The bio for Zeljko Ivezic’s Twitter account (@Ivezic) reads “Amateur astronomer.” This might be understating his expertise. He has co-authored over 250 scientific papers and been cited more than 50,000 times. However, as all must, he began as an amateur astronomer. In the third grade when his favorite teacher came to his class and asked who wanted to join astronomy club, not knowing what astronomy was, he eagerly volunteered.
They started with the history of space travel, talking about the Apollo program and rocket technology. In fifth grade, they discussed planets and began integrating math and physics concepts. He continued to participate in the astronomy community of Zagreb, Croatia, and by sixteen he was doing practical work at an amateur observatory in his hometown with a telescope observing variable stars and plotting their light curves.
Even with fairly standard equipment, he was able to look at the sun count solar spots and look at asteroids to trace them every night and compute orbits. At some point, he decided that astronomy might not be the best way to proceed in a country with a small group of around twenty professional astronomers at the time. Going to university, he set his major as mechanical engineering. After finding himself jealous of the projects his friends studying physics were working on at the bar every Friday, he began studying physics as well.
His university education was funded by a scholarship from a nuclear power plant, where he was supposed to work after graduation. By blind luck one day, while waiting for the bus he ran into a teaching assistant coming back from taking the GRE. The teaching assistant raved to him about graduate education in the United States and how you could get the costs covered by a research assistantship or teaching classes. All he would need to do was take the GRE and send in an application. Already a senior, Ivezic rushed to prepare his materials and ended up at the University of Kentucky.
At this point, as many young scientists do, he had an important decision to make regarding which of his interests to pursue. He had remained active in the astronomy community, mentoring younger students and taking some classes in college, but had also grown to enjoy physics and engineering. A professor at the University of Kentucky proposed to him a project modeling the transfer of radiation in the envelope of material surrounding stars, both young stars with dust still surrounding them and old starts beginning to spew stuff out. After only having taken a couple computer-oriented classes in college, he proceeded to write a program called Dusty, which can be used to make predictions about stars clouded in dust.
Finishing his PhD in 1995, he reached out to the head of the software group in charge of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a revolutionary project making astronomical data widely accessible. The project was accepting applications, and with Dusty under his belt, Ivezic ended up spending seven years at Princeton working on it, transitioning from infrared astronomy to optical astronomy and digital image processing.
In 2004, Ivezic accepted a professorship at the University of Washington, where he’s been working primarily on the next generation of the SDSS called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. He is currently the deputy director of construction and a Project Scientist for this 473-million-dollar project predicted to definitely answer whether dark matter exists and other fundamental questions of astronomy. In addition, he was an adviser for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Karl G Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) projects–not too bad for an amateur astronomer.