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Home > July 2017 > Meet a Scientist: Jason Kalirai
Meet a Scientist: Jason Kalirai
Posted: 7/28/2017 8:04:44 AM

James WebbThe Museum's new Meet a Scientist series celebrates leading scientists in their fields. In our first interview, we chatted with Dr. Jason Kalirai, multi-mission project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He’s currently working on NASA’s next “super telescope,” the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in October 2018. Jason explained who and what inspired his career in astrophysics, described next steps for the James Webb Space Telescope after its launch into solar orbit and answered the age-old question Star Trek or Star Wars? Read the interview below.

Attend Jason’s discussion about the James Webb Space Telescope on August 6 at our Space & Science Festival. Click here for the full schedule.
IM: Wow, you’re an astrophysicist! How did you get involved in your field?

JK: I grew up in a small town in the middle of British Columbia, Canada, called Quesnel. The setting was awesome for looking at the night sky. I remember being curious at a young age about the scale of the universe. I wondered if the stars that I was looking at from my backyard were just the nearby things (like the houses in my neighborhood relative to Quesnel) or if I was seeing an appreciable part of the universe. Well, you can get answers to these questions quickly, but space is so complex that those answers just beg more questions. So I was hooked and never looked back. I was introduced to physics in high school and was very excited to apply math and physics to understand the universe. One day, I realized that there is a field of science called astrophysics. It was perfect.

IM: What other scientists have been influential to you and your career?

JK: My high school physics teacher, Mr. Blais, was actually an astronomer. He did a great job of teaching us physics through astronomical examples. He took my interest in space to a new level. When I entered university, my first year astronomy lecturer, Dr. Jaymie Matthews, was amazing. His passion for the field and science communication was infectious, and he convinced me that I needed to delve further into astrophysics. I met Dr. Harvey Richer, a professor at UBC, when I started doing research. He mentored me for many years and introduced me to some of the biggest problems that face us in our understanding of how stars evolve. Together, we've solved a lot of those problems, but we continue to push new limits with state-of-the-art experiments using the most powerful telescopes that exist. I also worked with other scientists throughout my career, such as Raja Guhathakurta at UC Santa Cruz, who supported and helped me grow my research program. When I started working at the Space Telescope Science Institute, I met our director, Matt Mountain, who introduced me to a whole new angle about astrophysics. He taught me how science actually works on a national and international level. I found the politics and funding behind the field to be fascinating, especially in the U.S. system.

IM: You’re currently working on the James Webb Space Telescope. What is the first project for JWST once it’s launched in October 2018?

JK: NASA's flagship Great Observatories like Hubble and JWST operate with an "open sky"James Webb policy. That means that anybody in the world can write a proposal to use the telescope, and a committee of scientists will evaluate and rank all of the proposals on a level playing field and select the most interesting ideas. This process repeats every year. So, the first project of JWST will depend on what the most creative and interesting ideas are from our international community. It could be an observation of an Earth-like exoplanet, a study of a very distant and rare galaxy, a new image of one of the moons of our solar system or a big survey of some unexplored part of the Milky Way galaxy. We simply don't know yet. Early next year, the first committee to evaluate ideas for JWST will meet and decide what the first targets will be. We'll then schedule those observations, and the teams leading those investigations will begin preparing to analyze the data they are about to collect.

IM: Describe the James Webb Space Telescope in three words.

JK: Bold space exploration.

IM: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?


JK: Both! I was a huge fan of Star Trek because of the Enterprise's central goal "to explore strange new worlds" and "seek out new life and civilizations.” This science fiction is exactly what we are trying to do now with bold space telescopes—they are our deepest space exploration vehicles. I also loved the diversity of planets and civilizations that Star Trek introduced us to, while retaining threads on how special humans are. A good example is Data, the android in The Next Generation. Data had everything that most kids might want at a young age, yet he was always incomplete and longed to be human so he can feel emotion. I was (and remain) a huge fan of Star Wars for different reasons. Star Wars introduced us to a universe that had many hidden aspects (e.g., the "Force"). This goes back to the complexity of space and our lack of knowledge of what is out there and how it all works together. Even today, we throw around terms like "dark matter" and "dark energy" to explain a large part of the universe's matter and energy. This simply reflects our ignorance of the universe's makeup.

Do you have questions for Jason? Meet him in person on August 6 at our
Space & Science Festival. View the full schedule here.