Ian Czekala

Engineering “Big Science” in Chile

Ian Czekala (Engineering ’10, College ’10)

The Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project are just two examples of big science, research projects that are unprecedented in their ambition, their scope and, most significantly, their cost. As Ian Czekala notes, big science projects have become so costly that many can only be funded by a group of international collaborators.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope under construction in the northern Chilean desert is a case in point. It will include at least 66 large antennas, and it is expected to cost more than $1 billion. The European Southern Observatory, a group of North American partners led by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (headquartered in Charlottesville), and Asian organizations from Japan and China are financing the project.

With joint funding comes joint design, joint testing and joint construction. Czekala, who is also majoring in astronomy, secured a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to explore the technical and managerial issues that arise in such a high-stakes international collaboration.

At the end of 2009, he traveled to Chile, formally interviewed more than a dozen astronomers, administrators and engineers on the project and spoke to a dozen more. “I found that controlling communication on a project of this complexity and scale is imperative,” he says. “You need to balance the need to keep people informed of changes with the certainty that overdocumentation slows progress.”