Interview with Dr. Miriam Rengel: Identify professional and personal goals, monitor them and work hard to reach them!
Dr. Miriam Rengel is an astrophysicist with a wide range of topical interests. She studies solar system objects at the far-IR and submm wavelengths (planetary atmospheres and small bodies), protostars and young stellar objects. She also conducts space based observations and related science on instruments onboard the Herschel Space Observatory, and sub-millimeter ground-based observations. She is involved in two key Herschel programs called “Water and related Chemistry in the Solar System” and “TNOs are Cool“.
She is also a collaborating scientist at the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI) Instrument Control Center (ICC), for the HIFI onboard the Herschel Space Observatory. In addition to conducting research, she also participates in the preparation and data analysis focused on HIFI calibration (responsibilities include test software campaigns, creation and maintenance of documentation for astronomers, and investigations of quality assessment of final products with HIFI). During 2005-2007 she applied her capacities and skills for cometary studies with the OSIRIS instrument onboard Rosetta (which has just successfully placed a lander on a comet for the first time), that also included calibration activities. She has led several observational programs in world-wide facilities (e.g. IRAM30m, APEX, SMT, SEST, JCMT, SMA). She has participated in observing runs at the 2-m Schmidt telescope at the TLS Landessternwarte Tautenburg (Germany), at the 1‐m Schmidt telescope at the Venezuelan National Astronomical Observatory, and in the 2.2m telescope on Calar Alto, Spain.
Check out Miriam’s website, where you can find more information about her work and pictures of some of the many telescopes she has worked at ☺.
Rengel, M.; Sagawa, H.; Hartogh, P.; Lellouch, E.; Feuchtgruber, H.; Moreno, R.; Jarchow, C.; Courtin , R.; Cernicharo, J.; Lara, L. M. Herschel/PACS spectroscopy of trace gases of the stratosphere of Titan, 2014, A&A 561, A4.
Hartogh, D. C. Lis, D. Bockelée-Morvan, M. de Val-Borro, N. Biver, M. Küppers, M. Emprechtinger, E. A. Bergin, J. Crovisier, M. Rengel, R. Moreno, S. Szutowicz, and G. A. Blake, Ocean-like water in the Jupiter-family comet 103P/Hartley 2, Nature, 478, 218–220, doi:10.1038/nature10519, 2011.
Rengel, P. Hartogh, C. Jarchow. Mesospheric vertical thermal structure and winds on Venus rom HHSMT CO spectral-line Observations, 2008, Planetary and Space Science, Volume 56, Issue 10, Ground-based and Venus Express Coordinated Campaign, Ground-based and Venus Express Coordinated Campaign, August 2008, Pages 1368-1384.
How did you first become interested in astronomy or planetary science?
I became interested in astronomy, astrophysics and planetary science when I was a child. During the sunsets, I was lying on the lawn of our garden of my parent’s house to watch the sunset, and also the planets and stars at night. I also gained admiration for astronomy each time that we visited our grandmother during the vacations in the Venezuelan Andes (Mérida). During the trip (by car and plane), I was gazing at the domes of the Llano del Hato National Astronomical Observatory, I was dreaming of watching and studying celestial objects that I could not see with naked eyes. Then during the high-school I visited planetariums, and observatories, and was reading books on astronomy. Also parental and family influence contributed in guiding me to a career in science and technology. I became then convinced in pursuing science as a career. Meanwhile medicine was also one of my interests, but astronomy finally won. Then I did my graduate studies in physics at the Universidad Simón Bolívar (Caracas), my Master of Science in Fundamental Physics at the Universidad de los Andes and Centro de Investigaciones de Astronomía “Francisco J. Duarte” (CIDA) (Mérida), and my PhD in Astrophysics (Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg and Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena).
What has your career path been like since graduating with your PhD, and/or how did you choose your current institution? How did you become involved in spacecraft missions like Rosetta?
After my PhD in Astrophysics at the Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg and Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany), I accepted an invitation to visit the European Sourthern Observatory in Garching for a few months to continue working in star formation. I loved the project, the research environment and the discussions with the colleagues and project advisor. Afterwards I searched for challenges and I applied for a position at the Institute Max Planck of Investigations of the Solar System (MPS), (in that time placed in Katlenburg-Lindau) to work on OSIRIS/Rosetta and observations during the Deep Impact Mission. I was so happy to be selected for this project, and won experience in space missions. Afterwards I received an invitation to join the Herschel Space Observatory as calibration scientist and researcher, the MPS contributed to the development of one of the instruments onboard, with the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI).
Is there anything you wish you had negotiated for with your current position? (or are happy you did negotiate for!)
When you are involved in big consortia, it is usual to predefine roles, research topics and leading tasks/publications before the observational data arrives. Although I have been happy with the development of this process with the research projects, I would have wished to obtain more data for my own first author publications ☺. During the contract phase, I was very happy to have negociated my package.
What is your favorite telescope or what was your favorite observation run so far?
Every telescope is special for me, and I have always enjoyed observing. If I have to choose a space-based one, I would select Herschel, with its 3.5-m-diameter telescope (the largest infrared-submm telescope in space) with three scientific instruments on board, it has been the only space facility ever developed to fully cover these parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Between the ground-based facilities, I particularly remember the observational runs with the 1-m Schmidt telescope at Llano del Hato National Astronomical Observatory in Venezuela. It is 3600 meters above sea level, and has access to most parts of both the northern and southern skies. Between time to time Condors were seen between the Andean mountains.
You are involved in a fair number of different projects! How do you balance working on different projects that likely all have high demands on your time? And/or how do you find time for your priorities outside of work?
Sometimes it has been difficult balancing work and outside activities, specially when multiple deadlines come closer and closer, and when I am in a phase of pushing ahead my career. However, during holidays I try to relax and enjoy life. I also prioritize the different tasks concerning the projects, which helps.
Do you have any advice for students and post-docs just starting their career in space science?
Yes, my advice in general is identify the professional and personal goals, monitor them and work hard to reach them. They can evolve or change over time, in such cases re-identify them. A part of doing good research and learning or improving skills, is to be extremely curious and have the desire of to explore the world around us. The latter will not guarantee jobs, but at least will keep you highly motivated in life no matter whether you pursue your career in academy, industry or somewhere else. One of the issues that I have taken advantage of along the way to my current position has been perseverance, so I would recommend this strongly to the younger generation.
Thank you for this wonderful interview Miriam, and for sharing some of your strategies for success.