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Greetings from Your New “Innovation Scientist”

Tuesday, December 11, 2018 - 17:24

Peter K. G. WilliamsState-of-the-art astronomy often requires state-of-the-art research tools. From the earliest known mechanical device to aid in scientific computations to one of the first standards for the digital exchange of scientific data to what is expected to be the largest public database of scientific data ever produced, astronomers have often been at the cutting edge of technology. But there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep both your research and your technical skills in tip-top shape at the same time.

The AAS wants to help its members square this circle, and I’m delighted to announce that the Society has created a new role, the “Innovation Scientist,” to spearhead its efforts to make sure its members have the tools they need to do their work better and faster than ever before.

I’m further delighted to announce that the first AAS Innovation Scientist is, well, me. I’m Peter K. G. Williams, and until recently I was a postdoc at the recently rebranded Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. While my research background is in (sub)stellar magnetism, time-domain astronomy, and radio interferometry, I’ve long paired that work with interests in open-source software development, innovative scholarly communication, cutting-edge data analysis techniques, and the humanist perspective on just what it is we scientists do all day, and why. I’d like to think that this range of experience has prepared me well for this new role.

I conceive of the Innovation Scientist position as mainly being about service — I’m here to be your Innovation Scientist, helping you get work done. So please: tell me what you need! Is it professional development workshops to help you get the hang of Git and GitHub? Is it help figuring out how to promote a great tool that you’ve built? Is it insight into where you might get funding to support your “big data” project idea? Do you just want TeX to be less of a pain? (I’m working on that!) In the near future I’ll be gathering information more systematically, but please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email (peter.williams@aas.org) or tweet (@pkgw).

I do have a day job of sorts: I’m also taking over from Philip Rosenfield as the new Director of the AAS WorldWide Telescope project. WWT, of course, is exactly the sort of visionary infrastructure project that I hope to promote as Innovation Scientist, and I’ll be working to make sure that its unique visualization capabilities are ready to be harnessed by astronomers in their research, education, and outreach. A lot of behind-the-scenes work on WWT has happened in 2018 to expand the capabilities of its Web front end, and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working hard to open up the project’s processes and development model so that the community can really start taking ownership of it. I’ll also be working closely with the AAS Publishing team to think about ways we can streamline and improve scholarly communication in the 21st century — a topic near and dear to my heart, and one of the areas where I believe that new technologies offer the greatest opportunities to improve the way that we do science.

I’ll remain based at the CfA | Harvard & Smithsonian, an arrangement that I’m greatly looking forward to not only because I like living in Cambridge, but also because the CfA is home to some unique elements of astronomical research infrastructure such as NASA ADS and the IAU Minor Planet Center. If you find yourself in the Boston area, please swing by and say hello!

Peter K. G. Williams
AAS Innovation Scientist & Director, AAS WorldWide Telescope Project
Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
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