Exploring the Cathedral that is the Universe – Kimberly Arcand joins Real Scientists

We are delighted to welcome Kimberly Kowal Arcand(@kimberlykowal) of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to Real Scientists. Kim is a leading expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum.  She uses data to tell stories, combining her backgrounds in biology and computer science with her current work in the field of astronomy and physics.


Kim started out as a molecular biologist with the intention of becoming a doctor, but became interested in computer science on the way. While in her senior year of college, she won a public health fellowship for public health communication, and ended up creating promotional material that won an intellectual property invention award. Kim then joined NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, working in commutation and data visualisation. We asked Kim our usual questions and here she is in her own words. You can also read more about Kim at the Chandra X Ray Observatory site.


I always loved science as a kid. At seven years old, I proudly announced to my parents that I was going to be an astronaut when I grew up. Even though they could not drag me on an amusement park ride more adventurous than a bumper car, my parents apparently thought it best not to discourage me. While majoring in biology as an undergrad in college (specializing in parasitology), I developed a knack for computers. So in hindsight, it seems logical that my career would end up combining science and technology.


In 1998, I joined the staff for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, just prior to its launch in 1999. In the earliest days of my job (headquartered at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.), I was getting to work with women and men who had spent years if not decades creating the hardware and software that would be violently shot out into space via the Space Shuttle, eventually finding its home orbiting our planet almost a third of the way to the Moon. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is an X-ray telescope that studies very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and black holes. About 17 years into the mission, I can still say I learn something new every day. That sort of opportunity is difficult to leave.

For my job, I feel like I get to sit in the Universe’s cathedral.

As the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, my expertise is in applications development, visualizing data, image and meaning research and science communications/diplomacy. This has led me to looking at ways to integrate high-energy astrophysics, technology applications, space science engineering and mathematics into large public contexts. I study the perception and comprehension of data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum and am active in the creation, distribution, and evaluation of large-scale science and technology communications projects.


For my job, I feel like I get to sit in the Universe’s cathedral. If cathedrals as these tall towering places that have been around seemingly forever, where you can admire the beauty of the stained glass, wonder at how the architecture was created, and eventually get to thinking about why it was made. We all get through the public space program a front row seat into this deep, infinite beauty. These images (and other data) of the Universe can help us reflect on those timeless questions: what are we? where are we going? where do we come from?


I very much enjoy volunteering at local schools, libraries, community programs, etc. to talk about science & technology (scitech). I serve on a number of committees and boards for scitech. Outside of work I also co-author popular science books such as “Light: The Visible Spectrum & Beyond,” “Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Look at Making Spectacular Images of Space,” etc.


Any interesting hobbies we should know about? Hanging out with my husband and two young kids, going on nature walks, signing karaoke until I’m hoarse, reading.

Ideal Day Off: Pretty much the above, and in that order!


Please welcome Kim to Real Scientists!

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