This fall, SOFIA Science Center associate director for research Jim Jackson will make the cross country trek from his current home in California to the hills of West Virginia where he will take his place as director of the Green Bank Observatory.
Jackson has spent his adult life in the field of radio astronomy, traveling around the world and making discoveries with many notable researchers.
“I was an undergrad at Penn State,” he said. “I got my Ph.D. from MIT; worked as a postdoc at Berkeley and Max-Planck-Institute in Garching Germany. I worked with the Nobel Prize Winner there, which was cool. Reinhard Genzel won the Nobel Prize this year for his work on black holes. I was fortunate enough to be his postdoc. What an experience. It was amazing.
“After that, I went to Boston University for twenty-five years,” he continued. “Did a lot of research in Australia. I went there on sabbatical and met a girl and moved countries and moved jobs. Took up a job in Australia, got married and was at the University of Newcastle for three years.”
The couple then moved to Silicon Valley in California where Jackson joined the SOFIA project. SOFIA – the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is an airborne observ- atory inside a 747.
During his long career in astronomy, Jackson has worked with staff and the telescopes at Green Bank.
“I’ve been to Green Bank many times,” he said. “I’ve been a radio astronomer for a long time, and I was actually a pretty heavy user of Green Bank. I was leading one of the big projects that they did there, which was looking at ammonia in molecular clouds, star forming clouds. I’ve spent a lot of time observing, both there and remotely. I’m very familiar with the staff. I’ve made some good friends there along the way.”
When it was posted that GBO director Karen O’Neil was stepping down from the position to return to scientific research, it was Jackson’s wife who brought the position to his attention.
He’s been a professor, researcher and director of research, and in his current position, Jackson said he became intrigued by the idea of directing an observatory.
“I became really interested in running observatories,” he said. “I thought it was a lot of fun and got a lot of experience here. When I saw that the Green Bank directorship was open, I thought that would be a terrific job because I know the facility, I know the people, really love the science, and love the community. It sounds like a dream come true.”
Since he is familiar with GBO, Jackson said that O’Neil has done a wonderful job as director, and he hopes to continue the momentum when he takes his position in October.
“One of the challenges that Karen faced – and she did such a remarkable job, I have nothing but respect for her – is to kind of get the observatory on stable funding ground,” he said. “Since it split from NRAO, that was a challenge. There’s a little bit more of that to do but not a lot because Karen left the observatory in great shape. I would like to make sure that we have that funding stable and secure, and make sure that we know we don’t have to worry about the short term stability of the observatory.”
As for future goals, Jackson would like to see the observatory expand on its collection of telescopes with new instruments.
“I would like to see the observatory take advantage of advances in technology and build some new instruments that could really benefit the community,” he said. “With the Arecibo telescope gone, Green Bank’s capabilities are in even more high demand. That really provides an opportunity for us to capitalize on Green Bank’s unique capabilities, and I think we can push some new science directions and figure out exactly what the community wants and what the best science is.”
Going from Silicon Valley – a hub of the latest technology – to the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone may seem like a difficult transition, but Jackson said he is prepared and more than willing to make the sacrifices that go with living in the NRQZ.
“I don’t think my wife is ready,” he laughed. “I know the deal there, and that’s fine. It’s what makes Green Bank unique and not only is the facility unique, the environment is unique, so I have to respect that, and it’s very cool. I’m just excited about the potential new science and discoveries that this telescope can make.”
It will be a long journey across the country, but Jackson said he is ready for this next phase of his astronomical life.
“I’m really just thrilled to death that I have this opportunity,” he said. “I’m really interested in touching base with the community and working with everyone there. I think this will be a really great opportunity for me.
“Karen has left the observatory in good hands,” he added. “She has left some big shoes to fill. No one will work harder to make it thrive even more.”