Exclusive: Through the Eyes of Asian American Planetary Scientist Michael Wong

Last year, my friend Michael Wong, a Berkeley astronomer, led a team that analyzed Hubble’s data from the discovery of a massive “dark vortex” that appeared on Neptune. Huffington Post wrote that the dark vortex was “so massive that it would swallow the United States if it was here on Earth.” I decided to interview Mike as we’ve been friends for over twenty years after we first dated in Berkeley as naive undergraduates. He was my first boyfriend, and I’ve been so proud of his passion toward space for since college. Of course, Asian American astronomers are few and far between;  not to mention bisexual Asian American astronomers.


A: When did you first decide that you would be an astronomer? Can you describe that moment to us?

I have always been interested in science since I was a child, and encouraged by my parents. My mom is not into science, but would take me to the county library all the time so I could get science books to read.

So early on, I was trying to decide whether to be an astronomer specializing in planetary atmospheres, or a biologist specializing in social insects (bees, ants, termites, etc.).

The “moment” I made the decision is when I realized that biologists have to dissect a lot of things… including human cadavers! Now, I think i could handle dissection. But at the time, it was enough to make sure I went into planetary science.


A: What drew you toward the stars? Why are you passionate about space?

My motivations are pretty common among scientists. We have a lot of curiosity, so we like figuring out questions of “why” or “how” in the universe, and seek out areas of human knowledge where there is a lot left to discover.

I’m also drawn to beauty, and it never gets old when a new imaging dataset comes down from the Hubble space telescope, or when we’re at an observatory and the first science image of the night comes up on screen.


A: Can you tell us about your trajectory of planetary research? What I meant is you started researching on Mars and then to Jupiter?

A lot of these things boil down to individual, distinct moments:

The moment when my college professor took me aside and asked whether I would like to work for her on a research project.

The moment when a decade-long mission to Jupiter resulted in some two hours of data, as a metal ball successfully parachuted into the atmosphere and sent back data that I would analyze for the next six years.

The moments when my first proposals to use Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes were accepted (like a 1 in 10 chance).

The moment when I sat down with my husband Daniel, and we talked about whether it was worth it for me to accept a 2-year job for some 9 months/year out of town, in order to be able to join the curiosity Mars rover team.

But all these moments were only possible, i feel, because I have a strong work ethic. People recognize the effort I put into projects, and it influences their desire to work with me.


A: How did you get involved with the Neptune project?

I’ve been a Jupiter guy for many years. But about 7 years ago, I wrote a paper about how it is in NASA and the USA’s best interest to launch a mission consisting of a dedicated space telescope for solar system observations. This telescope could act as a kind of climate satellite for other planets, studying how their atmospheres work, without the expense of going there.

Then, a colleague wanted to propose a mission like that to NASA, and contacted me to join his team. It was there that I had to thoroughly justify the science that such a mission would accomplish, so I learned more about Neptune.

One of our team-mates on that project came up with an idea to use Hubble as a mini-version of this type of mission, collecting maps on an annual basis of all the giant planets. This program is called the OPAL program. one of the OPAL maps happened to capture a rare dark spot on Neptune. I led a program to do follow-up observations of the dark spot, a huge atmospheric vortex.


A: What is a vortex?

A vortex is a “spinning thing.” Tornados are vortices, Hurricanes are giant vortices, and vortices also exist in the atmospheres of other planets. There are many different types of vortices, and the dark vortex on Neptune is most similar to the great red spot on Jupiter, or certain types of sea vortices that are carried along the gulf stream current.

We discovered it in the OPAL maps of Neptune. These maps are taken every year. If it were not for that program, we might still not even know the dark vortex is there, because only Hubble has the capability to see these things.


A: If you can research on anything in space, what would it be?

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of my work is understanding how changeable the atmospheres are. We might think, “Oh, take some measurements, then we know about that planet.”

Planetary atmospheres are continually changing and evolving. This is something I think should be naturally exciting to everyone because we all live on a planet where the atmosphere is changing quite dramatically.


A: What is it like being Asian American in astronomy? Are there a lot of Asian American astronomers?

Well, there is the stereotype that Asians are good at Math. We use a lot of math in astronomy.

But all the sciences have problems with inclusion. There are more white males in astronomy than in the public at large, and it’s the same (to varying degrees) with most branches of science.

Still, I feel that scientists as individuals are very non-discriminatory. Science is supposed to be about the quality of our ideas, and anyone can have ideas. I feel that most scientists embrace this, and racism and sexism in their most blatant forms are not acceptable in our field.

It is also an international endeavor, and many of us work with other scientists in/from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea… etc.


A: What would one advice you’d give to an aspiring astronomer?

I would say to be careful. The pure sciences are largely government-funded, and I know that for NASA at least, the US government’s support has not even stayed level when inflation is considered. So it gets harder and harder to ensure that your research will be funded. The best way to cope with this is to have a bail-out plan. Many different industries value the skills that we use as astronomers, so keep those options in mind in case things don’t work out.

And, look for opportunities to lead. “I helped so-and-so with a research paper” does not sound as good as “I led a research paper.” So look for ways to develop your own ideas.

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Author: Quentin Lee

Quentin Lee is an international filmmaker of mystery.

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