Being part of something bigger: Kari Haworth, CTO of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

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Headshot of Kari Haworth, CTO of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of meeting Kari Haworth, CTO of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), which is part of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. I was so intrigued that I asked if she would sit down and talk with me more about her work, background, and the team she is looking to build.

First, some background on SAO. The research conducted there works to answer the big questions humanity has about the nature of the universe. SAO’s astrophysicists and astronomers ask the questions, and then work with the engineers to build instrumentation to get the answers. The work done at SAO spans from operating Chandra, a space-based satellite built to detect x-ray emissions from galaxies and exploded stars, to helping design the Giant Magellan Telescope, an up-and-coming ground-based observatory that will help detect if life beyond Earth exists.

Kari joined SAO in November 2018 to work on a next-generation Event Horizon Telescope (ngEHT). The original EHT became famous in April 2019 for producing the very first image of a black hole. Over the next decade, Kari’s work will help enable the ngEHT to capture movies, black background with orange circle around a black centersomething that will lead to far better understanding of black holes. And that is precisely what Kari loves most about her job—the projects she works on could lead to scientific breakthroughs. And while many are now doing some soul searching for their next career or rethinking how they can be part of something bigger, Kari realizes that each day at SAO.

As she says, “I get to work with some of the smartest minds in the world. It keeps me on my toes.” And yet engineers are critical to developing the instrumentation that will help the scientists see their ideas through to fruition. As an engineer who loves to create and have impact, she finds nothing more exciting than to experience the first light image that comes down from the satellite and knowing that it’s the instrument she helped design that made it happen.

While Kari loves her job, she concedes that it has not always been easy. “As soon as I entered university, I had to get used to often being the only woman in the room.” She contends that as a woman she has needed to be careful about choosing regions, companies, and bosses who are smart enough to recognize that talent doesn’t always look the same. “I haven’t always been successful in my choices, but when I’m not, I move on.”

And that is precisely why as CTO, she is ensuring that the team she creates will be diverse. She hasn’t had a mentor throughout her career and is putting priority on ensuring that she provides that critical guidance to her employees.

So, who is Kari looking for? “I want the type of person who’s willing to look around the project and say, ‘I could help out over there, too. I might not know everything about it now, but I’ll figure it out.'” The opportunities at SAO are endless, and she hires people who can see the excitement and challenge in that. For her, the bottom line of team building is that innovation can’t happen if you have all the same type of people with the same ideas.