Full Speed Ahead

Leading a major Hubble observing program while running to find balance. 

Julia Roman-Duval
Dr. Julia Roman-Duval

Dr. Julia Roman-Duval’s passion is palpable, but it’s also continuously expanding and changing. Her verve applies not only to her work as an astrophysicist, where she’s an active researcher, collaborator, and mentor, but also to long distance running. (She won the women’s title in the 2018 Baltimore marathon and competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2016.) Here, Dr. Roman-Duval shares why she finds her life as an astrophysicist so fulfilling.

Why did you choose to pursue astrophysics?

While my family was living on the French Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, my parents frequently picked up science magazines for me and my siblings. When I was in middle school, they brought home a science magazine that had an article about special relativity and I was immediately hooked. For me, that was it: I wanted to pursue astrophysics. I split my free time between math and physics, and being outside or playing sports. After my family returned to domestic France when I was in high school, I pursued two master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and astrophysics before moving to Boston to earn my PhD.

Why did you choose to build your career at STScI?

My husband is an Earth scientist and the Maryland/D.C. region offered us the best opportunities to find fulfilling careers in the same city. STScI is also one of the largest hubs for astronomical research in the world, and has the benefits of a very interactive and lively research environment. I started at the institute as a postdoc. I worked on data from NASA’s Herschel Space Observatory, studying star formation and the interstellar medium in the Magellanic Clouds.

Within less than two years, I was offered a position as an ESA/AURA astronomer, splitting my time between research on the interstellar medium and work on Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), which has a lot of synergy with my science and incredibly exciting technical challenges. I led the recommissioning of COS after its science spectra were relocated to pristine detector positions, and played a key role in extending its lifetime to 2025 and beyond. In 2018, I transferred to a tenure-track astronomer position and the following year I began leading the implementation of Hubble’s Ultraviolet Legacy Library of Young Stars as Essential Standards (ULLYSES), a 1,000-orbit Director’s Discretionary program.

What does the project entail?

The goal of ULLYSES is to build a spectroscopic library of young stars, with a focus on high- and low-mass stars. ULLYSES will produce ultraviolet data that only Hubble can currently collect, and which the community will use to put constraints on the spectra and properties of young stars that we’ve never had before.

I am now leading the core implementation team at STScI to turn the scientific recommendations from an external committee that designed the scientific goals of the program into an actual observing program. We finalized the selection of the best targets to observe by following a very reproducible, objective process and expect to start obtaining data in spring 2020. We also began working on the data products, database, and website we’ll create to make the process of finding, querying, and analyzing the data easy, visual, and streamlined for the users. I work better under pressure, so the challenge of this very complex program is especially appealing to me. I am interacting and engaging with a broad section of the scientific community as well as teams in almost all of the branches and divisions at the institute.

Why do you enjoy working at STScI?

In addition to the very dynamic and collaborative research environment, and the appeal of working on missions that enable cutting-edge science for thousands of scientists across the world, the institute is great at providing ways to find balance between my career and personal life. Like many others, I telework one day a week and may work in the evening so long as I am in the office during normal hours to meet with various teams. The flexibility of my schedule has allowed me to keep my sanity since my husband and I are raising our three kids in addition to pursuing our busy careers in science. It’s also allowed me to continue my parallel career as a semi-pro runner. Everyone at STScI has been extremely supportive of the constraints that kind of schedule implies. As a result, I am able to do my job and do it well, pushing the limits of what the instruments I work on can achieve, while pushing my own physical and mental limits in running.

Why do you run?

I’ve always been very athletic and active, not being able to sit still for five minutes. I also can’t help challenging myself. Right after having my youngest child, I met a runner who pointed me to a training group that completely changed my life. I starting running competitively thanks to this friendly, supportive group of runners. I made progress very quickly and within a year realized I had a shot at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. I placed in the top 25 percent there, and my running “career” has taken off since then. For example, I’ve placed in the top 20 female runners at the Chicago and London marathons, and the US National Marathon Championship. Running at the elite level provides a high that is extremely stimulating in all areas of my life. Running feeds me positive energy and serves as an outlet for stress, while my work gives me the discipline and focus that I need to be a competitive runner.

Why is mentorship so important to you?

I have had good mentors throughout my career. I want to give back the same service I’ve received to junior staff members. I have supervised my own postdocs and students, but have also mentored postdocs and staff outside my research group. Mentoring is incredibly rewarding for both the mentor and mentee. I meet with them every few months and check in to make sure their careers check all the boxes. I review their proposals or job applications, or act as a sounding board.

Why do you volunteer in local schools?

I was lucky to be exposed to science at a young age. It was a determining factor in my life. I hope that by going into classrooms and sharing my passion for science, in particular for astrophysics, I can trigger some of those “wow” moments that can change kids’ lives and make them realize they want to be scientists. Little kids are like sponges—they absorb everything—and they are so curious. Hearing from someone who is really passionate about their job can make a difference in the careers they choose. I also feel all that curiosity and energy coming back to me, which helps me continue to do my own research.

Article updated March 2020.