Geoffrey Lentner

He/him/his

Purdue University, B.Sc., 2013. Physics (minor in Astronomy).

I started out as a liberal arts major (Professional Writing with a minor in Political Science). I was worried about getting a job though so I added courses to satisfy a full English major, then I did it again to include Secondary Education (which would allow me to teach high school English). At the end of my second year I was not happy with this trajectory though and jumped feet first into Physics because I wanted to study Astronomy as an escape from language and literature. An interesting journey to say the least trying to satisfy the requirements to be accepted into the College of Science with no prior background in science.

I pursued astronomy/astrophysics courses during my time as a Physics major. In my last semester I got interested in computing programming as a means of doing science.

University of Louisville, M.Sc., 2015. Astrophysics.

I started out as a Ph.D. student in Louisville. I had a thesis advisor and was actively engaged in research. After two years of courses, teaching, and research, there was no funding available to support me. I had a choice: either stay on but work in a different field (e.g., high-energy physics instead of astronomy) or stay in astronomy by getting an offer from another university to go finish my graduate work elsewhere.

University of Notre Dame, Ph.D (ABD), 2017. Astrophysics.

I was accepted as a Ph.D. student at Notre Dame and was quickly offered a spot in the Large Scale Survey Astronomy group. I did well, spending another two years on courses, teaching, and research. Unfortunately, I ran up against more obstacles at this point. The qualifying exams (written tests you must pass before moving forward) kept me from continuing. I had difficulty completing the exams and the committee was unforgiving and opaque towards me. Further, after four years of poverty level wages trying to support my family (wife and two children) I was going to derail my future before I would have been able to finish — regardless of the exams. So I left early to take a job as a data scientist.

Current job title: Data Scientist

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I took an Astronomy elective as my science credit while I was an English major at Purdue. I was always interested in science as a child; I wanted to be a paleontologist in grade school. By the time I was in high school I lacked guidance in science as a career path and didn’t consider it an option. I wasn’t until my second year at Purdue that I could wrap my head around what it could actually be like to “be a scientist”. The professor of that Astronomy course was wonderful and kindled an interest in me; which is how I discovered that Astronomers are actually all Physicists.

I pursed Astronomy relentlessly through numerous setbacks. Ultimately I ended up as a Data Scientist, first in industry and then at a university. The interesting thing though is that now in my role as a staff Data Scientist at Purdue I act as a “facilitator” for research groups on campus who use the super computing resources, and one of the research groups that I work with the most is actually an Astronomy group doing projects that I might have otherwise been involved in had I stayed in academia, which is just incredible.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

Certainly my professor from that first Astronomy class. Also, a faculty member that I worked with while an undergraduate at Purdue helped me get my foot in the door at the University of Louisville; every graduate school I applied to rejected me except for Louisville, which I only considered because of her.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it? Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I had doubts about my/our future at every point where it seemed I couldn’t move forward. The many rejections from graduate schools, the lack of funding in Louisville, the continued difficulties with the qualifying exams at Notre Dame, the year of job applications and continued rejections from companies because I didn’t have a computer science background.

The job I ended up getting was as the first data scientist at the New York Power Authority (large public power utility in NY). I was worried because I was leaving college with a family (2 kids and another on the way) to live in a large metro area with no prior experience in “industry”. The climate is very different and I suffered heavily from imposter syndrome in my first few months.

I dealt with all of this perpetual uncertainty by detaching my sense of urgency around what path I thought I should be on and instead made peace with going down whatever path presented itself to me. What I’ve learned is that we put too much weight on young people’s expectations towards what they want to do with their life. Life is not a straight path, for anyone, and it’s unreasonable to think you know what you want to do with your life at the outset. If you don’t get the exact job you think you want on your first try that doesn’t mean you’ve failed — it just means there are more steps to take before you can get there.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Nothing so unrelated. I still very much like writing and try to incorporate opportunities to do so in the work that I do. But I’m the kind of person that would say good writing is good science.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Just to be open to opportunities that present themselves that may not align with what their initial goals were. You never know where it will lead and it might turn out that you like the new path better.

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