Skip to main content

Timothy Beers on Being an Astrophysicist

Timothy Beers, astrophysicist. Courtesy of Michigan State University

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: Timothy Beers Age: 51 Institution: Michigan State University, Department of Physics and Astronomy Field of Study: Galactic Astronomy, Nuclear Astrophysics

What inspired you to choose this field of study? As a graduate student, I was actually planning to research a different area of astrophysics, but when I became a post-doc at Caltech, I got involved in a survey for the most metal-poor stars known in the Galaxy. My involvement began because I was just getting to know some software that I anticipated using. It happened that the project I was practicing on was a set of unreduced spectroscopic data from the stellar survey. I ended up discovering some of the most metal-poor stars then known, just from this practice data, and I decided that it would be interesting to stay in this field.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Always try to look ahead, and anticipate the direction your research is going, so you are prepared when opportunities arise.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I remember playing with helium balloons, seeing that not everything drops to the ground when you throw it, and wondering, why is that?

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? The opportunity to work with very smart people. From my desk in Michigan, I can talk or write to researchers all over the world who are trying to answer the same questions that interest me. Of course, this often involves travel as well.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Scientists must be good communicators. If you look at the most successful scientists in any area, they’re the ones who can tell a compelling story about the research they do.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Human beings have an innate curiosity about origins. In the case of my research, although societal benefits are difficult to gauge, it is the chance to deeply explore the most fundamental processes involved in the production of the elements, the first step in how humans came to be.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My graduate advisor, Margaret Geller, currently at the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I was her first graduate student, and we still meet up occasionally, sometimes to discuss the same problems we discussed back then! She has always provided an inspiration to me, and taught me what it means to be a scientist.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? I do a huge amount of travel. Many, many days out of the year, I’m working at a telescope site or visiting collaborators at other institutions.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My computer – just like anyone else!

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I love satellite radio. When it became available, I was one of the first people to sign up, and now I listen to it all the time.

This researcher is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.