Profile: Dr. Michael Tripicco
Astronomer? Computer Programmer? Manager? In his work at NASA's Astrophysics Science Division, Dr. Mike Tripicco juggles all these responsibilities, and more.
Mike grew up in Mamaroneck, New York (part of Westchester County, north of New York City). As a kid, he leaned toward science in the "typical ways: dinosaurs, rock collection, chemistry set, etc." When he was about 8 years old, he got a department store telescope for Christmas. "I was fascinated to observe the Moon, Jupiter and its moons, and Saturn's rings," Mike recalls. About the same time, the Apollo lunar landings started, and Mike watched excitedly with the rest of the world as humanity took its first steps on the moon.
These experiences helped seal Mike's interest in science. But it didn't necessarily mean he was headed for a career in astronomy. In high school, he took AP chemistry, physics and calculus as well as several advanced anatomy and physiology classes. He was also introduced to computers, and learned not only programming, but how to hack the machine!
After high school, Mike went to college at the University of Rochester, intending to major in chemistry. During his sophomore year, however, a conflict between class times forced him to choose between Organic Chemistry and Astronomy. In a fateful decision, Mike chose the latter, "and never took another chemistry class!" he cheerfully reports.
A Ph.D. in Paradise
Mike's love of astronomy soon took him away from more than chemistry. In 1982, he went to graduate school at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. There, Mike did research for his Ph.D. using the Mauna Kea Observatories, a telescope complex located over 13,000 feet above sea level, high atop Hawaii's mount Mauna Kea.
To collect data for his Ph.D. thesis, Mike got to use the 2.2 meter (88 inch) telescope at Mauna Kea. The telescope was still guided by hand, which meant Mike had to "steer" the telescope himself, pointing it at whatever he wanted to observe. "I spent many cold nights sitting on the (telescope) platform in the pitch-dark, listening to music, guide paddle in hand," Mike says.
Mike also used the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea. His work there lead to several scientific papers about the chemicals found in stars.
Mike studied globular clusters in the nearby spiral Andromeda Galaxy (M31) for his thesis. He completed his research in 1987, and received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Hawaii.
From Galaxies to Goddard
After Hawaii, Mike moved to the University of Maryland for post-doctoral study. There, he continued his research by developing complex computer programs to aid in the understanding of spectra from stars. While doing this, he noticed two things: first, that he really enjoyed the computer programming part of the work, and second, that the market for traditional astronomy jobs at universities was extremely tight.
So, in 1995, Mike switched tracks and decided to be a full-time computer programmer. He checked out the nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center which prizes programmers with a detailed knowledge of astronomy. Soon, Mike was working as a contract computer programmer at Goddard's Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) .
Today, Mike is still at ASD, writing programs that analyze data from X-ray and Gamma Ray telescopes. He's employed by SSAI (Science Systems and Applications, Inc.), a local company that provides programmers for Goddard. Mike writes programs that analyze data from NASA missions like the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer and the upcoming Swift satellite, which will hunt for Gamma Ray Bursts. Mike has even become involved in some of the management work at SSAI. He now has to juggle hiring new staff and overseeing budgets, in addition to his programming responsibilities!
After several years, what does Mike have to say about his decision to pursue programming instead of astrophysics? "I find that I much prefer this kind of work (supporting space science) to being a researcher myself. Writing good, portable software which is used by scientists worldwide is very challenging, and I take great satisfaction in the discoveries and advances made possible by my work." He adds, "Likewise, the management work brings its own set of challenges and rewards, which are quite different from those found in the pure research world."
A Typical Work Day
Since Mike is involved in many different projects, he can often be found working on two or three tasks - simultaneously! For example, Mike manages the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) data archive. The archive contains all the data from the RXTE satellite: over a terabyte (1,000,000,000,000 bytes) of data so far. Each day, as RXTE makes new observations, Mike has computer programs which automatically pick up the processed data and place it in the archive, making the data available to astronomers all over the world. Other automatic programs run during the day or night analyzing RXTE data. When Mike comes in each morning, he looks at the logs from these programs. (Some of the programs send him e-mail saying what they've done!) If he sees any errors in the logs, he has to drop everything and immediately investigate the problem. Similarly, Mike gets e-mail from several mailing lists where users of ASD software report bugs. If mail comes in about a program Mike is responsible for, he has to quickly diagnose and correct the problem.
So Mike's day can be pretty unpredictable. If there are no errors and no bug reports, he has larger projects to work on, like writing new software for NASA missions. But at any time, he might be interrupted if a problem is found. Mike is adept at switching quickly from one topic to another, perhaps working on a new program, stopping to track down and fix a bug reported elsewhere, and then resuming his original work. He might also stop to attend one of several meetings where team members gather to report their progress and plan future work. Somehow, Mike keeps on top of it all and makes sure everything gets done: the new programs are completed on time, the questions from users are answered, and the RXTE archive stays up and runs smoothly.
When not at work, Mike is still a very busy guy: "I have more outside interests than my free time allows!" Most important is spending time with his wife and daughter. The family travels regularly to visit relatives in New York, with occasional vacations as far away as Alaska or Hawaii. Mike's also a big music fan, with a large collection of live and studio CDs. "My musical interests are all over the map, ranging from bluegrass to classic jazz (not that 'lite' stuff!) to more modern improvisational rock groups and so-called 'jam bands.'"
Mike also enjoys movies, and has created a home theater with widescreen TV and full surround-sound, plus a large library of DVDs. It probably comes as no surprise that Mike likes juggling, too! He taught himself from a book when he was about 12, and has honed his skills, until now he can juggle up to 5 balls at once! Mike is fascinated by the syncopation involved in juggling, and especially likes "passing clubs with other jugglers, i.e., throwing stuff at each other."
Finally, reading for pleasure has been a lifelong interest for Mike. "I mostly read non-fiction, but for the last few years I've been in a small reading group here at Goddard which has given me an excuse to read classic fiction (eg. Joyce's Ulysses) which I overlooked (or actively avoided!) during my high school and college education."
Questions and Answers
Q: Who was your favorite teacher in school? What was this teacher like and how did he/she influence your life?
A: Dr. Myrna Thomas, a biology teacher at my high school had a lot to do with me pursuing science as a career. "Doc", as she liked to be called, was the first PhD I'd ever actually gotten to know, which somehow made that seem like an achievable goal to me and it demonstrated that scientists were real people. Besides being a wonderful teacher, she was very friendly with the math and science geeks -- she sponsored the Gin Club, where we would all get together in her classroom at lunchtime to play cards (and despite the name of the club we played Spades exclusively).
Q: If time travel were possible, when and where would you visit and why?
A: I've always wanted to go back and play some of my favorite modern-day music for the great composers to see what they'd think about it. Imagine the fun in playing some Frank Zappa for J.S. Bach!
Q: What do you think is the most important technological advance that has occurred in your lifetime?
A: I regularly amuse my daughter by telling her about all of the things that she takes for granted which didn't exist when I was her age. But all the gadgets and toys notwithstanding, I think the advance which has had the most profound impact on me was the space program: the manned lunar landings as well as the robotic planetary exploration missions and orbiting observatories. However, the ubiquitous presence of computers in our lives would certainly be a contender for the title of "most important technical advance".
Q: What one question in science would you like to see answered in your lifetime?
A: Although it's completely outside my own field, I'm fascinated by the question of the origin and nature of consciousness. A neuron is just a binary switch; it clearly isn't "aware". Yet when several billion of them are assembled into a human brain, consciousness emerges complete with thoughts, emotions and boundless creativity. Can humankind build a conscious machine? If so, imagine the moral and ethical implications!
Q: Do you have a family? Any pets?
A: My wife, Cathy Marron, is a corporate travel agent. Our daughter Melissa will be entering 8th grade this fall. And we have one pet, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever named Madison.
Q: What is the one big dream you have, or the one thing that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
A: To effortlessly juggle five clubs!
Publication Date: November, 2002