Carol Lonsdale Joins NRAO to Lead the North American ALMA Science Center

John Stoke

Dr. Carol Lonsdale

Dr. Carol Lonsdale


We are pleased to announce the appointment of Carol Jean Lonsdale as the new NRAO Assistant Director for the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC). As NAASC head, Carol will lead the team that will enable North American astronomers to effectively use the new observatory, support ALMA operations in Chile, and undertake research and development for future ALMA upgrades.

Dr. Lonsdale, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh, brings to NRAO a rich legacy of experience in overseeing large astronomical projects and the people who make them possible. She gained much of that experience in senior positions at Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), where she has served as Senior Research Scientist, Head of Science Staff, Acting Director, and Manager of the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer and the Infrared Science Archive. Carol has participated as science team member on IRAS, 2MASS, WISE, and WIRE, and studies galaxy formation and evolution.

Several weeks before her formal 1 October start date, Carol sat down with us for a short chat about her upcoming work …

Carol, soon you will head an organization whose success will depend upon helping optical astronomers cross the bridge between visible and millimeter/sub-millimeter light. You’ve worked extensively ON that “bridge,” as it were, in infrared astronomy. Has your infrared experience helped prepare you for the challenges of making ALMA accessible to astronomers who may not have previous experience in the millimeter realm?

I certainly expect that to be the case. I’ve had a long experience at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, which was developed to support the IRAS mission back in the mid-1980s. Over the years we added several other infrared programs and a lot of people came in to use the data, everyone from X-ray to radio astronomers. Infrared is pretty mainstream now, especially with Spitzer up there. A lot of people have learned to use Spitzer very effectively for their multi-wavelength work. Millimeter is now in its infancy, and it’s about to explode. The community is going to see the enormous advantages of including millimeter wavelengths in their studies of whatever it is they’re looking at, and I’m sure we can benefit from the model of how people learned to use the infrared.

Your research interests include galaxy formation, active galactic nuclei, luminous infrared galaxies, and the cosmic infrared background. What does ALMA hold in store for you, and for scientists with similar interests? What are some of the big questions in these areas that ALMA will help us answer?

Well, ALMA is going to be a key for this work, because we’ve discovered over the past couple of decades that there’s as much radiation emerging in the infrared/millimeter/sub-millimeter part of the spectrum as there is in the shorter wavelengths. We’ve done this by comparing the energy in the cosmic backgrounds. So half the energy in the universe has been hidden from us until we could look at longer wavelengths. Even looking in the infrared – which has been a huge step forward – we’re still way on the short end of the spectrum of dust emission from the galaxies that are responsible for all of this light. It takes much longer wavelengths to actually detect that radiation. With ALMA we’ll be able to determine the luminosities, and therefore the star-formation rates, of galaxies as they’re being formed. We’ll have the opportunity to map the energy both spatially and spectrally, which will just be a fascinating step forward.

How do you see ALMA complementing current and future infrared observatories, such as JWST?

ALMA and JWST have got very similar power but at very different wavelengths. JWST will be following up objects that are discovered in the very large surveys in the near-infrared, and then ALMA will look at them in the millimeter and we’ll get complementary information. JWST will tell us a lot about the mass in the older and/or evolved stars and ALMA will tell us about the new star formation regions and about the active nuclei.

The concept of a facility “science center” is new for NRAO. What are the most important benefits that the North American ALMA Science Center will bring to the astronomical community?

Well, the goal is that NAASC will make ALMA science accessible to the non-expert. Interferometry is at present a specialized science, with a small community of experts. In the past if you needed some information for your source in the radio or the millimeter, you tended to acquire a collaborator who would do the interferometry. The enormous potential of ALMA will change all that, bringing many more people directly into contact with the data. We’re in an epoch now where that can be accomplished by building a science center like the NAASC, opening up ALMA to a much wider range of science users.

Your undergraduate degree, as well as your Ph.D., is in astronomy, which suggests that you caught the bug relatively early in life? What, or who, inspired your interest in the universe and in an astronomy career?

Funny as it is, the person who inspired me to do astronomy was my younger brother! He’s two years younger than me and currently he’s director of Haystack Observatory. His name is Colin Lonsdale. When he was a kid he knew he wanted to be an astronomer. When he was seven years old he was building telescopes. And for a while I was the big sister who naturally tended to want to do the opposite of my little brother! But the skies captivated me too in the end, when it came time to pick something to study at college. I had to admit, then, that Colin was on to something!

You have been a manager of people, tasks, and large projects. How did you learn to do that?

I learned it on the job! JPL is a large organization, and IPAC, though it transferred to Caltech early on, originated at JPL. So I took some management classes that JPL organized. We started out as a small organization and when the head of the science group got promoted to the head of IPAC, there was an opening for the head of the science group and I was appointed to that and learned how to manage on the job. One of the most important things I’ve learned is the need to facilitate effective communication between people. You can have someone sitting in a room trying to solve a problem that someone else in another team has solved already, so a big part of effective management, in our science, is being aware of who is doing what and coordinating those things.

When you were entering the field (two years ahead of your brother!), studying in Scotland and afterwards moving to the United States, were many of your colleagues women?

No, not many at all in those days. In the early days, when I was training, frequently I’d be the only woman in a meeting, and that could be an interesting experience! Things have changed a lot; we’ve got a lot of women now in positions of leadership and management, along with a lot of women scientists doing excellent science. It’s great to see.