Ken Pulkkinen

photo of Ken Pulkkinen

  • MS in Nuclear Physics (1971)
  • shifted to field of systems engineering to work on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope; retired
  • visited Miami in May 2018 to give physics colloquium focused on possibility of silicon-based life

My Profession

"When I was in the 6th grade, I read a book called Red Planet by the famous author Robert Heinlein. Although it was a work of science fiction, Heinlein included enough facts in it to get me interested in astronomy. In high school, I found chemistry, physics, and math very easy, and that led me into majoring in physics as an undergrad at Ohio State. I then came to Miami in 1969 as a graduate student, where I analyzed data in nuclear physics.

"After I left Miami with my master's degree, I worked for 10 years at the U.S Naval Observatory on the software used to predict planetary positions. When the head of our division also became co-investigator on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, I decided to apply and got accepted to work on a team at Goddard Space Flight Center on Hubble. I remained there on that project for 19 years, including when the telescope was launched in 1990.

"Not long after, with the Hubble Space Telescope safely launched into space, our team disbanded and I joined a non-profit science education company. For about 5 years, I gave science presentations for schools all across the country."

Best Miami Experiences

"An undergraduate experience is certainly much different from a graduate experience. As a graduate student I was so focused on my academics that I largely stayed in (the former) Culler Hall or my apartment. Although I started at Miami in the fall of '69, it was the time of the Vietnam War, so I had to go in for the draft. I got into the Army Reserves and went through both basic and advanced training, missing most of my fall and winter classes, but I was able to come back to the Miami in the spring of 1970. In order to finish my graduate program, I had to stay during the summer to finish.

"My graduate degree, on a broader level, taught me to question things and to find useful ways to apply my learning. My research was on nuclear physics, but when I graduated, I didn't go into that field at all because there weren't many job openings at that time. However, I was also interested in astrophysics, so that lead me to working in astronomy at the Naval Observatory. It was actually one graduate course on that subject that actually took me where I wanted to go as a career."

Miami and the Liberal Arts

"When I was an undergrad at Ohio State I had to take many courses outside my major: music, Greek mythology, astronomy, German literature. By themselves these liberal arts courses didn't mean anything to me, but ever since then, in my daily life, I would come across something and say to myself, 'Oh, I remember this, I took this, I heard about this!'

"As I mentioned, although I never went into my field of nuclear physics, I learned that you should branch out and take other courses. By the time you graduate, you may not find anything open in your field. but there is always something else that has interested you that has career openings. You may find that you actually like doing something else than what you thought, like in my case. It pays to be versatile, which is a key aspect of the liberal arts!"

Advice to Students

"Physics majors should take a variety of physics courses. There is physics in music, physics in biology, and so on — and there are a great number of interdisciplinary courses available now that didn't exist when I was a student. A variety of physics and other science courses gives you the best of both worlds — it might help when you're going into graduate school or directly into employment at a company. Having something besides physics like biology, botany, or engineering enables you to learn a lot and build a good resume.

"When I was an undergrad I wasn't as smart as some of the other students, so I spent a lot of my time studying. At the same time, I saw students get overstressed and often decided to take a step back for a while. Enjoy college, because the 4 years go pretty fast!"

[May 2018]