Building for the Community

Supporting scientists and astronomers around the world.

Theresa Dower
Theresa Dower

Theresa Dower was quick to adopt the field of software engineering—it was as simple as following in the footsteps of her mother. She’s contributed to the institute’s Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) both by writing software and supporting large teams who use and contribute to its data, which covers more than 20 astronomical missions. Here, Dower shares how she learned about STScI and why her work is so gratifying.

Why did you choose to pursue engineering?

My mom was a programmer who went on to teach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I discovered I was also pretty good at it, and liked that the profession granted me access to other fields. Before I joined the institute, I worked in gaming and then for a point-of-sale software company that handled large volumes of transactions. Everything was optimized for speed and security. It was a great learning opportunity, but was not as interesting as it was stressful! A colleague at that job left to work at STScI and referred me to an open position. I’m proud to say that was more than 10 years ago.

Why do you enjoy working at STScI?

I’m always getting new, interesting projects. I get to work with a range of colleagues, including astronomers, scientists, web designers, and fellow engineers. Not only are there lots of opportunities to collaborate within MAST, one of my primary projects requires me to develop code, and to administrate and curate resources within MAST and other archives around the world. I really enjoy it because I get to travel to meet with teams to discuss changes we can make so our services continually improve for our users.

Within MAST, we often have to invent our own solutions to host the data. For example, I built a web-based front-end service to search our catalogs, including PanSTARRS1, which includes 1,600 terabytes of data, using International Virtual Observatory Alliance standards. I also helped write interactive notebooks for documentation. We know there’s no point in putting the data up without showing people how to use it!

What’s different about the institute’s culture?

It’s slightly more relaxed in some ways. Every one of us still works hard, but we know it is for an incredibly valuable reason—supporting these missions and making the data available worldwide. You want to keep it running. I also get to interact with astronomers and scientists regularly, including people who use the tools I help create, so I get real-time feedback and am learning all the time. On a recent project, it was what a leap second is. Here, if work is stressful, I know it’s for a good reason. My work for MAST gives me a sense of purpose.

What do you do in your free time?

I love to create. In college, I did theater design. Over the last few years, I’ve set up science-based exhibitions at art festivals for kids and adults alike. One was a walking tour of the Solar System. Attendees could follow painted signs from the front gate to the end of the venue to find all 10, placed to scale. It was fun to build, learning in a physical way the scale of space, and about what we've discovered. I also love watching people get excited while finding the signs and learning about science outside the classroom.

Article updated March 2019.