Creating New Avenues

Working at the intersections of science, training, and community.

Jules Fowler
Jules Fowler

Jules Fowler has built their career on ever-evolving combinations of astronomy, engineering, and activism. As a software engineer in the Russell B. Makidon Optics Laboratory, they write and implement software, and then share it with the wider astronomical community. They are also a regular software instructor, helping to train hundreds of scientists across the institute in introductory and advanced Git and Python. Here, Fowler shares why they are so involved in an array of outlets, including a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Why did you choose to build your career at STScI?

While I completed my undergraduate thesis at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, I got to work with radio data from the Very Large Array. When I saw a position was open at the institute, I immediately applied. I wanted to work with data from the Hubble Space Telescope. I joined as a research and instrument analyst for its Wide Field Camera 3, where I helped create a project for the instrument’s Quicklook systems that led me to learn a lot more about software engineering. I also got entangled in some other really cool science projects, like full stack development for the Exoplanet Characterization Toolkit (ExoCTK), which includes server-side management, writing scripts and algorithms, and front-end development. Soon after that, I pivoted to work as a software engineer in the Russell B. Makidon Optics Laboratory.

What does your work in the Optics Lab include?

It’s a mix of writing software and implementing it on our testbed hardware. Recently, I’ve been working to integrate the software I wrote for our Tip Tilt hardware neatly into our entire system. I also wanted to extend its application beyond our testbeds, since other optics labs use the same hardware and most write their analysis in Python. I am working with our team to write an open-source software collection for anyone to adapt, which we presented at the American Astronomical Society’s conference in January 2020. I also helped demo our “Baby CAT” coronagraph test bench. It’s a simplified version of our High-Contrast Imager for Complex Aperture Telescopes (HiCAT) testbed that we can take to conferences to demonstrate the work we do in the lab. It’s been very well received. 

I really enjoy that I can be hands-on with hardware in this role, which is unique at the institute. The team is also amazing. I have had many mentors who really care about my development as a software engineer and a staff member. Plus, we have a lot of collaborators come in from our partners in Maryland, France, California, and New Jersey. It’s really cool to be working on the breakneck of science.

How did you become a software instructor at the institute?

I was initially asked to support a software training session at an American Astronomical Society’s conference, which led to an invitation to become a software carpentry instructor at the institute. We teach monthly workshops to train staff in introductory and advanced Git and Python. Originally, we were just doing introductory Git—but that was so popular that we don’t have as many people who need Git anymore! About two years ago, I was asked to be on the institute’s technical training team, which runs trainings with outside vendors. I help design the curriculum for the Python trainings, tweaking the syllabus with the instructors and asking colleagues what they’d like to see in the training. It is really rewarding to train people who have a lot of expertise in other areas.

Why do you enjoy working at STScI?

There’s a really great feeling of camaraderie here, and boundaries I felt in undergrad have melted away. I’ve made excellent friendships with various scientists, team leads, and peers. I have also found great mentors. I think the work-life balance is excellent. I’ve found opportunities to pick up and put down projects as needed, and everyone is really respectful of my time. There are times I will pull late nights, but it’s because I feel gratified. It’s not an expectation, but a choice I make because I’m really excited about my work.

Why are diversity and inclusion so important to you?

Building affinity for underrepresented groups is important, especially at a scientific institution. It’s necessary to create a space where you feel affirmed and reflected, and see other people like you in this career. I was involved in several student groups as an undergraduate, so it’s natural to continue that work here. I co-created a lunch group for people at the institute who identify as LGBTQ+ where we have a safe space to have open conversations and get to know one another. In 2019, I was also on the science organizing committee for the Inclusive Astronomy 2 conference. We chose the abstracts and invited speakers. There were so many cool talks that apply to our work. It’s exciting to be part of a space where everyone is thinking about diversity and engaged in astronomy.

Article updated March 2020.