Get to Know a LASPian is a Q&A profile series that features LASP employees and the work that they do. This second profile in the series highlights Jenny Knuth, web application developer in the data systems group.
Q: Where did you grow up? As a child, what did you want to do or be when you grew up?
A: I grew up in Stanford, California, in the 1970s, just before it became “Silicon Valley.” I felt like the world was full of potential and anything was possible. I loved design and problem solving and felt drawn to both art and engineering.
Q: Who inspired you?
A: Both of my parents were huge inspirations, my mom as an artist and designer and my dad as a computer scientist. Edward Tufte, Don Norman, and Mike Bostock have inspired my approach to design and data visualization.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I ended up majoring in Art and Anthropology at Brown University. I seriously considered Engineering, but the program did not allow enough electives! As it was, I started at the beginning of the course catalog, as an African-American Studies major, because that was the first thing I read and it sounded interesting—I never did get past the As. My senior thesis on vernacular housing in the Caribbean ended up combining Art, Anthropology, and African-American Studies, so all was not lost.
I then went on to get a master’s degree in American Civilization/Material Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. My master’s thesis involved quantifying symmetries of repeat patterns found on items in the Sears Catalog. Unfortunately, at the time, computers and web development were not very visual media. I had to wait for that.
Q: What was your path to working for LASP and when did you start working here?
For a couple of years after learning web development, I worked at a startup on “the internet of things” and then, in 2018, a friend pointed me to a LASP position for making space data available and visible. It sounded like a great opportunity to apply my skills back in academia.
Q: Tell us about what you do in your job. E.g. What’s an average day like? What is your favorite part of your job?
A: I love my job because every day is like solving a series of logic puzzles and making things work. Every day I find things I don’t understand and think I will never solve, but then, most days, I figure it out, make it work, and it feels so good! Until the next day…but I am always learning new things, and that is the best. Making data accessible to all is also a huge passion.
Q: What’s the most interesting, unusual, or extraordinary experience you’ve had so far working for LASP?
A: As someone pretty grounded on the Earth, it is interesting to work with people who think big and seem undaunted by the hugeness of space. Space truly puts things in perspective. While plasma is the least familiar state of matter to me in my personal experience, I am surprised that it is the most common state of matter in the universe.
I had never heard of space weather when I started working with space weather data in 2018. Even though I had lived through four solar cycles, it was completely invisible to me. And for the first two years on the job, I got to experience one of the least active space weather periods in recent history. Big whoop. But wow, just as predicted, I’ve watched the new solar cycle spring to life in the past couple of years. We don’t know what will come next in Solar Cycle 25, but we do know it will be exciting and will help to shape our understanding of the space environment—a region we increasingly rely upon.
Q: What advice would you give students interested in a similar career?
A: I would not advise a student to take a similar career path! I was encouraged to “do what I love,” but that was way too broad and unfocused for me because I loved so many things. I think I would have benefitted from more of an “arranged marriage” in my career path.
As far as Web Development goes, I would advise students to use their skills for good. There are both helpful and not-so-helpful applications of web technology. Choose to be an advocate for good and insist on working for things that you believe will make the world a better place.
Q: What has been your biggest personal or professional challenge and how did you overcome it?
A: When I was in graduate school, “deconstruction” was all the rage and science was considered “hegemonic and violent.” I felt like a square peg in a round hole because I was interested in science, data, and quantification. Even if I did not follow a straightforward path and it took 30 years, I am happy I found a career that feels more natural for me. Through web development, data visualization, and being perennially interested in learning, I found my way back to academia after a few decades of detour.
Q: What do you do for fun outside of work?
A: On the weekends I like to make things—sewing and all sorts of crafts and constructions. A recent hobby I took up during the pandemic is weaving. Weaving is mathematical and pattern based and I am fascinated by its long tradition and how textiles have laid the foundation for so many inventions, including computers. I enjoy going back to basics and working with my hands. I have an Etsy shop at truejune.etsy.com and I share a variety of creations on my Instagram @akatruejune.
For physical activity, before the pandemic, I was a dedicated volleyball player, but I switched to roller-skating when I didn’t want to go back in a gym. If you are interested in roller-skating, get in touch! There is a vibrant and growing roller-skating community in Boulder. It is so fun!
Q: Do you have any pets? Tell us about them. What is an unusual, endearing, or funny thing that they do?
A: I love cats, but I am allergic to them, so I had two Devon Rex cats that are a less allergenic breed. Devon Rex have short, curly hair and big ears. They are not completely hairless like a Sphinx cat, but when our boys were little and learning about dinosaurs and “mammal-like reptiles,” we started calling our short-haired cats “reptile-like mammals.” We recently had to say goodbye to our remaining cat, Pearl, who passed away at the age of 18. She will be missed.
Q: How long have you lived in Colorado and what are some of your most and/or least favorite things about living here?
A: I have lived in Colorado for almost 20 years. I love university towns and I love the west! I was able to come back west after living on the East Coast and then in England and generally going the wrong way! Other than having a university, my two additional criteria for a good place to live are clean water and bike paths—things we have in abundance here and that I think are indicators of quality of life.
Q: What is your favorite season of the year and why?
A: I like both shoulder seasons, spring and fall, when it is not too hot or too cold. The endless golden fall we had this past year was divine.
Q: What would be your ultimate travel experience?
A: I don’t love flying. Road trips and hiking are my favorite. Maybe I should have been a truck driver? Experiencing new places is always stimulating and inspiring to me and I like the journey. There are amazing things and amazing people everywhere. I like to explore places that are often overlooked and take the time to find the extraordinary that is always there.