With Pivot Fellowship, astronomer J. Xavier Prochaska turns to oceanography

A new program from the Simons Foundation supports successful researchers who have a deep interest, curiosity, and drive to make contributions to a new discipline

J. Xavier Prochaska (photo by C. Lagattuta)

Most successful scientists are specialists delving deeply into a particular area of research, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in other disciplines. J. Xavier Prochaska, for example, is a distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz who has won acclaim for his groundbreaking research in astrophysics, but he has also maintained an interest in oceanography since he was an undergraduate.

Over the past few years, Prochaska has been taking advanced oceanography classes at UCSC and forging collaborations with ocean scientists. Now, thanks to a Pivot Fellowship from the Simons Foundation, he will be able to spend a year focusing on oceanography research starting in fall 2023.

Prochaska's interest in the ocean dates back to his childhood in Rhode Island. As an undergraduate physics major at Princeton University, he did a summer research project at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, located in his hometown. But his interest in astronomy won out—he earned his Ph.D. studying the distant universe at UC San Diego and went on to a highly successful career in which he has made important contributions in several areas of astronomy and astrophysics.

In May 2020, Prochaska published two major papers, one solving the decades-old mystery of the "missing matter" in the universe and another on the discovery of a massive rotating disk galaxy in the early universe. Each paper was the culmination of more than 20 years of research.

“I felt the time was right to turn my scientific focus to new directions,” he said. "As I learned more about oceanography, I quickly recognized I could apply the skills and expertise I'd honed pursuing astronomy to questions and challenges on our planet.”

When he saw the call for applications for the Pivot Fellowships in February of this year, he said, “I thought, that is for me. I'm not going to drop astronomy yet, but I see opportunities for me to make real contributions in oceanography.”

Prochaska will spend his fellowship year at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, working with Professor Daniel Rudnick, an observational oceanographer whose research focuses on processes in the upper ocean. The fellowship will cover his salary for the year while he is on leave from UCSC, and it also provides funds for research, travel, and professional development.

As an astronomer, Prochaska has made extensive use of the powerful techniques of spectroscopy, which separates the light from a source into its constituent wavelengths. Oceanographers use a spectroscopic technique called hyperspectral imaging for remote sensing of ocean ecosystems, and Prochaska said he sees opportunities to apply artificial intelligence (AI) techniques in the analysis of hyperspectral imaging data. NASA's Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission is expected to launch in 2024 and will provide unprecedented amounts of global hyperspectral imaging data.

“Spectroscopy has been my primary practice as a scientist, central to my major contributions in astrophysics,” he said. “At Scripps, one of the projects I hope to do will combine hyperspectral imaging datasets with observations on the California coast to study the origins of harmful algal blooms.”

Prochaska said he is also interested in developing new instruments to incorporate spectroscopy into existing ocean monitoring systems.

“Very likely I will be doing some combination of spectroscopy, instrumentation, and AI,” he said.

Prochaska said he considers his current level of expertise in oceanography “roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. student with several years of experience.” The Pivot Fellowship will enable him to focus on oceanography for an extended period and establish a foundation for future funding proposals. It will also give him the opportunity to apply for a three-year research award from the Simons Foundation for up to $1.5 million to support his work in the new field.

“Scientists who move into new fields have had outsize impact,” said Simons Foundation president David Spergel. “This new program aims to enable and accelerate this process and to break down barriers between fields.”