Introducing Michael West

Michael West is Deputy Director for Science at Lowell Observatory. He received his PhD from Yale University in 1987. He has held research and teaching positions around the world, including as ESO’s Head of Science in Chile, Director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on the island of Nantucket, Head of Science Operations at Gemini South, and a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii.

His research interests include galaxies and galaxy clusters, the large-scale structure of the universe, and globular clusters as probes of galaxy formation. He began life as a theorist but gradually morphed into an observational astronomer over the years.

Michael is also passionate about communicating astronomy with the public. A member of the National Association of Science Writers, his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Scientific American and other publications. His article “When Galaxies Become Cannibals” is feature in the December 2016 issue of Astronomy magazine. Additionally, his book A Sky Wonderful with Stars: 50 Years of Modern Astronomy on Maunakea, was published last year by University of Hawaii Press.

Michael will be tweeting from Chile this week, where he and a group from Lowell Observatory are visiting Gemini South, the European Southern Observatory, and other interesting places in this amazing country.


Introducing Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque (@emsque) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. She got her BS in Physics from MIT in 2002, her PhD in Astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 2006, and spent five years at the University of Colorado at Boulder as an Einstein and Hubble Fellow before moving to UW last year.

Her research focuses on exploring the inner workings of stars and using them as fundamental tools for understanding our universe. She is particularly interested in massive stars, the behemoths that explode as supernovae and form black holes. Unlike any other object in astronomy, we can detect ancient generations of massive stars exploding in distant galaxies while also closely observing their evolutionary and chemical twins in our own cosmic backyard. Studying stars like these offers us a glimpse of how the universe has changed from the Big Bang to the present day.

In 2014 she and her collaborators discovered the first observational evidence of Thorne-Zytkow objects, a stellar structure originally predicted in the late 1970s that outwardly resembles a cold massive star but has a neutron star for a core. This combination represents a completely new model for the fundamental physics of stars and a new way of producing elements that make up the famed “star stuff”.

Emily is also passionate about science communication and increasing the general public’s enthusiasm for science: she has given live planetarium shows, public talks, star parties, and radio and film interviews, and is looking forward to adding Astrotweeps to that list this week!

When not working Emily can be found playing violin with the UW Campus Philharmonia Orchestra, hunting down new places for downhill skiing or open-water swimming, and – most often these days – on a plane.

Introducing Jen Blank

Jen Blank (@jenblank) is an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. She is a member of the Mars Curiosity rover science team and studies Mars analog environments on Earth, focusing on the potential of water-rock interactions to support microbial life and the geochemical signatures of such life that are captured in the rock record. Recent field work has led her to carbonates associated with cold springs in ultramafic terrain (Del Puerto Ophiolite, California), sinters in warm springs in the Andes (Pampa Lirima, Chile), and hot springs in the Indian Himalayas (Puga geothermal field, Ladakh).


Jen earned BS/BA degrees in Geology/English from Stanford, an MS in Oceanography from the University of Washington, and a PhD in geochemistry from Caltech. Her scientific interests are diverse. Trained formally as a geochemist and experimental petrologist, she’s made mini volcanoes in the laboratory to quantify the amounts and behavior of gases (carbon dioxide and water) dissolved in volcanic systems. She’s also studied fluid evolution and phase changes in real time using diamond cell pressure chambers and vibrational spectroscopy. Scaling up, she’s fired large canons to generate conditions akin to those of a comet hitting the earth – and found that amino acids can polymerize to peptides in these ballistic impacts.


Jen is affiliated with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a virtual institute that uses collaborative technologies for astrobiology science research, mentoring of citizen science activities, and outreach. Jen loves thinking about where we came from and where we should look for life on Mars and other planets. She’s interested in lunar and martian colonization and has spent a 2-week rotation living in the Mars Desert Research Station habitat in south-central Utah.


When not working, Jen spends time with her thoroughbred, Billy, who has his own apartment on a horse ranch not too far away. Jen also enjoys coding and big data meetups – there are many of these nearby – and hanging out with lady pythonistas.

Introducing Justyn Campbell-White

Justyn Campbell-White (@justyncw) is an observational astronomer starting the second year of his Ph.D research at the University of Kent. Justyn’s research focuses on the morphology of HII (ionised hydrogen) regions around massive stars. The aim of this research is to probe the formation mechanisms of the stellar bubbles these regions help create, and investigate how they interact with the interstellar medium. His first year was spent analysing a selection of images identified from the citizen science Milky Way Project (on These infrared images from the Spitzer space telescope reveal in high resolution the shell-like structures, that are products of HII regions and stellar winds. Justyn is now looking at 1.4 GHz radio data that coincides with the infrared bubbles.

Justyn also helps operate the University of Kent’s Beacon Observatory. This involves carrying out observations and teaching Masters and undergraduate students how to use the telescope. Justyn is currently observing for the HOYS-CAPS project, which works together with amateur astronomers for long term photometric monitoring of young star clusters, to identify outbursting objects.

Introducing Mike Alexandersen

Mike Alexandersen (@mikea1985) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C.). With a preference for observational astronomy, Mike’s research currently focuses on studying the size,
rotation and dynamics of minor bodies in the outer Solar System (Centaurs and Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs)). Mike is a member of the large Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), which has discovered and tracked over 700 object to accurate orbits. Furthermore, Mike et al. are conducting follow-up observations to measure rotational light curves of OSSOS TNOs.

While currently working with Solar System astronomy, Mike’s background is broad, having observed eclipsing binary stars for their B.Sc. thesis (at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark) and worked on archival XMM-Newton and Swift X-ray observations of Gamma-Ray Bursts for their M.Sc. thesis (at the Niels Bohr Institute) before conducting a TNO survey for their Ph.D. dissertation (at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada). Mike’s closest approach to instrumentation was cutting a hole in a webcam to replace the lens with a telescope mount (aka. a plastic tube that fits into the hole meant for the eye-piece) during a 1st year undergrad research project.

When not working, Mike enjoys hiking and playing board/card games. Favourite games include Dos Rios, Gheos and Entdecker (and one particularly addictive PC game, Crusader Kings II).