An interview with MilkyWay@home's Dr. Heidi Newberg

I interviewed Dr. Heidi Newberg for “MilkyWay@home's volunteers rescue the crowdsourced search for dark matter", but only a fraction of her comments made it into the article. Here’s our complete exchange. Note that I have broken up and rearranged longer responses and made minor copyedits for readability.

Dr. Newberg, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Fellow of the American Physical Society, earned her PhD at the University of California Berkeley where she worked on the Berkeley Automated Supernova Search and the Supernova Cosmology Project. She joined the team that created the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and initiated the SDSS’ Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration project. Newberg leads the Plus Collaboration, a team of US astronomers working with China’s Large Area Multi-Object fiber Spectral Telescope as it surveys millions of stars in the Galaxy. 

Several undergraduates work on your project. What role does MilkyWay@home play in developing future scientists?

MilkyWay@home has been important in developing the careers of future scientists, and also in developing skills that are used in industry. Most of my students are doing scientific research for the first time in their lives, and it does help to launch their science careers.  

Students who have both quantitative and computational skills are highly sought after as graduate students and in industrial/consulting settings. In addition to science writing, speaking, and thinking, my students learn basic software engineering, including: developing coding standards, using code repositories, versioning and collaborating on code development, building for multiple platforms, and creating tests.  Many students also get their first experience with GPUs in my research group.  

These are great career skills that many of our students do not learn in class. 

All of the MilkyWay@home students do well in the job market. For example, one former student is working on the AMD GPU compiler, another took a job with a defense contractor, and another is at Google.  One recent graduate is on his way to graduate school at Cambridge University, and last year one went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  

Beyond the dollars raised, how did the MilkyWay@home community react to the loss of the grant and the fundraising request?

When we sent out the email, we did not know what kind of response it would generate. Here we are using their computers and we turn around and ask the volunteers for money to run our operations on top of that. 

Other than some pointed questions about what the money was going to be spent on, I have not gotten any negative feedback from our volunteers. Some of the volunteers sent very nice notes or messages with their donations, and my impression is that the community is supportive.  

I am very thankful that we are connected with such a great group of people.

What options would you have had to keep MilkyWay@home going if you didn't have the community there to help?

I really didn't have many other options.

My students and I could not travel (and therefore not spread the news about MilkyWay@home), and could publish in lower cost and less visible journals. 

During the school year some of the students work on MilkyWay@home in exchange for course credit, and I can continue to do that. There are sometimes sources of funding for summer undergraduate research students, but in recent years these sources (both federal and internal to Rensselaer) have also been losing or reducing their funding; there is no guarantee that this funding will be available next summer. I guess I could have asked them to volunteer, but most of these students are depending on the summer stipends for living expenses and to help pay for college so they really can't afford to do that.

Without funding at least for students in summer 2015 it would be hard or impossible to keep up operations. I thought very hard about what I am doing and whether I should continue in this research direction before I decided to ask the volunteers for financial support.  I decided that I really do want to continue in the research direction that I am currently pursuing.

Do you see the donor model as the “new normal” for MilkyWay@home or more as a short-term bridge while you apply for a new grant?

When the grant was not funded, one of my students pointed me to this. [Ed - The Onion’s satirical take on the state of Nasa’s funding]

Astronomy funding is just on hard times right now. When I started writing proposals fifteen years ago, the funding rate in NSF astronomy was 33%. It is now about 15%, and some of these are only partial funding to keep the project alive. Many well justified proposals from solid researchers are not funded.  

Typically, proposals are divided up into groups of 25 proposals that are reviewed by a panel of fellow scientists, and only the top three are funded. The fourth, fifth and sixth proposals may be just as worthy but did not excite the committee quite as much. Skill in advertising has become important for scientific success.  

In this climate I suspect that funding gaps between three year grants will become normal, but I am still hoping that federal funding will continue to support the majority of my research program.

I don't know yet whether [the funding campaign] will be a short-term bridge or a new normal. We certainly are looking at the comments from our last proposal and are making plans to re-submit. We are also looking at other possibilities for foundation support and corporate sponsorship. But we are also seeing that there is a trend in science that government spending on basic research is decreasing while private funding is increasing.  My primary experience is in obtaining government grants, and my hope is that I will continue to be able to write winning proposals. 


Disclosure: I have donated to MilkyWay@home's campaign, but nobody associated with the project knew of this before I published this article.