Subaru Staff -Part 14-

October 30, 2006

This article contains the interview of the operator of Subaru Telescope. Currently, there are 7 operators working at Subaru Telescope. The members are Michael Letawsky, Robert Potter, Dennis Scarla, Sumiko Harasawa, Michael Lemmen, Alanna Garay and Alan Hatakeyama. This time, on behalf of the operators, Robert Potter answered our interview (current as of date).

―― Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I am Bob Potter. I moved to Hawaii to get a job with a telescope. I used to live in Connecticut. Working there I developed an extensive technical background, which Subaru management liked.

―― What made you to become an operator?

I was not really targeting a position as an operator. However, working for Subaru Telescope has been very interesting and has utilized almost all of my various skills.

―― Could you describe your job as an operator?

As an Operator for Subaru Telescope I operate the telescope and five different instruments attached to the telescope. I work closely with our Support Scientists and the visiting observers to acquire the best possible data for observing runs. I also train other operators and our software engineers in the basics of the telescope operation. My duties at Subaru also include some engineering for IRCS (InfraRed Camera and Spectrograph). I do mechanical engineering and some electrical and electronics engineering for this excellent instrument.

―― (Instrument operator) What is most difficult about your job?

There is a lot of pressure to utilize the time the observer has allotted effectively. This is probably the greatest concern. The next most challenging thing about being an instrument operator is the various ways that visiting observers use the instruments. It takes a little while for me to understand the goals and methods of the observers.

―― (Telescope operator) What is something you are most careful about when doing your job?

As a telescope operator, we have tremendous responsibility for the safety of visiting observers. I have to be very sensitive to observers who show signs of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Working at extremely-high altitude (13,580ft or 4139m) is not to be taken lightly! The other big responsibility is that I am in charge of a multimillion dollar World Class telescope! There is no room for error.

―― The summit of Mauna Kea is a very harsh environment in terms of weather and elevation; what motivates you (to work in that difficult environment) and when do you feel good as an operator?

The bottom line and highest priority is survival. I feel that my team leader has empowered me and my teammates to make decisions based on safety first! This makes one aspect of my job easy.

I really believe in what we are doing at Subaru Telescope. We are helping to find answers to the riddles and puzzles of the Universe and further the understanding of mankind and our relationship to our world and our place in the Universe. In a way, pushing the envelope of our knowledge is a pure science and a passion. I approach my life with this passion also and I truly appreciate being surrounded by those whose highest standard is but one thing, excellence! It is an honor to work with such fine people as I do!

―― What is it like to live in Hale Pohaku?

Living at Hale Pohaku is sort of like living in a dormitory at college. Although, it is very quiet and the most active part of the Hale Pohaku life is during meals in the cafeteria. There is lively conversation and welcoming cheers of those who have not seen each other for some time. People from all over the world come to Mauna Kea and it can be very interesting.

―― How do you spend your weekends and holidays?

I live in Waimea. I like to work in my yard and garden. I also like fixing things so I have a lot of projects like an old pickup truck, and odd electrical wiring projects around the house. My wife, Pam, and I go to the beach and snorkel as much as possible. We go to Kona and Hilo to shop and go to restaurants and movies. I also play the guitar a little. We have lots of friends into Hawaiian music and Hula arts and we enjoy watching them perform.

―― Can you please leave a message for future job applicants and people who want to work at Subaru as an operator.

I feel any telescope will hire someone who shows initiative, integrity, and an interest in astronomy or technology. An absolute essential is excellent communication and people skills and a desire to work with people from different backgrounds. A working knowledge of UNIX and networks is helpful. One should understand systems and how they interconnect. Also one should be able to follow instructions exactly. I do not feel a degree in astronomy is absolutely necessary for an operations position. If a person wants to go on to graduate work in astronomy then a BS in astronomy and experience in a position as an operator is a good stepping stone.

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