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Neil Gehrels
Picture of Neil Gehrels
Neil Gehrels
Astrophysicist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
"Study physics. It is the field with the best training relevant to instrument building and astrophysics."

Where are you from?
Tucson, Ariz. I now live in College Park, Md.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I've been an astronomy buff since childhood. My father is an astronomer, so we had astronomy and outer space around the house all the time. We lived for a whole year on a mountain while he was observing at McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. And I would go with him to the telescope and help out. That was a fantastic experience for a 6-year old kid.

"The happiest people I know
are ones who think of their
field as both a hobby and a job."
Neil Gehrels
How did you end up working in the space program?
In graduate school, I was involved with the Voyager mission and its flyby of Jupiter. That was fascinating. I spent many hours at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during the mission launch and Jupiter encounter. Then I became interested in the field of gamma ray astronomy. That is observing the Universe in the light of gamma rays. These rays do not penetrate the Earth's atmosphere so it is necessary to fly telescopes in space.

Who inspired you?
I had two advisors as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech): Professors Ed Stone and Rochus Vogt. They were the major influences in steering my development and career. I still ask myself what they would do when making decisions.

What is an astrophysicist?
There is a lot of blurring between the boundaries between astrophysics and astronomy. For example, when I go to a conference, I often can't tell which people are astronomers and which are astrophysicists. I study stars and galaxies using space telescopes. Gamma rays are part of an astrophysics-type field. They come from hot, violent regions of the Universe, like exploding stars, and physics is involved in understanding the sources. Also, the instrumentation comes from physics.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career?
My favorite moment was the launch of the Swift observatory from Cape Canaveral. It was a big rocket and our work of the previous 15 years was on the line. The launch was picture perfect, and when we turned on the observatory beautiful images started coming down! The observatory was working properly.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Study physics. It is the field with the best training relevant to instrument building and astrophysics. It also gives a person a good grounding in problem solving.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Have fun with it! Incorporate your interest into your everyday life. The happiest people I know are ones who think of their field as both a hobby and a job.

What do you do for fun?
Well, I guess I should say physics based on the last question. Actually, I love rock climbing and mountains. Big walls are always a thrill. It is great fun now going into the mountains with my wife and children.

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Last Updated: 3 January 2013

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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013