SETI is a very young field (academically) Part II

In a previous post, I discussed the five PhD dissertations focused on SETI (ever!) and mentioned that I could not track what had become of one of their authors, Darren Leigh.  Well, it turns out I should have just asked!

Darren was kind enough to email me with the details of his degree and his thoughts on the merits of a degree in SETI, Paul Horowitz as an adviser, and his career path since then.

I’ve updated my previous post to reflect his input. Below is his email to me, which he kindly allowed me to reproduce here.

Darren Leigh, the first person to write a doctoral thesis focused on their search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Hi Jason,

A friend stumbled onto this post of yours and sent me the link.

I didn’t think I would be that hard to find. :-)

At the time I did my dissertation, I was told that it would be the world’s first on the subject of SETI. A couple of previous astronomy dissertations had contained a chapter on SETI, but did not have it as the main topic. The fact that I had done a bachelor’s and master’s in EE at MIT (with some physics background) probably made this easier than it would have been for a real physics major looking for a career track in academic astronomy. (Note that my PhD says “Applied Physics”, and is from the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and not the Physics Department).

The real pull of doing SETI was working for Paul Horowitz at Harvard. I was actually in the early stages of a PhD program at MIT when I met Paul and decided to move up the street to work with him. Paul always prided himself on being a generalist, rather than a narrowly-focused academic. Note the wide range of things that he works on, including the amazing “Art of Electronics”. Those of us in the Horowitz lab were amused when Ernst Mayr complained about what a waste SETI was, both in terms of resources as well as in terms of the professional lives of Paul’s students. I think Paul’s students have all done pretty well, taking a more generalist approach than many doctoral recipients.

I’ve been doing corporate-type R&D since I defended, and my SETI background has served me well in areas from electronics to signal processing to satellite communications to marketing and public relations. [I spent a lot of time with camera crews and the press around 1995 due to the SETI work and the (then recent) discovery of 51 Pegasi b.]

Jonathan Weintroub, another of Paul’s PhD students who defended the same year that I did and also an EE, was doing actual astronomy, looking for highly red-shifted hydrogen. A lot of the work we were doing overlapped. He now works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics on the Submillimeter Array.

Ian Avruch was a doctoral student of Bernie Burke, but hung around the Horowitz lab a lot because he was also looking for highly-redshifted hydrogen and could actually get stuff built there. He’s a real physicist and has done a lot of professional astronomy since. I believe that he is at the European Space Agency now.

Chip Coldwell (on your list) was a physics major, but has spent most of his professional life doing software/computer stuff, and is now apparently moving into RF hardware. You can check with him yourself, but I don’t think he was doing astronomy research after his PhD, even though he has worked for such astronomers. He spent a lot of time at Red Hat and is now at MIT Lincoln Lab.

Of the other Horowitz students on your list, Andrew Howard had been a physics major and got a physics PhD and is now a professor of astronomy at CalTech. Curtis Meade was (I believe) an EE, who got his PhD in “Applied Physics” at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, like I did. I don’t know what he’s up to now.

I can’t think of any of Paul Horowitz’s doctoral students who has had professional problems. I guess Mayr was used to narrowly-focused grad students who could be ruined if they weren’t trained exactly right for academia. Paul took in both EEs and physicists and made us all better at both of those things, as well as turning us into skilled and pragmatic researchers.

As far as wasted money and resources go, SETI is cheap. I think people believe that it is expensive because they associate it with “space” and that with NASA and it’s enormous budgets. There’s a good chance that the press spent more money covering our SETI work than we spent actually doing it.

Me? I’m currently a VP at (and one of the founders of) Tactual Labs. We do advanced human-machine interaction, especially high-performance capacitive sensing systems. I’ve been working in R&D shops for my entire professional career. After finishing my doctorate, I spent ten years at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, coming up with new IP and product ideas. That lab was magical and very influential, and many alumni went off to professorships at MIT, Harvard and other prestigious universities, as well as to corporate R&D labs at Microsoft and Google.

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