Astronomer Directs Huge Mobile Telescope
Karen O’Neil, NRAO site director for the Green Bank Observatory.
Credit: Bill Saxton/NRAO

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Karen O’Neil is the assistant director for operations at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope facility in Green Bank, W.V. The telescope, part of NSF’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is one of the world’s largest mobile structures, with a dish 110 meters across at its longest dimension and a mass of more than 7.7 million kilograms. O’Neil oversees a facility that makes numerous astronomical breakthroughs every year, from discovering pulsars to detecting molecules that may point to the origins of life. Recently, Karen and her team helped the West Virginia National Guard rescue one of their own after a Blackhawk helicopter crashed near the facility (see the full story here), but below Karen focuses on science with her answers to the ScienceLives ten questions.

Name: Karen O’Neil
Age: 41
Institution: National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Field of Study: Astrophysics 

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
I have always been fascinated with the why and how of most everything. I was initially drawn to working in physics and mathematics as these subjects are the primary foundation for all scientific phenomena. Yet the more I studied these two fields the more I realized my fascination was not with the details of how things work as the broader question of why the Universe looks, and behaves, as it does. Telescope images of the planets and other galaxies are both beautiful and fascinating to me, leading me to wonder why: Why do galaxies have swirls and bubbles in their gas and dust? How do stars go supernovae? Why does the sun flare? And the more I learned about galaxies and stars the more the field of astrophysics fascinated me, drawing me in until I finally moved all my studies and subsequent research into the field of astrophysics. 

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
While I have received much good advice over my lifetime, the best advice I have ever gotten as a researcher came from Mark Twain, who once remarked: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, ‘I don't know.’” To me that is the essence of good science, and a good scientist – to be able to admit you don’t understand something, whether it is a concept, and instrument, or piece of data, and then to go and search for the answer. Sometimes the answer comes readily through a book or a colleague, and it adds to the scientist’s overall understanding of her science. Far more often the answer is not easy to find, and that search for the answer is what makes science exciting. My own willingness to admit I do not know or understand something has led to many fascinating conversations and has brought me to a far deeper understanding of the science and scientific experiments I run than I otherwise would ever have obtained. 

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
While I am sure there were many experiments I undertook as a child, the one which sticks out the most in my mind is when I discovered a box of old electrical parts in the garage – motors, light sockets, and even a few AC power plugs. I have no idea of my father’s intent with the box and its components, but I was just old enough to grasp the basic concepts of electricity, without being old enough to understand its inherent danger. As a result, after a few days of playing around with connecting batteries to the various pieces and making lights light up and resisters heat up, I determined that the motor, by far the most exciting find in the box, needed an AC source, and the wall socket was the obvious choice. I recall carefully (I thought) wiring my circuit together, climbing up onto the workbench, and reaching up to plug the motor into the wall. At this point there is a blank in my memory, but when I woke up on the floor of the garage my brother (who had come running outside when he heard the noise) assured me my experiment had failed but that the bang was quite impressive. Far from discouraging me from experimenting in the future, the lessons I learned from this are (1) be sure to understand all your equipment before you run your experiment, and (2) when my parents tell me that something is dangerous, it likely really is. 

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?
The best part of being a researcher is that I am allowed to not just ask the question “why?” but I am given the time to try and answer it. It is truly amazing that I am allowed the opportunity to explore new ideas and follow paths of thought on my own, without having that research path directed by another person. As a result, when I am working on some new problem in astronomy and I come upon something I do not understand, being a researcher gives me the time and resources to investigate that question until it is answered to my satisfaction. There are very few jobs in the world which allow this level of intellectual freedom and flexibility and it is the part of my job which I value the most. 

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?
Without a strong sense of curiosity a researcher will never venture far enough into the unknown to make new and exciting discoveries in science. Curiosity is what causes someone to go beyond just the facts into trying to understand why the facts appear as they are. Einstein’s curiosity led him to wonder why gravity only applied to solid objects (which, he discovered, it does not). Curiosity also led Jocelyn Bell to wonder why her data had funny bumps in it, leading to the discovery of pulsars, very dense rotating stars, and opening up an entirely new branch of astrophysics. When combined with a high amount of perseverance, and enough humility to listen to the other experts within a given scientific field, curiosity will turn a good researcher into a great one. 

What are the societal benefits of your research?
The greatest benefit of astronomy is the sense of wonder it instills within almost everyone. Astronomy is a subject which many people understand, and the big concepts and discoveries in astronomy touch upon a sense of curiosity first installed when, as a child, someone first looked up at the stars and began to wonder about our place in the Universe. Because of this, astronomy is often the science which brings people into science and scientific research and is also the science which most often can reignite the public’s interest in all scientific research. On a more practical side, astronomy has taught us many things about who we are and how the Universe began, planets and stars formed, and even how life began. It is a science which looks at, and tries to answer, some of the most fundamental questions that most people ask. 

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?
To me the most amazing facet of astronomy is how interconnected with all other fields of science it is. Typically when someone thinks about astronomy they think about learning more about their place in the Universe, or how stars form and evolve. But astronomy is about so much more, and helps answer such basic questions as: How did the earth and other planets form? How does gravity work? Where did the sun come from? How did life start?  It is this wide breadth of topics which are all touched by, and dependent upon, astronomy that is the most surprising to many people. 

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
My laptop, which contains all of the most important projects I am currently working on, as well as copies of much of my reduced data. If I could rescue two things, it would be my laptop and my drawer filled with data tapes, disks, and other media which hold my observing data from observatories all over the world. If the data in that drawer were lost, it could not be replaced. 

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
I live near, and work at, the National Radio Astronomy’s Green Bank Observatory. The Green Bank Observatory resides within the National Radio Quiet Zone, a roughly 13,000 square mile zone centered near the West Virginia-Virginia border. The goal of this zone is to ensure manmade radio signals do not interfere with the science observations at the observatory. As a result, radio stations in the area are (almost) nonexistent. There is one local am station (Allegheny Mountain Radio - which plays a very wide variety of music, from opera through country, bluegrass, and Rock and Roll, as well as local and regional news and information, and I enjoy listening to this musical mix. If, though, I need to block out ambient noise and yet am doing work which does not need 100% of my concentration, the Rolling Stones, CCR, and all the other “classics” always help out. 

Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.