Ian Czekala Merges Engineering, Astronomy

May 13, 2010 — Ian Czekala came to the University of Virginia intending to follow the "typical path" to a career in engineering. Along the way – ever looking upward – he discovered a way to merge a passion for understanding the universe with the technical knowledge to accomplish it.

Czekala is scheduled to receive two bachelor's degrees on May 23, one in aerospace engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the other in astronomy from the College of Arts & Sciences – "hybrid training" that his thesis adviser, astronomy professor Kelsey Johnson, calls "essential" for the long-term future of astronomy.

Czekala, of Miller Place, N.Y., plans to use his engineering training to pursue astronomical science and improve instrumentation for the next generation of telescopes and spacecraft.

"Astronomy is critically dependent on engineering and technology, increasingly so as our observing facilities become more and more advanced," Johnson said. "The way the field is now, it is critical to have an interface between the engineers and astronomers who can speak both languages, so to speak, which Ian can."

Late last year, Czekala visited the world's most technologically advanced ground-based telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, now under construction at 16,500 feet of altitude in Chile's Atacama Desert. When completed, the international radio telescope facility will include at least 66 large antennas, and is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

While at ALMA on a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant, Czekala explored the technical and managerial issues that arise in high-stakes international projects. He interviewed more than 20 astronomers, administrators and engineers at the facility, and met several more.

This allowed him "to see how friction between countries and other interested parties is overcome for the sake of science. I was able to see the scientific community in action. Despite the tensions, people share this quest for knowledge."

Like most multimillion-dollar "big science" projects in recent years, ALMA is financed by international collaborators, including the Charlottesville-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

"Studying ALMA allowed Ian to experience the complexities of large-scale international collaborations," Johnson said.

Czekala notes that his U.Va. engineering education prepared him to address social and ethical considerations of technology.

"It prepared me to think beyond technology and its immediate implications," he said. "This is an interesting and defining component of the U.Va. Engineering School compared to strictly technical schools."

Czekala found that "controlling communication on a project of this complexity and scale is imperative. You need to balance the need to keep people informed of changes with the certainty that over-documentation slows progress."

With the astronomy department, Czekala also conducted research on circumstellar disks and nascent solar systems. His work earned him a Chambliss Student Achievement Award from the American Astronomical Society.

"Having people like Ian who are trained in both physics and engineering is crucial for the health and advancement of astronomy," Johnson said. "Given Ian's talents and skill set, I wouldn't be surprised if we see him directing a major observatory in a couple of decades. I know of only a handful of people who are in a position to do that; they are in short supply and indispensable."

This fall, Czekala will enter Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

A Rodman Scholar in the Engineering School, Czekala counts this honors program (offered to the top 5 percent of the students in each entering class) as one of his most important experiences at U.Va. He served as class co-president, and "learned how much you can accomplish with a group of like-minded people and access to resources."

This past year, Czekala served on the editorial team of the new student-published, peer-reviewed academic journal, The Spectra: The Virginia Engineering and Science Research Journal, and contributed an article about collaborative research efforts at ALMA.

And he worked with fellow Harrison Award winner Chris Belyea, materials science and engineering professor Dana Elzey and Lockheed Martin Corporation to create a Sustainability Grant Program, securing funding to launch the program, which awards five $3,000 grants each year to teams researching sustainability.

"We knew what an amazing opportunity the Harrison grants provided to us, and that we could fill a need for sustainability-focused team research grants in the Engineering School," Czekala said.

He also has volunteered with Dark Skies, Bright Kids, an astronomy club for third- to fifth-grade students in Charlottesville.

"Astronomy is one of the best sciences situated for outreach," he said. "Almost everyone has looked into the sky and thought about their existence. That collective experience makes it a great vehicle to get people interested in science."

— By Fariss Samarrai