Courtesy Photo

The Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth.

Courtesy Photo

NMSU alumnus Brandon Lawton by a model of the telescope.

Courtesy Photo

The planet, Saturn, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Launching a Career

NMSU Astronomy graduate joins NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute
By Hamid M. Rad

Working with the Hubble Space Telescope as it keeps an eye on the outer reaches of space, a recent New Mexico State University graduate is learning that his attitude of never giving up is helping make his career dreams become a reality.

Brandon Lawton, from NMSU’s Department of Astronomy, successfully defended his dissertation in July. Lawton’s research was on the evolution and presence of organic molecules in early epoch galaxies, expertise he took with him when he began working at NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

The institute is home of science program selection, grant administration, planning, scheduling and public outreach activities for the Hubble Space Telescope, certainly a dream come true career move for any astronomer. In landing such an exciting position, Lawton says the best advice he ever received is, “It’s not always the most gifted person that succeeds, but instead the most tenacious, i.e., don’t give up!”

Lawton became interested in astronomy at a young age. His brother, Brett, introduced him to science fiction shows such as “Star Trek,” and some neighbors allowed him to look through their telescope into the dark skies above his boyhood home in Washington.

“Once I saw Jupiter and Saturn with my own eyes, I was hooked,” Lawton said. “My parents encouraged my studies in physics and astronomy, and I owe a great deal to them for their support and encouragement.”

Lawton’s undergraduate adviser at the University of Washington, Dr. Paula Szkody, encouraged him to consider NMSU for his graduate studies because of the quality of the program and the access NMSU has to telescopes, such as the 3.5-meter telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, both at Apache Point Observatory, in the Sacramento Mountains. He was accepted in the program in 2002, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. because of his love of the pursuit of new knowledge and being at the forefront of discovery.

“I also really enjoy teaching the subject and discussing it with anybody who has the slightest interest in astronomy,” Lawton said.

Lawton’s research interests include “organic molecules in other galaxies and the interstellar medium of galaxies.” He explains that galaxies are composed of stars, planets, gas, dust, and even an exotic material known as dark matter.

“To understand how humans, or life in general, can exist in the Milky Way galaxy, or the Universe in general, it is important to learn how the constituents that were important for our existence arose in the Universe,” Lawton said. “Organic molecules (molecules with an abundance of carbon), are considered a crucial ingredient in the prebiotic soup that later gave rise to biological molecules such as RNA and DNA. The step from prebiotic soup to life is still not understood, but much is being learned thanks to the recent crossover of subfields that has given rise to new fields such as astrochemistry and astrobiology.

“Much of the organics on the early Earth were formed in space, thus, the interstellar medium (the space between stars) has the seeds of life in abundance,” Lawton said. “My Ph.D. focused on other galaxies to see if these same organics were in abundance, or if our galaxy was somehow special. Interestingly, the answer to that question depends on the galaxy. Galaxies that are experiencing massive star formation appear to have these organics in relative abundance. However, more dust-poor and likely primordial galaxies do not show the tell-tale signs of organics. Further work in this field will examine how the abundances of organics have changed with cosmic time. It may be that we are living in a period of time where organics are finally prevalent enough in the Universe such that life of some form is more common.”

Lawton gives a lot of credit to the faculty at NMSU’s Department of Astronomy, who he describes as “wonderful and personable.”

“They are always willing to share ideas,” Lawton said. “The recent success of many of the graduates from our department attests to the strengths of the astronomy department at NMSU.”

In addition to the resources in the department, Lawton’s project received some support from a NASA fellowship and the New Mexico Space Grant.

“Without those fellowships, it would have been much more difficult to complete this work,” Lawton said. “The astronomy department has a lot of room to grow and become a premier astronomy institution. However, this greatly depends on continued funding from the university, particularly in continuing our activities with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and other telescopes at Apache Point Observatory, as well as securing funding for solar astronomy.”

Lawton’s NMSU adviser was Christopher W. Churchill.

“He was instrumental in my success and helped a great deal in getting me a good postdoctoral position,” Lawton said. “There are many great professors in our department and each one contributes a great deal to our success in extragalactic, stellar, and planetary astronomy.”

During his time at NMSU, Lawton was able to travel internationally.

“One of the great joys of doing research is to be able to share your work with others across the globe,” he said. “I have secured travel funding to present my work in China, Puerto Rico, the U.K., as well as many places around the U.S. I have truly learned a great deal about astronomy and other cultures from these trips.”

The NMSU astronomy department has been very successful in getting graduates out to study and present their work abroad, Lawton said. Other graduates in the department have recently traveled to India, Germany, Australia, Portugal, Israel, Greece, Italy, Chile, France and Puerto Rico, he said.

“These trips are sometimes paid for by grants through the adviser, or in my case, through travel grants, the NASA fellowship, and the NMSU Space Grant Consortium,” Lawton said. He also received the NASA Graduate Student Research Program (GSRP) by writing a comprehensive research proposal and applying directly to NASA.

“It is a competitive fellowship, but our department has done well in securing it,” Lawton said. Past NMSU astronomy recipients are Melinda Khare and Carrie Anderson. Recently, Sean Lindsay was awarded the NASA GSRP fellowship.

“For students who might be interested in pursuing a career in astronomy, I would suggest several things,” Lawton said. “Be sure to take as many physics courses as possible, and try to put a good effort in doing well. As with many other sciences, understanding astronomy is dependent on understanding physics. But don’t be scared by that; physics isn’t supposed to be easy, but it is interesting.

“Also, I would encourage students to get to know a professor in the department and see if there are any small projects they can work on with that professor,” he said. “This is a great hands-on way to get to know how astronomy is actually done. I would certainly recommend graduate studies at NMSU. Not only are the professors great to work with, but we have access to great telescopes and clear skies. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Turning that educational experience into a career path is up to the individual, Lawton said.

“Every student takes their own path,” he said. “If a career in research is important, though, my advice is to travel to conferences and make as many connections outside of NMSU as possible. As with any endeavor, building personal relationships with important people in your field can be crucial to securing a good job after graduating.”