The Space Connection

Be Like Bouman

Jan. 17, 2020

I was one of those fortunate enough to get a seat at a Janurary Astronomy Department seminar, given by Dr. Katie Bouman. She is the person that came up with the signal processing algorithm to achieve the final step of clarity with the data to make the first image of a black hole’s light shadow. She gave an outstanding presentation on the multi-year process that the 100+ members of the Event Horizon Team Collaboration undertook to go from their telescope data across the planet to the final image and new science results. At the end of her talk, she gave glimpses of the continuing advancements that she and the rest of this team are making to get the next images of these far away and very hard to see objects.

Dr. Bouman, now an Assistant Professor at CalTech, is a University of Michigan alumna, having received her undergraduate degree from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department in 2011. That’s right – she did not start her education in astronomy, but in a different discipline. In fact, her PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She enjoyed her signal processing courses so much that she decided this is what she wanted to pursue as a career, and at MIT she joined a group that was part of the EHT Collaboration. What does an electrical engineer have to contribute to astronomy? It turns out, plenty!  

From her presentation, I gleaned that the team would not have succeeded without her contributions, nor would she be where she is today without that team. Her talk was not focused so much on the scientific understanding obtained from the new image, but rather on the group-wide collaboration that led to it. It emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the project, the need for addressing problems from multiple angles, the benefits of bringing together teams of people with many perspectives and backgrounds, and successes that are possible when working in a positive, supportive, and inclusive environment. It was inspirational and motivational for me, and I think the rest of the audience. The line of students wanting to meet her after the talk snaked up the stairs and all the way to the back door.

That interdisciplinary connection is what we want to foster with the University of Michigan Space Institute. We seek to bring together faculty, staff, and students with expertise, or just an interest, in outer space, to work and learn together. We’re excited about this opportunity to help “UM space people” find each other, making connections across disparate fields to achieve something bigger and better than was possible before. We hope that these interactions will lead to diverse teams tackling the big problems in space science and technology, from astrophysics to Earth observations, from astronauts on the space station to getting them safely to and from Mars, from space law and policy to space business and tourism. The Space Institute is here to facilitate the conversations with others who are both within our university community as well as those from beyond our campus.

This is the first of, hopefully, many blog posts here on the Space Institute website. I hope to use this outlet to highlight the people, groups, events, and outcomes of those involved in scholarly activities related to outer space. I will be a regular author of posts but will not be the only one, as others will also contribute stories here. We hope to have our news feed up and running soon, so that this site also becomes a one-stop information hub of all things space across campus. That’s for your patience as we get this Institute moving; I look forward to the many opportunities ahead for this endeavor.

Prof. Mike Liemohn, University of Michigan Space Institute Director