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Jan V. Vandenberg, a computer scientist and key collaborator with Galaxy Zoo, dies

Jan V. Vandenberg "was able to build computers from the ground up," a colleague said.
Jan V. Vandenberg "was able to build computers from the ground up," a colleague said.

Jan V. Vandenberg, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist and systems architect who was a member of a team of astronomers who through Galaxy Zoo, an online project, discovered a group of rare galaxies called “Green Peas,” died May 13 of colon cancer at his home in Towson. He was 48.

“I have known him for 30 years, when he was an undergraduate at Hopkins, and then he grew up in our department and group. He was our key person and knew how to make things work,” said Dr. Alexander S. Szalay, a cosmologist and director of the Institute for Data Intensive Science at Hopkins.

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“Jan was an amazingly smart guy whose research was always pushing the edge,” he said. “He built custom systems and we exploited technology so we could advance science. He had ideas on how to build systems because you couldn’t buy them off the shelf. He made sure there were no bottlenecks. He was an artist and was an essential part of our effort.”

Phil Tang and Mr. Vandenberg attended Hopkins together and have remained best friends for 30 years.

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“The cosmos has lost a brilliant mind and a kind soul,” said Mr. Tang, who became a vice provost at Hopkins. “I’ve lost a brother. I don’t know what to make of the world without Jan Vandenberg in it.”

Jan Vincent Vandenberg, son of Jan Stephen Vandenberg, an independent newspaper publisher, and his wife, Mimi Kendall Vandenberg, a psychology professor, was born and raised in Cumberland.

After graduating from Allegany High School in 1991, he began his college studies at the Johns Hopkins University, where he initially studied philosophy, but the next year changed his major to computer science when he “found out he didn’t have to write any papers,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

As students, both Mr. Vandenberg and Mr. Tang suffered from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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“Jan was a terrible student, and I was a terrible student. We were very much alike and there wasn’t a lot of support in those days like there is today,” Mr. Tang recalled. “Our brains didn’t work like others’.”

By 1994, satisfied that he had extracted as much as he could from his undergraduate studies, Mr. Vandenberg, sans a bachelor’s degree, went to work in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at Hopkins as a systems administrator.

“He has no degree from Hopkins, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t smart,” Mr. Tang said. “He was so smart and good at so many things, and the many aspects of his work were appreciated by his department. The work was more stimulating and it made it easy to prove himself. He got excited by it and he made very scholarly contributions.”

He added: “Jan really was the very embodiment of Hopkins. He was extremely highly regarded in various circles and certainly in his profession. He wasn’t motivated by titles or superficial milestones. He liked the work and its intellectual stimulation.”

“As chief systems architect for the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science, Mr. Vandenberg designed and built groundbreaking computer systems for data-intensive science on par with the world’s most advanced supercomputers, including the award-winning GrayWulf cluster,” according to the profile.

Mr. Vandenberg was a key collaborator in Galaxy Zoo, established in 2007 by a team of astronomers in the United States and the United Kingdom. It offered unprecedented public access to astronomy images, with help from citizen scientists who worked through the online project.

According to a 2009 article in Space Daily, “the Galaxy Zoo users, who volunteer their spare time to help classify galaxies in an online image bank, came across a number of objects that stuck out because of their small size and bright green color. They dubbed them the Green Peas ... and discovered that the Green Peas are small, compact galaxies forming stars at an incredibly high rate.”

Included in the 1 million galaxies that represent Galaxy Zoo’s image bank, the team of astronomers discovered only 250 Green Peas, which are between 1.5 billion and 5 billion light-years away, and are “10 times smaller than our own Milky Way galaxy and 10 times less massive. But, surprisingly, given their small size, they are forming stars 10 times faster than the Milky Way,” according to Space Daily.

“The Galaxy Zoo volunteers who discovered the Green Peas — and who called themselves the ‘Peas Corps’ and the ‘Peas Brigade’ — began discussing the strange objects in the online forum. (The original forum was called ‘Give peas a chance.’)” reported Space Daily.

Dr. Szalay recalled that early on in the project the servers went down.

“Jan rushed to the office in the middle of the night, and when he was in the computer room he was like a hawk and knew which was the right button to push; otherwise, had it not been for him, we would have lost the faith of the scientific community,” he said.

More than 230,000 volunteers from the world over have worked to classify 1 million images of galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. As a member of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey team, which pioneered the science platform for data-intensive research, along with his colleagues, Mr. Vandenberg received the ACM SIGMOD Award this year.

Dr. Tamas Budavari, associate professor in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, is both a colleague and close friend for more than 20 years.

“Jan was a computer scientist and always on the cutting edge in regards to hard and software that handled huge amounts of data,” Dr. Budavari said. “He was able to build computers from the ground up, and was extremely knowledgeable.”

The two men also shared a passion for brewing beer and driving high-performance automobiles, and at his death Mr. Vandenberg was under the guidance of Dr. Budavari, a certified BMW, Porsche and Audi instructor.

“He owned a vintage BMW and was taking lessons but did not participate in races,” Dr. Budavari said. “He was learning how to become a certified high-performance driver and participated on weekends at racetracks. It’s one of the things we did together, and we had a lot of wonderful memories.”

Mr. Vandenberg was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life eight years ago.

“Not once in those eight years since his diagnosis did Jan allow cancer to alter his upbeat, optimistic view of the universe,” Mr. Tang said. “He lived every moment with truth, joy and passion, anchored by a boundless love for his family and friends.”

Mr. Vandenberg had not retired at his death.

“He was still working and helping us until the last minute by being online and with emails,” Dr. Szalay said.

An accomplished outdoorsman, Mr. Vandenberg was a “decorated air rifle marksman who is credited with personally reducing Baltimore’s rat population by 7 percent between 1996 and 2019,” according to his biographical profile.

A place that brought him particular solace was camping alongside the Cacapon River in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle region, family members said.

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Services are private.

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Mr. Vandenberg is survived by his wife of 19 years, the former Jennifer Strauss, a teacher at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer; his father, Jan S. Vandenberg of Cumberland; his mother, Mimi Kendall Vandenberg of Pikesville; three sons, Charles Garrett Vandenberg, 17, a student at Carver Center for Art and Technology, William Everest Vandenberg, 14, a student at Towson High School, and Lincoln River Vandenberg, 8, a student at West Towson Elementary School; and a sister, Abby Vandenberg of Jericho, Vermont.

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