Meet a Scientist: Daniel Perrefort and Taylor Zallek
Feb 13

Meet a Scientist: Daniel Perrefort and Taylor Zallek

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

All of the researchers featured on Phipps' Meet a Scientist Saturdays have been trained through our science communication workshops. If you are graduate student, faculty, or professional in any field of STEM and you are interested in the workshop or participating in a Meet a Scientist Saturday, check out our website or contact Phipps’ Science Education Outreach Manager Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas.

To infinity, duckweed, and beyond! This Saturday, come meet local scientists Daniel Perrefort and Taylor Zallek, both from the University of Pittsburgh. Whether you’re interested in the stars above our heads or the processes of Earth beneath our feet, you will get to chat about exciting new research from Daniel, who studies supernovae, and from Taylor, who studies evolutionary trends using an aquatic plant called duckweed. Read a bit more about the two of them below, and be sure to stop by the Tropical Forest this Saturday, February 16, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. to ask them all about their work!

Introduce yourself in 5 sentences or less

Daniel: Hi, my name is Daniel Perrefort and I’m a 4th year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. I work as a cosmologist, which means I study the formation and evolution of our 14 billion-year-old universe. My work specifically focuses on the bright explosions of dead or dying stars called supernovae. Using images from telescopes positioned around the globe, I leverage these exciting events to understand how the universe formed and how it might change in the distant future.

Taylor: My name is Taylor Zallek and I am a graduate student researcher in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences. I work in the Turcotte lab where we study rapid evolutionary ecology using small, fast reproducing aquatic plants called duckweeds as a model system for answering a variety of questions related to ecology and evolutionary biology. We are interested in understanding how evolution occurring over relatively short time scales can impact the composition and dynamics of ecological communities and how different ecological circumstances influence the evolution of different traits among our study populations.

Why did you become a scientist?

Daniel: Science and math were always my favorite subjects in school. In fact, they were two of the only subjects I consistently enjoyed. Science problems always reminded me of puzzles where there are specific rules you have to follow in order to find the solution. The exciting part is when you get to work on a problem that hasn't been solved before. That's what makes being a scientist so great, you get to discover new things that no one has ever found before!

Taylor: I was always the student in class asking, “Why? Why? Why?” Working as a scientist was a natural progression and gives me the opportunity to find the answers to my questions.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done at work?

Daniel: The first time I used a large-scale, professional telescope was in the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona Desert. There's no cell service or wifi so the only thing you have for company is your fellow observers and a 13-foot wide telescope. I spent over ten hours taking images from a relatively small control room and ended up with the first astronomical images of my career. To this day they're still my favorite.

Taylor: Having the opportunity to study how life works in a variety of systems, from temperate lakes to tropical coral reefs, has been a lot of fun. It’s always exciting to get out and explore new environments. Sampling in these places can be challenging and often involves wading in shallow water, spending entire days working from a boat, or SCUBA diving, but the obstacles make the work more rewarding!

What skills do you use in your job?

Daniel: When most people think of a physicist they imagine someone solving a complicated math problem on a chalkboard. I don't even own a chalkboard! Instead, my job requires me to write a lot of custom software to process large data sets. Very few of the problems I work on can be solved by hand, so I spend a significant amount of time behind a keyboard. It's actually very satisfying. I sometimes spend weeks building a piece of specialized software, but once it's finished I get to take pride in giving life to a brand new idea.

Taylor: Being an experimental evolutionary ecologist requires a broad skill set. I have to consider how to design experiments that appropriately replicate aspects of nature to test my hypotheses. This requires keen observation and a lot of creativity. I also use statistical skills to analyze data, molecular genetics skills to help measure species’ population dynamics, and communication skills to share findings with my colleagues and the public as well.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Daniel: My favorite part of my job is getting to meet new people. As an astronomer, I get to work with other scientists that can be anywhere from across the hall to across the globe. For any project I'm working on, I get to engage with collaborators from all over. This provides a constant and exciting exposure to new knowledge and ideas. I get to learn new things and discover exciting projects that other scientists are working on. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

Taylor: Getting to work with incredibly creative, intelligent, and hardworking people. I really enjoy being part of a collaborative team working together to solve a problem and science is a great career path to do accomplish this. As a bonus, it’s also provided me plenty of opportunities to form lifelong friendships along the way!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

Daniel: I’d probably be doing something in computer science. Many of the skills that I use on a day-to-day basis are the same skills used by a software engineer or data scientist. In fact, it's extremely common for Ph.D.s in astronomy or physics to transition into computer science jobs after graduation. The added bonus is that many of the challenges I enjoy facing in the sciences are also present in software development. You often start with an abstract idea and have to turn it into a complete project.

Taylor: I’d probably be a middle school science teacher and football coach… or a Zamboni driver.

Why is science education important?

Daniel: Scientific discovery is progressing faster today than ever before. For most people, scientific issues have permeated our day to day lives and lie at the heart of many important issues. Public policy, healthcare, and our environmental impact are all examples where having an informed opinion is important. Even a basic science education helps equip us with the knowledge we need to grapple with these complex topics in our daily lives.

Taylor: Far from just memorizing facts and formulas, good science education teaches us to challenge our own assumptions and seek evidence before formulating conclusions. These critical thinking skills are applicable to all facets of life. Science education encourages us to be curious, to admit when we’re wrong or unsure of a solution, and to find creative ways to solve problems.