Q&A with Stuartt Corder, alumnus astronomer

High in the mountains just outside Santiago, Chile, a group of scientists are looking toward the sky, capturing information about every corner of our universe. Led by KU alumnus Stuartt Corder, astronomers at ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) have been able to uncover never-before-seen features of space.

Recently, they’ve captured the clearest picture ever taken of planet formation around an infant star. The revolutionary image shows in great detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. It shows concentric rings that suggest planet formation is already occurring around this young star. Previously, this level of detail was only achieved through computer models and artist concepts.scorder

We were able to catch up with Stuartt to learn more about his work with ALMA and his KU memories, which include professors who helped him succeed and a math class where he was probably way in over his head.

Hometown: Spring Hill, KS

Undergraduate Major(s): B.S. in physics, mathematics, and astronomy

Tell us more about your work with ALMA:  ALMA is the largest ground based astronomical facility ever constructed. I manage the Science, Engineering and Software Operations of the observatory.  The groups are composed of over 200 people working in Santiago, Chile, who coordinate with many others worldwide (Munich, Tokyo, Virginia, New Mexico…to name a few).  The project is distributed in this way to gain expertise around the world and allow better utilization of the telescope at the same time.  Now, I work with the international team and my local team to define the process for development, plans for the direction of the observatory and the overall budget.  It has been a challenge to go from working in the details to being a generalist but it has also forced me to have a broader vision of how observatories impact the science community and the world.

Where do you see yourself in five years? In life, I expect I’ll be continuing to travel to new places.  And I’ll probably be at a horseback riding competition somewhere, watching my daughter ride.

“My favorite KU memory is…”  Wow, tough one.  There were many.  Most of them involved times with my now wife or my partners in crime Matthew Haug and/or Roger Deitz.  Possibly the day when Matt and I came out of Math Analysis for Graduate Students (as sophomores), and stood at the edge of Wescoe for five minutes asking each other blankly “what’s going on?”  We were in over our heads, but we were in it together and that helped.

“I’m most proud of…” The ALMA long baseline success is my biggest professional accomplishment. Personally, I’d have to say hiking to Machu Picchu with my wife.

“I became a Jayhawk because…” Well, when you have KU in your blood for three generations before you, it is hard not to become one.  I grew up attending games at the fieldhouse, hearing stories of the exploits of my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles as well as my own sister.  Even the records of great grandmother were fun to look over.  Also, it was a great place to be.

The best advice I ever got: My job has been, since 2001, largely related to finding the next problem in a system and stamping it out. Once it is stamped out, you move on to the next one.  You don’t really spend a lot of time savoring the result.  So someone once told me: “Don’t let the fact that you deal in problems all the time make you feel like you aren’t successful.  Every now and then, look back and see where you came from, see the road you made and appreciate the view.”  Works for work and life in general.corder

140-character soapbox: Stop complaining about what you should have.  Be thankful for what you have.  If you aren’t willing to work harder for it, you don’t want it!

What inspires you? My daughter and my wife inspire me to be a better person in all the ways that I can. At work, the everyday promise of seeing something that no one has ever seen before that may give us understanding of our origins… that really gets me moving when I let myself think about it!

What’s at the top of your bucket list? Seeing some great aurora borealis.

I would like to give some shout outs to: Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, Bruce Twarog, and Barbara Anthony-Twarog.  Those three people were responsible for my success at KU (and probably some of the more painful times as well…but very much in the sense of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger).  I remember when the aforementioned Matthew Haug and I agreed to begin the 700 series mathematics classes in our sophomore years, Bozenna, in complete seriousness said, in response to the question of whether or not people had done this before, “Yes. They have.  And they only cried once in my office.”  And we still said yes!!??!