After receiving her doctorate in Astronomy from the Graduate School of Science, Mizuho Uchiyama worked as a researcher for the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) and as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) before joining JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) where she is currently involved in the development of a next-generation solar telescope called SOLAR-C (a high resolution solar optical ultraviolet spectrograph). After gaining experience in both science and engineering, she is now a development and verification lead in a large-scale astronomical research project with her engineering career at the core.
Physics or Astronomy
Uchiyama entered university with a keen interest in astronomy that had been sparked by the news of space discoveries in her childhood. “I remember the news broadcasts in my elementary school years about things related to space, such as the Subaru Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope's “First Light” (its first test observation).”
Even though she was already fascinated by astronomy, the discovery of exoplanets captivated her even more. “I already had a vague attraction to astronomy in junior high and high school. However, hearing the news of the discovery of a planetary system outside our solar system made me think there were still great discoveries to be made in the field. They had a strong personal impact and fueled my interest."
Actually, she was also attracted to particle physics, a research area closely related to astronomy. She chose to study at the University of Tokyo because it has a specialized astronomy program and offers physics and astronomy in its liberal arts program. While studying both, she had a chance to explore whether particle physics or astronomy was closer to what she wanted to do. “Science progresses by repeating the cycle of building instruments and making observations. I felt that observing stellar objects was better suited to me than focusing on theory. So, astronomy it was.”
Discussions at Atacama Plateau
She was in graduate school when the project to build a telescope on the Atacama Plateau was just getting underway. She moved countries to spend her days making observations with the 1-meter telescope, analyzing the data in the laboratory, and developing equipment for the 6.5-meter telescope. She spent about the same time developing instruments and making observations. One of her best experiences, Uchiyama recalls, was that she was able to have lively discussions with the more science-leaning, measurement-focused researchers working there.
“When we started building the 6.5-meter telescope, we asked them to tell us what kind of measurements they wanted to do, and we thought about what elements we could include in the observation equipment to make that happen. While there were some challenges, we were able to exchange ideas about what they wanted to accomplish scientifically and what the technology’s limits were. The most enjoyable part of the project for me was the opportunity to create a new device through which the science of nature’s constituent parts advances. I think I am where I am in my career today because of these experiences as a graduate student."
She conducted empirical research up until his postdoctoral fellowship, analyzing observational data and publishing papers on astronomy. However, looking back on her graduate school experience of building observation instruments, she realized that the hands-on style suited her more. “When you have hands-on experience with making a piece of equipment, you also grasp to a certain extent its structure and how the parts work. I realized I wanted to understand those aspects as well.” As Uchiyama says, her strong curiosity to uncover not only the mechanisms of the universe but also the mechanisms of the systems used to observe the universe may have led her down the hybrid path of science and engineering.
At JAXA, dedicated to the development of solar telescopes
The solar observing satellite “Hinode” launched by JAXA has already brought us many discoveries. However, scientists studying the Sun have expressed a wish to make more detailed observations of more types of phenomena. As a response, JAXA initiated an international project to develop a next-generation solar telescope. Uchiyama is responsible for coordinating the assembly and verification work of the telescope.
The significance of this project is that "by understanding the Sun better, we can clarify the mechanisms of space weather phenomena, such as solar flares, that influence our lives, and deepen our understanding of what is happening in the Sun," she explains.
Uchiyama's ability to lead the project from a technical standpoint while keeping in sight the eventual scientific achievements and practical use is thanks to her experience in the Atacama Plateau. In her undeniable Uchiyama style, she also talks about the next step of the next generation of solar telescopes. “To do further research we need new telescopes and satellites. I hope to contribute to science through the technical side.”
When there’s an opportunity, take it!
Uchiyama's career has involved difficult choices: physics or astronomy, science or engineering. When considering which one to choose, Uchiyama's solution is to first experience both. She hopes that younger students who want to pursue a career in science will also be able to do what they are truly interested in.
“Do what you want to do to the best of your ability. Don't hesitate to venture outside the comforts of the Hongo campus hat you are accustomed to. If an opportunity presents itself, jump right in. When I was a graduate student, I mostly studied at the Institute of Astronomy in Mitaka, a facility affiliated with the Department of Astronomy at the Graduate School of Science. I also took the opportunities to go on overseas business trips. I’m sure that there are many options in other departments as well, so use them proactively in order to pursue the things you truly want to do.”
※Year of interview:2023
Interview and text: Naoto Horibe
Photography: Junichi Kaizuka