Transforming Data

How collaborations can lead to innovative, more accessible data sets.

Scott Fleming
Dr. Scott Fleming

The discovery of the first planet around a Sun-like star combined with the artistic renderings of distant worlds in “Star Wars” movies gave Dr. Scott Fleming all the inspiration he needed to choose a career as an astronomer. “I decided then and there that this is what I want to do,” he says, smiling. As an astronomical data scientist in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), he also has the opportunity to work with a range of professionals, including engineers, designers, fellow scientists, and interns, which leads him to explore data in different ways and help release new projects. Here, Dr. Fleming shares examples of his inspiring work, which supports the scientific community.

How do you approach research?

While earning my doctorate, I realized I was a breadth-first learner. In science fields, there are two camps: You can go deep into one topic or focus very broadly on many topics. I tend to want to absorb lots and lots of stuff outside of my main areas of interest. That really bodes well for work in an archive. Unlike a lot of other astronomers, we have to be able to support research across a variety of astronomical topics, and understand the questions, challenges and needs other astronomers have, which I really enjoy. At MAST, I also work with people in fields I may not have met otherwise, let alone work together on projects.

What does your role as an astronomical data scientist require?

I support missions like NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), Kepler and K2 Missions and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), help release spectroscopic data sets, and ingest new High Level Science Products from the scientific community. Figuring out what other researchers may want in a product is a big part of my day-to-day work. In 2016, I helped finish and release gPhoton, a database of more than 1 trillion photon events observed by GALEX in ultraviolet light that allows users to create light curves, images, and movies to look for variable stars. I worked with several summer students since then to use it for science projects.

Why is serving as a mentor so important to you?

Mentorship is an important part of the early career stage in astronomy. I started at STScI as a summer intern, working with Dr. Peter McCullough. I learned how to archive our data and create products to search for transiting exoplanets. Ten years later, we co-mentored interns together at STScI. I’ve mentored several more since then. I’m always shocked at how much information they’re able to consume—and how quickly they can do it. Everything I throw at them, they finish so fast and so well. My mentees have included a student who identified pulsating stars in ultraviolet data, another who focused on Agile software development, and a third searching for pulsations and transiting objects around white dwarfs. Through this work, not only am I present for their “aha” moments, which are very rewarding, but it has also helped me a lot in my own work. Their results and questions lead me to more ideas on follow-up projects that expand on what they find, or show new directions to take the research. I am constantly energized by their progress!

Why are you working to “sonify” data in MAST?

Last year, as I was walking through a conference exhibit hall filled with poster presentations, I encountered an umbrella representing the celestial sphere. It was genius: A translucent umbrella, which had the ribs representing the denotations of right ascension on the sky and each section had dangling stars and constellations. If you spun it, it translated the rotation of the sky like a planetarium, but with tactile effects. I’d been thinking a lot about diversity issues, so I struck up a conversation with the principal investigator, Kate Meredith of GLAS Education.

A few months later, that led me to collaborate with her and a team made up of Clara Brasseur, Jennifer Kotler and Susan Mullally, all of the institute, to develop a grant proposal to sonify data in MAST. We’ll ensure certain data can be downloaded from MAST as an audio file so users can use a sound package to study the data. The other half of the project is a blend of art and science: We’ll create portable, kinetic sculptures that create a multi-sensory experience for users. With this project, our goal is to make data in MAST more accessible to people of all abilities, but especially to people who are blind or have low vision. This project will get underway in 2020, and we’ll present its outcomes in early 2021.

Why do you enjoy working at STScI?

The institute has so many people with different experiences working together on projects. There are about 30 people in my branch, but only a dozen or so are astronomers. The bulk is made up of engineers, a UX [user experience] designer, and project managers, who have a mix of skillsets. We work together to create new tools and release big data sets. As someone who does programming and is also an astronomer, it’s right up my alley. We also work well as a team. You have to really be able to trust your coworkers when they suggest things, or tell you something is hard or easy. You have to be able to respect each other’s experiences. We do a good job with that, which is one reason we’re so successful as an archive.

Learn more about Dr. Fleming’s research interests.

Article updated March 2020.