A Beer Spectrometer and Other Adventures: Mailani Neal on Being an Instrument Scientist in Astronomy

Instrument scientists thrive on engineering and technology. Cherished characters from sci-fi might come to mind: Scotty. Geordi. B’Elanna. Kaylee.

Add Mailani Neal to the list. A graduate student at New Mexico Tech, Mailani is working toward a PhD that will advance her to her goal of becoming an instrument scientist. She reflects that “it’s very ill-known that astronomy has an engineering cohort, the third group of astronomers, the instrumentation scientists.” Fortunately, this group of astronomers exists; they upgrade and maintain the technology that makes observational and experimental science possible.

Instrument scientists also create new technologies that foster revolutionary science by enabling completely new discoveries, such as when radar engineers turned their instruments to point peacefully at the sky after World War II, and unintentionally birthed the science of radio astronomy. Furthermore, the tools they create bring about benefits outside of their intended use. Technologies used in astronomical interferometry led the MRI. The CCD, developed in the 1970s for astronomy, made digital cameras possible. Advancements in adaptive optics in astronomy assist ophthalmologists in diagnosing retinal damage.

The Young Engineer

Mailani’s interest in gadgets began when she was quite young, growing up in Kona. Her father, a meteorologist, would build machines to do things like measure wind speed. She remembers spending hours in his workshop when she was a child: “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, but I was holding tools and doing things with my hands. And I think that’s honestly what started me to want to fidget with my hands all the time.”

She developed that interest with her first electronics class in high school, building simple circuits and constructing robots that could be programmed to move. Later, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Mailani pursued her dual interests in astronomy (with which she had been captivated since the fourth grade) and engineering.

At that time, she began to discern a division of labor within astronomy. There can be overlap, but in general there are engineers. There are theoreticians. And there are observers, who—despite what you might have seen or read—are not lone individuals on a mountaintop peering through a telescope eyepiece. Observational astronomers spend weeks on a computer processing massive amounts of a telescope’s data to compose a final representation, where the data are combined, and instrumental and atmospheric effects are removed. This process is known as data reduction.

how astronomical observations are NOT done
It tickles the imagination, but this is not how professional observational astronomy is done any more!

One of Mailani’s first internships was with the University of California-Irvine, reducing data on gravitationally-lensed objects. The experience was tremendously useful as an introduction to observational astronomy and coding, but ultimately, she understood that a different career path was in her future. Her baseline is: “I like being on-site.”

“I realized after my first summer as an intern at EAO [the East Asian Observatory], that I liked to be in on the action of getting the whole telescope to work, day in and day out. And that also introduced me to the notion of instrumentation, that there are actually astronomers who are focused on what we use to collect all the little photons. And I’ve gone deeper into the field of instrumentation; it’s really artistic!

“I’ve had experience seeing a few instruments and projects, and it takes so much creativity to be able to have visions of what an instrument can do, and even on just the daily regimen of maintaining an instrument: you have to be very in-tune with the instrument. It’s funny, because I hear some of the instrumentation scientists talk about their instrument like it’s a dear pet, or their child; this is who they’re caring for. They’ll use words like, ‘Yeah, the instrument said this,’ and ‘I was talking to it about that.‘”

The Beer Spectrometer

Mailani's beer spectrometer and samples
(Above) Mailani’s beer spectrometer, hooked up and ready to run. (Below) samples prepared to be used with the spectrometer. photos courtesy of Mailani Neal

Her first year of graduate school, Mailani’s training wheels came off. In a class taught by four engineering scientists representing different aspects of physics, each student was assigned their own semester-long project.

“This is the first instrument I ever built: a beer spectrometer. I think it is forever going to be my hardest instrument project because my hand was not held along the way; I didn’t have my professor or my advisor saying, ‘Oh, here, do this,’ or ‘Take this and try that.’ It was really: this what you need to do, this is the type of data you need to collect. And this is when it is due.”

After a month of scribbling on paper, she realized she needed to do what she knew: start building. “I’m just going to start at one spot, take a step and see if it works. Take another step and see if that works. Maybe go back two steps if it doesn’t work.” She had to understand every minuscule aspect of her technology. “I had to learn what it liked, what it didn’t like. It became my little child; I had to carry it around with me to make sure it wouldn’t get bent or broken. I had to solder it seven times.” Although challenging, it reawakened her joy of playing in her father’s workshop. “And I got to learn more about beer, so that was interesting.”

Current Projects

Mailani now works with the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer (MROI), which is in the process of being built. It’s an exciting time to be involved with this instrument, because many of its aspects are not locked down and there is room for experimental thought.

An interferometer is two or more telescopes observing the same object simultaneously, effectively performing as a single telescope. The MROI is 10 telescopes, one at the center, with three outward legs of three telescopes each. “When I got to New Mexico Tech, I didn’t really know what interferometry was at all, and then I got thrown to the sharks about it. The department there loves interferometry: the atmospheric, lightning, and astronomy groups all use interferometry.”

examples of astronomical interferometers around the world
Examples of interferometers (clockwise from upper left): the first radio interferometer built in 1946 at Dover Heights in Australia using radar equipment left over from World War II; ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, contains 66 telescopes in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile; the VLA (Very Large Array), which played a role in the movie Contact, is composed of 27 antennas and located in the Plains of San Agustin in New Mexico, northwest of Socorro; and the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array), involves 10 telescopes across the northern hemisphere from Hawai‘i to the Virgin Islands.

Mailani now focuses on atmospheric dispersion, and tools and techniques to correct for the atmospheric effects. All ground-based telescopes must observe through the Earth’s atmosphere, and things like passing clouds and shifting air temperatures add effects to the data. It’s like trying to make out the features of someone’s face from across a firepit through an undulating smoky haze. Fortunately, our brains automatically take over the task of separating signal (facial features) from intervening turbulence (smoke). In astronomy, something else has to perform that role, and this is part of the intensive process of data reducing.

If technology can detect and adjust for atmospheric disturbances as the data is collected (a process known as adaptive optics), then we can—on the ground—achieve astronomical observations as clear as space telescopes. And at a fraction of the time and expense of either a space-based telescope, or a ground-based telescope without adaptive optics. This is a major trend in astronomical research now, used at many observatories, such as Keck, Lick, Kitt Peak, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

This summer Mailani helped commission a new instrument with the JCMT. (Commissioning means testing to ensure that an instrument works as it’s designed to perform, and that it provides reliable data.) “The JCMT is commissioning a new instrument called Nāmakanui, which is really cool because, I believe, it is the first Hawaiian-named instrument on the mountain. Nāmakanui is referring to the family of fish with very big eyes and this name was given by Larry Kimura because this instrument has three receivers that are looking at darker wavelengths, so the receivers on it are named `Ū`ū [Soldierfish], Āweoweo [Big Eye], and `Ala`ihi [Squirrelfish].”

The Nāmakanui instrument, and the big-eyed fish that inspired the receivers' names.
(Above) The fish ‘Ū‘ū, ‘Ala‘ihi, and ‘Āweoweo. photos provided by L. Kimura (Below) The three receivers, with their names identified, inside Nāmakanui. photo from EAO on Twitter

Other Thoughts on Being an Instrument Scientist, and Astronomy in General

Within the field of instrument science, there are people whose priority is to maintain and upgrade existing technologies; others favor research and developing new technologies altogether. Mailani counts herself as part of the first group.

“I’m probably much more into the maintenance aspect. I have a lot of friends who are electrical engineers at companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing; they’re incredible electrical engineers who know how to tackle problems with no solution in sight. But for me, I’m very much more routine person: going in, doing the same routines over and over again is much more my style. Maybe more of a tenacious approach to work is what I appreciate. I do think there’s also a creative side to maintenance: there’s always things at EAO they’re looking to improve with whatever they have in the observatory, which is sometimes really fun.”

As an instrument scientist, Mailani values that she can communicate effortlessly with her engineering friends about their projects, even if they pursue different studies or careers. This ease of communication signals additional benefit should Mailani choose to transfer to a different field later. “What I find remarkable about instrumentation science, is that it is so transferable. I’m able to talk with one of my best friends who does work on lightning physics, because he does instrumentation for lightning physics. And we’re able to compare our research, and I’m able to ask him questions like, ‘If this is how that works, then how are you able to process that to indicate this?’ when he’s showing me his graphs and whatnot.

“If I wanted to go from being an instrument scientist in astronomy to something like renewable energy, it wouldn’t be a crazy jump and I’d be able to really immerse myself in the field because I’d be very much trained and capable with electronics and data processing, as well as some knowledge on structural engineering, things like this. All fields are really intertwined through instrumentation. And I find that exciting.”

But she hopes to remain with astronomy. “I believe that astronomy is a field where it all [community, culture, technology, scientific theory] really does work together. A lot of people think that astronomers are cold computer robots or something. But all of the astronomers that I’ve met have been such vibrant and free-spirited people, that really holds true to the spirit of astronomy.”

She is also proud about the EAO’s pledge for equality, which promised to have a 50/50 ratio of men to women in their institution by 2020, and they did. “And not just by putting women on the administrative side and men as engineers. There’s women engineers, women astronomers, women telescope operators. Astronomy is great.”

telescopes using sodium lasers for adaptive optics
Examples of adaptive optics at work at the European Southern Observatory (ESO, left) and the Subaru, Keck, and Gemini North telescopes on Mauna Kea (right). The sodium lasers create a “guide star” near the target astronomers seek to observe. The laser excites a layer high in the Earth’s atmosphere which then glows, and sends information about the state of atmospheric turbulence which would otherwise blur details in the image astronomers wish to see. Removing these atmospheric effects in real time allows observations from the ground that can be as good as observations performed in space. photos by ESO/Y. Beletsky (left), Tetsuharu Fuse (right)

For more information:


A Clear, Short Video Explaining Adaptive Optics

Astronomical Interferometry & the MRI

Adaptive Optics and Ophthalmology

Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer

Adaptive Optics with the IfA

Nāmakanui Commissioning

Larry Kimura Names New Telescope Instrument Nāmakanui

Tell Us What You Think

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