Working on the future of space technology

As a child, Isaac found his passion for astronomy by looking at the brightest stars in the night sky. Today, Isaac is a recipient of the Co-op Student of the Year Award for his work at the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre (HAA) in the National Research Council Canada (NRC).

Isaac Cheng (he/him), is a third-year Physics and Astronomy student in the Faculty of Science. Isaac discusses the many facets of this role and reflects on his experience working in the field of astronomy.

Close up image of Isaac Cheng

Isaac worked on developing mission planning tools for a Canadian-led flagship space telescope known as CASTOR, which is proposed to succeed the current Hubble Space Telescope.
This is the biggest space project that Canada has taken on.
“Naturally, we want to understand how the telescope will perform before we launch it into space."
"I was responsible for developing an exposure time calculator, which is a tool that simulates the data that we will receive from the telescope given specific design parameters such as the environment under which it will operate, the target the telescope observes and the detectors in the telescope.”

Q: How does it feel to be a part of something so important? Was this something you had been dreaming of as an Astronomy student?

A: “I didn’t think that any of this would be possible. My co-op and my supervisors have given me opportunities beyond anything I imagined was possible for an undergraduate student. I am very thankful for their guidance and mentorship.”   

"My co-op and my supervisors have given me opportunities beyond anything I imagined was possible for an undergraduate student"

Q: How did your other co-op terms differ from this in terms of the skills you developed? Have those previous terms allowed you to succeed in this one?   

A: “My previous terms at NRC taught me a lot about how to conduct good research and how to be a good scientist. It also showed me what the world of academia looks like. I think that along with teaching me some of the hard or technical skills, it also taught me some soft skills that allowed me to excel in my most recent co-op term. For example, I learned how to be a good collaborator which is very important when you have an international team of scientists from four or five different countries. It taught me how to develop effective presentations and how to be a better person overall.” 

Q: What skills did you develop during your recent co-op term? Are any of those skills something you can use in your career?

A: “Beyond simple hard and soft skills, I took with me the learnings and experiences of others by being around great minds in a very academically-stimulating culture. None of the people I worked with were arrogant, instead they were welcoming and there was no gatekeeping. That is a philosophy I have adapted for life; to be friendly and humble.” 

Image of Isaac Cheng


Q: Did you feel connected to your team even though you worked remotely throughout this term?

A: “My supervisors at HAA did a terrific job of making me feel welcome and part of the team. During one co-op term, we even had hour-long daily meetings where I could talk to them about my aspirations and their career experiences, like visiting observatories around the world. I really felt like I was not working remotely. As such, my job never felt like a chore I had to do.”

Q: How does contributing to something so big make you feel? 

A: “I am just humbled by the experience. These space telescopes are a worldwide effort and being able to contribute to a small part of it is amazing. It was a very rewarding project and I am glad that I got the opportunity to work on such a big part of Canada’s future in space.”   

Here are some thoughts Isaac would like to share about his co-op experience at HAA:

Isaac’s curiosity led him to question things like, “Where do we belong in this universe? Where do we belong in the grand scheme of things?” Isaac finds that looking into the cosmos with a telescope such as CASTOR will allow humans to explore space further.   

The exposure time calculator Isaac worked on is now part of a larger collection of mission planning tools that will help scientists tweak parameters to meet design targets and find alternative solutions. Like Isaac, co-op could give you the opportunity to work on revolutionary projects.

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