, and said, I would be interested in meeting with you, if you want to come chat more about my work or whatever. And she came by, and we just like clicked instantly. And so she ended up getting the fellowship and she spent the whole summer just kind of like going back and forth between her studio and hanging out with my research group. So, she would come to my group meeting, she spent a lot of time in the lab asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of background reading. But in the middle of all of this, I swear I'm going to get to the actual story. JESSE: No, we're good there. SARAH: In the middle of all of this, I had also started working with a couple of the other faculty members in my department to participate in a program here in Baltimore City called Thread, which is a program that tries to provide support in lots of different meanings of that word for the students who are the most underperforming at kind of the hardest, I don't even know what the word is that I want to use, but the kind of hardest hit schools in Baltimore City. So, these are the students that are really underperforming in Baltimore City. And the idea of the program is that there's nothing wrong with these kids. It's not because they're lazy, it's not because they don't have what it takes to do well in school; it's just that they don't have the resources, whatever that means to be successful. And so the idea of the program is to help pair them with people who will help them find the things that they need. And they get summer employment through this program. And so we had worked to bring five of them into our department that same summer that Amy was working with me. And so we had these five high school students who didn't know each other and didn't know any of us to come to work in our department for the summer. And I have this panic moment where I'm just this is going to be a catastrophe. Like, they don't know each other, they don't know us, what are we going to do? And so I just texted Amy one day and at this point, her and I had not known each other that long. And I was like, do you have any activities that would be good for like high school-aged kids that would just be like an icebreaker? Something that they could do for like an hour and chat with each other and get to know the people who are trying to facilitate. And I think she said no when I first asked. And then I think a little bit later, she texted me and she said, “Well, actually I do this thing where you can make these coasters using alcohol inks. The materials are pretty cheap, like anybody can do it. That might be fun. And at that point, I feel like I was so desperate for anything that sounded like it might be fun that I was just sold, let's do it. And so the first or second day that we had the kids there, Amy sat down and taught them how to do this, and it's super fun. So, I was just oh, this is really cool like whatever. And so I kind of bought my own and started experimenting with them. And I would text me like the pictures of the first couple ones I made. And she was like, “Sarah, these are really good.” And I'm like, “You're just telling me that because you like me.” And she's like, “No, they're really good.” And then I posted a couple of them on Twitter. And everybody was like “Oh my gosh, are you gonna sell these?” And I was like, “No.” And then ?? 20:39> are you gonna sell these and I was like “No.” And then between Amy pressuring me and Twitter pressuring me, I finally decided to like open an Etsy store and ended up selling a lot of them which was cool. I find making it really relaxing, and so that was kind of nice because it was like this relaxing endeavor for me like this creative outlet, but then I could sell them to people. So, that was how that happened. I realized that it’s a really long story but ?? 21:11> is important. JESSE: Well, I asked the question. It’s really open-ended. And so it could be anything from the story you told to, oh, they look pretty and I did art in high school. There's no idea what the story is going to be. SARAH: I like the story because-- And Amy and I like to tell it because when we talk about the program, and when people ask about the internship program, they often will ask Amy what she got out of spending time with us and with me, and with our collaboration. And I think a lot of people really get the feeling that that program was set up as kind of like a one way, knowledge transfer or experience or whatever. And first of all, I just don't think that's true in general of the experience that people are having in doing this. I think there's a lot of amazing synergies between artists and scientists and engineers. But I like our example because we have a very concrete story that we can tell. No, it actually went both ways because now Amy, like taught me how to do this stuff and like now I make art also. Anyway. JESSE: No, it's a great story ?? 22:24> think about this isn't to like toot my own horn. But I have a lot of very-- I did art in high school and I play the violin and I played in a local Symphony. And my undergrad is in theoretical math, and there's a lot of links between all of these things that when you only spend time in one field, you don't see them. So, I totally understand people saying oh, knowledge is only going one direction or like only one person is going to get something out of this. But there's so many other-- My last guest and I were talking about this too, like quantitative and qualitative things that you get out of there where you can't always measure specifically, this is what I got out of it. But there's a lot of qualitative things you can get out of a new relationship or experiences that helped shape you and change what you're doing, and it's hard to explain that to people. So, I totally get why you're like we have a concrete example for those people that don't like or want qualitative data; we have a specific example of what happened in this kind of collaboration. SARAH: Yeah, yeah, for sure. JESSE: So, we run a little bit over time, so I'll try to be sensitive of the time for you. Where can people find you if they want to kind of keep up with your work, see your Etsy shop maybe, see what's going on with you? SARAH: I exist mostly on Twitter. So, I'm @PlanetDr., but it's just Planet D-R, doctor is not spelled out all the way. There you can find I think a link to both my professional website and my Etsy store. That’s the only like public-facing social media I have. So, people are always like “What's your Instagram?” And I'm like “I think I'm too old for Instagram.” I don't know. There's all these new things I don't even-- TikTok-- I don't even know what these other things are. So, if you try to find me anywhere else, you will fail. But I'm on Twitter, very actively, and that I think has links to all of the other places where one could go about finding me. JESSE: Okay. If I remember, I will put-- At least if you're on YouTube, I will try to put a link to Sarah's ResearchGate in case you want to look at that as well. I try to publish those when they are possible to be linked to. SARAH: Yeah, that's great. JESSE: Well, thanks for coming on and talking to me today, Sarah. SARAH: Awesome. Thanks for having me. Go to Part 1 Go to Part 2

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