Unlike a lot of astronomers, Steven Finkelstein doesn’t have a story about getting his first telescope, or seeing the stars for the first time as inciting his passion for astronomy. As a kid, he had always liked science, but it was his high school physics teacher, Tom Haff, who really inspired him to focus on astronomy.
Currently an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, Steven chose ASU because he liked the close-knit nature of the astronomy group and the camaraderie among the grad students. “We had a group of a half-dozen or so of us that ‘grew up’ together in the program, graduated at the same time, and are still good friends now,” says Steven.
In fact, Steven married one of those grad students, ASU alumna Keely Finkelstein, an astrophysicist also working at the University of Texas at Austin. They have two children, Kieran and Maisie.
One of the most helpful experiences Steven had at ASU was access to the Steward Observatory’s telescopes. “I always thought I was spoiled that my first observing experience was on the 6.5 meter MMT (on Mt Graham); that is, until I took my student on their first observing run at the 10 meter Keck telescope!” says Steven.
Steven remembers that the toughest part about his ASU experience occurred during his fourth year when he could not make sense of some of his first imaging data. He spent weeks trying to figure out the problem and was even starting to seriously considering leaving school. His advisor, SESE professor James Rhoads, told him not to worry and that he’d figure it out eventually.
“At the time, that wasn’t very consoling,” says Steven, “but he was right! I give this advice to my students now, though I don’t know how much they appreciate it.”
What he learned from this experience was an appreciation for failure and that being a scientist is about doing something no one has done before. “Of course you’re going to fail; if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” says Steven. “Learning to fail, and get right back up and keep trying is really about what it means to be a scientist, and I really had this lesson instilled in me as a graduate student.”
Steven is currently about to embark on the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, which will perform the largest ever blind spectroscopic surveys for galaxies. He’s also working on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018.
Looking to the more distant future, Steven is interested in getting involved with future space telescopes. In fact, he just received his first opportunity and will be a part of a team led by SESE faculty James Rhoads and Sangeeta Malhotra to perform preparatory work for NASA’s flagship mission in the next decade, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). There’s a physics teacher at Issaquah High School in Issaquah, WA, who must be very proud!