John ZuHone: The Sky's The Limit

John ZuHone is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  This week, on Sam’s Dream Blog, John shares about realizing a childhood dream, pushing through doubt and endurance on the dream journey.

Sam's Dream Blog: What's your professional dream? How did your dream originate?  How has it evolved?

John  ZuHone: My professional dream was to do something with outer space. I think it started when I was a child. I loved to read, so my family bought me books on all kinds of subjects. One book (which I still have!) was on the planets. I was hooked. I begged for a telescope, and at age six, I got one. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, so it was easy for me to see the night sky.

For the longest time I said I was going to be an astronaut (most kids do at some point). As the years went on, I found myself most interested by the science behind what was going on beyond our planet. Eventually, I decided that I would become an astrophysicist. I also enjoyed computers growing up. Little did I know that they would become an essential part of my job--running computer simulations of what's going on in the universe.

SDB: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

John  ZuHone: I am mainly a theoretician, in other words, someone who thinks about how the universe works and formulates theories to explain what we see. However, very soon I will have the opportunity to use the Chandra X-ray Observatory, an X-ray telescope orbiting the earth, to observe a cluster of galaxies. It is kind of hard for me to believe sometimes that I get the privilege of using a real observatory that is sitting out in space to do real science.

SDB: What have been the biggest obstacles or challenges to realizing your dream?  What advice do you have for others in pursuit of their dreams?

John ZuHone: Often, the biggest obstacle has been myself. Self-doubt, the idea that I couldn't hack it, that it was foolish for me to keep going because I wasn't cut out for it--those were things I had to overcome. Gaining the confidence that I was truly able to achieve the goals I had set out for myself, with the support structure that my family, friends, and faith gives me, is what got me to where I am.

To anyone who is pursuing their own dream, I have the following bits of advice:

* Know the difference between giving up (which you don't want to do) and realizing that your goals may have shifted from where you thought they were originally. As you move forward, you may find that other things inspire you, that you are interested in other things than what you had set out originally. That's not a sign of failure. It just means you have moved on to something else. And that can be exciting.

* Other people are important. No one ever gets anywhere in life without help from someone else. This includes your family and your friends, but also people you meet along the way. You never know how the connections you make with others will benefit you down the road. And the way you show gratitude for that is by paying it forward--someday you will get a chance to give someone else a leg up when they need it. It's also very humbling--knowing that making the world run, working for things like justice and knowledge and beauty and everything else that's good, takes teamwork. We're all in it together.

SDB: What steps have you taken to get to where you are presently?

John  ZuHone: First, it was lots of school. 10 years, in fact, counting both college and graduate school. That's how long it takes (give or take a year or two) to get a Ph.D.. After that, you spend time building your research career, doing what we call "postdoctoral research." I'm currently nearing the end of that part of my career, transitioning into something more permanent. But a lot of the education that you need to excel in this area, as in many, is self-taught and self-sought. The classroom is very important, but some of the most important things you will ever learn are not taught in the classroom. You only learn by doing them, and usually doing them wrong a few times before getting it right. In that sense, I am still learning.

Thanks for stopping by Sam’s Dream Blog!  Learn more about John ZuHone's work here