James Guillochon, PhD


Find him on Twitter: @astrocrash

Undergrad: BSc in Physics from UC Irvine

Graduate: PhD in Astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz

Current job title: Robotics engineer at Berkshire Grey

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

I’d always been interested in how things work, and have had a broad interest in the sciences ever since grade school. The topics I was most interested in as a grade-schooler were the human body, computing, and space, and I originally wanted to be a medical doctor.

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

My father was probably the greatest facilitator of my scientific interests, taking me to our local public library every weekend where I would read popular science magazines, browse microfiche articles, use their computers, etc. Nowadays the Internet makes it much easier for kids to be exposed to science, but the ritual of going to the library regularly made science an essential piece of my life, particularly because we couldn’t afford to have any of those resources at home.

I had a great PhD advisor who advocated for me at every opportunity and was incredibly supportive of my research. In particular, he allowed me to go off on research tangents on topics that he wasn’t particularly driven by, but that allowed me to really dive deep into the scientific questions that most interested me. He always made it 100% clear that the success and happiness of his students was his primary responsibility as a professor, something I think is not valued by an embarrassingly large fraction of the professoriate.

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?

I had many moments of doubt in my scientific career, but two critical ones that really stick out to me are:

  1. My undergraduate physics education was, to put it kindly, mediocre. Half of the classes I took were poorly taught, with many of the lecturers being clearly disinterested in having to be in the classroom. We also received very little guidance for the steps necessary to prepare us for graduate school or industry careers, largely self-organizing study groups for the Physics GRE and writing our own applications with minimal (essentially zero) input from faculty. I left academia for two years after my bachelor’s largely because I felt ill-prepared (and little desire) to be in graduate school. Eventually, my love of science compelled me to try again: I studied for the PGRE on my own after work, scoring a lot better the second time around, and found that the break really rejuvenated me. I’d advise any young person who finds themselves leaving from a bachelor’s program with mixed feelings on their experience to look back on their experience after some time has elapsed. For me, this time really helped me understand that it wasn’t the science that was unappealing to me, but the effectiveness of the program that I went through.
  2. As a postdoc, the search for a permanent faculty job was immensely draining. The process is extremely inefficient and unfair to everyone involved, not just the applicants but also to the faculty committees who have to make tough decisions on who they want to make offers to out of a pool of excellent candidates, the majority of whom would do a great job. It really is unfortunate that so many hyper-talented, experienced, knowledgeable people are pushed out simply because supply far exceeds demand, a major issue that academia must reconcile. At the same time I was reconsidering the work/life balance of academia, and also thinking back to my undergraduate years where I had ineffective lecturers who clearly valued other parts of the scientific and personal lives over teaching; it became clear to me that this wasn’t because they necessarily hated teaching, they just didn’t have enough time in the day to prepare for it adequately. Each successive job cycle made it increasingly apparent that I didn’t really want to be a part of that system, and that there was likely very little I could do to change things without dramatic, sweeping reforms that I didn’t see happening any time soon (such as doubling the number of tenure track faculty positions).

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I largely believe now that success is a combination of hard work and dumb luck, and that the true process that guides people down particular paths is serendipity rather than fastidiousness toward a specific outcome. I have seen this happen twice in my life thus far.

The first time is the way my PhD advisor became my advisor. I applied to UCSC and had the intent to work with a particular professor when I arrived, but when I got to the campus I was told that he didn’t have any money to support students. I happened to take the shuttle home with another professor who was just starting. We struck up a conversation about my undergraduate research project, which was writing a code to simulate the tidal disruption of dwarf galaxies. The professor said “how about tidally disrupting stars instead.” I was sold, though slightly disappointed that now I would only be destroying mere star systems rather than entire galaxies.

The second time is the way I came into my current industry job. Between undergrad and grad school, I worked for a company called HRL Laboratories in Malibu, where I primarily worked on algorithms that coordinated the command and control of groups of unmanned aerial vehicles. A person who interviewed me at my current employer (Berkshire Grey), through a twist of fate, actually knew my old manager at HRL. While I am not sure if this helped me land the job, it was quite the coincidence given that the two companies are on opposite sides of the country with my applications to the two positions being 13 years apart. My job nowadays involves coordinating the command and control of robots within industrial spaces and their interactions with people, which is something I really enjoy doing.

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

I’ve always appreciated beauty in nature: symmetry, colors, harmony, motion. The best part of being in academia was the artistic freedom to construct figures, talks, and animations in a way that I felt best conveyed that beauty. I’ve never been a talented artist myself (my attempts at drawing by hand are just awful), so the fact that beauty just emanates from physical processes so easily was very appealing to me.

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.

Scientific inquisitiveness comes from within, and I believe that almost everyone on the planet has the potential to be a great scientist, even if they don’t have the title of “scientist.” If you receive a scientific degree, it’s essentially a badge demonstrating that there has been a serious attempt by trained professionals (professors) to foster this inquisitiveness within you, and that you immersed yourself in it for a certain number of years. However, the academic system has major flaws that let down a lot of people, whether that is exclusion from the system altogether, or the numerous shortcomings within the system. It can be very frustrating to have to fill in these gaps yourself, but often times that is the only way forward. I have seen so much in terms of grass-roots effort by small pieces of the academic community to improve things (examples: eliminating the GRE, steps towards actual diversity in departments, unionization of postdocs) that I am hopeful that we will expand scientific opportunity to a much larger fraction of the population, and to find fulfilling career paths for all scientifically trained people.

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