Postdoc Spotlight: Henrique Marquez Reggiani

Meet recently departed Carnegie Observatories postdoc Henrique Marquez Reggiani who studies the chemical composition of stars.
Henrique Marquez Reggiani at the Carnegie Observatories Open House

Q: What is your general field of study?

Unlike a lot of scientists, I don’t have a narrow field of research, in the sense that I’m not looking for an answer to one particular question. I try to touch on a lot of different subfields using the same type of analysis technique. For example, one day I am looking at a star to make a determination about the planet that it hosts. Another day, I help constrain the nucleosynthetic process of a chemical element. I like having the opportunity to do different things because it satisfies my curiosity and keeps me learning new things as I go. 

More specifically, though, my field of study is high-precision stellar spectroscopy. Essentially, what this means is that I measure and observe light that radiates from the stars to ascertain their chemical composition. Using the techniques of spectroscopy, for example, allows us to determine how much iron is in the star, how much lithium, how much magnesium, as well as the abundance of other chemical elements. And, by studying the variations in each star’s chemical composition, we are able to make deductions about where the star was formed and how the elements were created. You can even narrow down the estimated age of a star. In addition, when you compare a star’s chemical makeup to that of the planets in its orbit, you can make inferences about how the planets themselves formed.

Henrique Marquez Reggiani at Las Campanas Observatory

Q:   What is the coolest thing you’ve worked on so far in your career? 

I think the answer to that would be two things:

Number one, during my Ph.D. I developed a model atom of potassium to examine how our abundance determinations change when better physically-motivated stellar conditions are included. While it was really difficult and challenging, I really enjoyed that work and learned a lot during the process—and I still use this knowledge to this day. I think the outcome of that research made an important contribution to the field and I’m particularly proud of how it turned out.

More recently, I worked on a study of heavy elements on two dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way’s galactic neighborhood called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. I think that was a very interesting paper and I was really curious about the data that emerged from that research. When I get curious about what I’m seeing in my work, that really drives me.

Q:   Did you always think you would be a scientist? 

Since I was six years old, I always wanted to be an astronomer. Around that age, an uncle gave me a book on astronomy and it really captured my imagination. From then on, I always knew that was my path and I never wanted to do anything else. I am the first person to ever go to college in my family, the only one who has ever pursued an academic route. I am very lucky, though, because my parents always understood the importance of going to college and they really helped and supported me.

Q:  Was your love of science shaped by a particular experience or mentor? 

I just always knew what I wanted to be. I think the person in my life who was most closely related to science was my father, who was a software developer. He was very curious about everything, and he was the person to whom I would talk about my dreams of becoming an astronomer. He was always very technically driven and so am I, so we connected on that level. I don’t know that I would call him a mentor, but he very much inspired in me a sense of curiosity and encouraged me to follow my interests. And as I’ve already said, curiosity really drives me.

Q:   Who is your “Science Superhero?”   

I don’t think anyone should have a science superhero. There isn’t really anything special about scientists; we are just very fortunate people who are lucky enough to do what we love to do. That’s not the case for most people. Obviously, there are notable scientists who deserve to be commended because they change how we view things. But ultimately, they are people whose circumstances, whether that be monetary or something else, allowed them to pursue their dreams. So, I don’t like the idea of the whole “hero” thing. We do important work, but I don’t think it’s heroic.

Q:   Do you have a favorite chemical element and why?

My favorite chemical element at any given time happens to be the one that inspires my curiosity and helps me answer the specific questions I have at the moment. It changes. Sometimes I’m interested in working with carbon, or sometimes I’m more interested in working with lithium. Basically, it’s whatever helps me satisfy my current curiosity.

Q:  What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your career so far and how did you address them? 

There are many difficult aspects of doing what I do. I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my career is being extremely underpaid, particularly when I was doing my master’s and Ph.D. programs. I think people who are pursuing science should be better paid right out of the gate.

Another challenge is that you’re always moving around. I have lived in Brazil, which is home, then Germany, then Brazil again, then the U.S., and then Chile. Most of the time I don’t have the option to decide where I want to do my work. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and have an opportunity to work from a place I want to be, and sometimes I’m not so lucky. You never stay in one place for very long and can’t plant roots. That makes you feel like you don’t have a home and this can be difficult in your personal life.

Finally, I am from Brazil and the language barrier can make writing a difficult process. Even though I speak English fluently, writing fluently is very different. So sometimes writing takes me longer than I would like. That said, I don’t dislike the process because I read a lot when I’m writing, and so I’m learning new things. When you have to present and explain your research to others, it really helps you understand all the nuances of your work more deeply.

Q:  What do you think is the most exciting research direction happening in your field right now? And looking 10 years ahead, what future development do you think will have the greatest impact on your field?

The answer to both these questions is the same thing. I think the most exciting thing happening in my field right now, and what will continue to have the greatest influence in the future, is the advancement in telescopic technology, namely the extremely large telescopes like the Giant Magellan, on which Carnegie is a founding partner, and the European Southern Observatory’s ELT. These telescopes will be, without doubt, the most important investigative tools in astronomy and they will have an immeasurable impact on the type and scope of studies I am able to do and that I enjoy.

Q:  What advice would you give to graduate students and others who are just starting their scientific careers? 

The most important thing for people starting out in academia is to choose the people they will work with very carefully. Especially in your early career, it’s extremely important to work with people you trust and with whom you can communicate—people who have your back and are invested in your success. Ultimately, that person (or persons) is extremely influential and can shape, for better or worse, your future in the field. Also, when you’re working away from home and already feel displaced, it can be particularly difficult to work with someone who is incompatible. Under those circumstances it can be nearly impossible to continue in the field. I was very lucky because my Ph.D. advisor was really supportive and is largely responsible for the minimal amount of success I have had so far.

Also, try to have fun while you’re doing the work, otherwise what’s the point?

Q:  Why did you decide to do a postdoctoral position at Carnegie? 

Carnegie provides incredible opportunities. The most successful people in my field have spent time at Carnegie. It’s an institution that offers everything you need to grow during your postdoc—from the budgets, to the freedom of work, to the network of staff scientists. And of course, in my case, the availability of the telescopes. Everyone I know who ever went to Carnegie has had great things to say about what a wonderful organization it is. So, I was very happy that I had the opportunity to go there.

Q:  What has your experience at Carnegie meant to you?

Upon arriving, I found a very healthy environment. All of the staff, from the engineering team to administration to the staff scientists, everyone was welcoming and helpful. And during some personal challenges I faced at a certain point, I felt completely supported by everyone, particularly by John Mulchaey, the Director of the Carnegie Observatories. I just really enjoyed the atmosphere there and found it to be a thriving, collaborative workplace.