Can you describe your background?

My name is Anuradha Koratkar. From my name you would not know if I was a man or a woman, so let me tell you that I am a woman. If my name had been Jane or Jill you would have guessed, but my name is so different because I am of Indian origin. My name is the Indian name of the brightest star in the constellation of scorpio!

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Your educational qualification?

I came to the United States to study for my Ph. D. in Astronomy. I finished my Ph. D from the University of Michigan and since then I have been working at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

What do you do?

I am an instrument scientist for the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS). The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has two cameras and two spectrographs. A spectrograph is an instrument that breaks light into its individual colors, just like a prism breaks light into seven different colors, and then measures the amount in each color. A spectrograph breaks the light into much finer components than when a prism breaks light into the 7 components that we see in a rainbow. This spectrograph can observe objects both in the visible (colors that we can see with our eyes) and in the ultra-violet (UV). Why do you think it is possible to observe in the ultra-violet with the HST since UV radiation is blocked by the earth’s atmosphere?

What is your role in astronomy?

As an instrument scientist I have to make sure that my instrument is working properly, so that other astronomers can use it to study their favourite objects. Since, I know how the instrument works, I also help other astronomers to prepare their observing strategy, i.e. a plan on how to conduct their observations with the FOS. After their observations have been completed I help astronomers to analyze their data.

Today, I spent the day helping an astronomer ( we call them GOs or Guest Observer) to plan observing a Seyfert Galaxy. A seyfert galaxy is an unusual kind of galaxy. In this galaxy the nucleus has a black-hole which is giving off energy equivalent to about 10^6 suns!!

How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career as an astronomer?

I decided I wanted to be an astronomer at a very early age. I was 10 years old when I was taken by my grandmother to the local observatory (in Hyderabad, India) to see the planets. I had one look at Saturn and decided I wanted to study planets when I grew up, so I asked the local astronomer how I could prepare for a career in astronomy. I followed his advice and obtained my bachelors in Math, Physics and Chemistry. Later I obtained my masters in Mathematics and a Ph. D in Astronomy (at age 30). So you can see it took a long time to attain my goals!

Although I still love to talk about the solar neighborhood (see I still sometimes spell in British English as I was taught in India!), I got interested in the study of quasars and did my doctoral thesis on the structure of quasars.

I love to learn new things about all the various objects that are out there in the universe. As an instrument scientist I am involved with many GOs who are observing interesting objects and so I get to know interesting facts about various objects. I also love to calibrate (to study how the instrument is behaving) the FOS and to see it change with time and when some astronomer makes a important scientific contribution using the FOS, I feel very proud. The boring part of my job is keeping records on what happened to the instrument. I know it is an important job (because how else would some one know what happened to the FOS on say January 5th 1996) and I do it, but boy is it boring.

As a kid in India I mostly did my school work and the rest of the time played with my friends or went swimming. But during summer vacation I would go to the library and read books on space. From these books I learned about the solar system and our galaxy the Milky way. Then whenever it was possible I would ask my parents to take me to the planetarium. I think that astronomy is such an adaptable subject that one can specialize in any field of science and then apply it to the study of space, life and its origin.

Who influenced you in your career?

My grandmother, my parents and an astronomer friend had the most influence on me. My grandmother was a doctor (obstetrician) and my mother is a scientist (Biochemist). They were very strong women and a lot of fun. I always wanted to be like them. Till the 1980s in India it was unusual for women to obtain post-graduate degrees, but my grandmother and my parents always encouraged me to do my best.