Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Join us live: Career Panel Discussion this Thursday (7/30) 12-1pm CDT



Astronomers develop an incredibly useful (and employable!) set of skills while pursuing their degree and research interests. The latest stats indicate that while ~75% of recent astronomy Ph.D.s accepted a postdoc position, over 80% eventually pursue careers outside the tenure track faculty route.

To provide insight into the range of careers astronomers pursue and share advice and lessons learned along the way, we provided a series of Career Profiles.

Our next experiment is to host a live, online Career Panel discussion.

When: Thursday, July 30th from 12-1pm CDT
Where: Live via Google Hangouts

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Online Harassment: The Dangers and Damages


Today’s guest blogger is Faïza Harbi. Faïza was harassed online by former MIT physics professor, Walter Lewin, during a MOOC. She courageously came forward with her story, Lewin Complainant Tells of Harassment and MIT Says Famous Professor Was Sexually Harassing Students Online. Here she describes how the experience impacted her and what you can do to help.

Imagine a man you don’t know, yet everybody in your study group idolizes and considers a Physics Rockstar, contacts you privately. Imagine him showing you consideration and attention, telling you he’s going to help you regain some self-confidence through his physics course. Imagine you become friends with this man. This is an important event for someone who only has bad memories from physics in high school! It’s going to make a change, obviously, with a man like that caring about your progress and wanting to help you on a personal level. It could have an impact on that confidence issue you have!

Now, imagine that moment when you suddenly realize that it was all one big lie, that all he wanted was to gain your trust to exploit your weaknesses and use them against you, revealing his true motives: to use you for sexual purposes whether you wanted it or not.

This is exactly what happened to me when I enrolled in Walter Lewin’s physics massive open online course (MOOC) run through edX and MIT. I had struggled when I was younger to understand physics. And so when Lewin reached out to me, one of 100,000 students, I was taken aback. I had no clue why he chose me, an average student, who doubts her abilities every single day.

It took Lewin three weeks to insidiously steer our friendly conversations to a sexual nature, taking advantage of the slowly growing confidence he was instilling in me. What was it that he wanted from me? Was it the only reason he was trying to make me feel special? He knew I had been raped at a very young age and to what extent this has influenced my everyday life. He used my past to destroy all my defense mechanisms. He used the fear he knew I felt to force himself on me online, constantly demanding explicit pictures of me and sending explicit pictures of him.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

#StandWithChanda 

The below is a guest post by Dr. Sarah Tuttle, a research associate at McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the instrument scientist for VIRUS, a massively replicated spectrograph being built for HETDEX (Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment).

Background: Campus Reform is a news organization website connected to the Conservative right “Leadership Institute”.  They describe themselves as a “watchdog to the nation’s higher education system”, exposing “liberal bias and abuses at universities” (from their author bios). They have aggregated a collection of tweets by an astrophysicist discussing the prevalence of systemic racism and the issues of white supremacy in our society which has led to personal attacks against her.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fight for Women's Suffrage

I wrote a blog in June on the early women's rights movement in the US and the famous Seneca Falls Convention.  As with the civil rights movement, Quakers played a key role in the push toward equality.  Today I am writing about the fascinating story of the suffrage movement in the late 1800's and early 1900's that gave women the right to vote, and the leadership that Susan B. Anthony provided.


Susan B. Anthony coin first minted in 1979


A resolution was passed at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in favor of women voting, but was one of many.  Toward the end of the 19th century, particularly after the civil war (1861 - 1865), suffrage became a focus of the women's movement.  The goal was first to have the Supreme Court rule that women had a constitutional right to vote under the existing US constitution.  When that failed in 1875, the more difficult effort began to amend the constitution.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Setting a higher standard

There has been a lot written lately, on this blog and elsewhere, about bad behavior in astronomy and other professions. The human cost is terrible, and responsible scientists should not ignore them, even if they are not directly affected. The blog entries below about sexual harassment, and many of the responses are heart-breaking. And these are just the tip of an iceberg -- much more abuse and suffering is unreported than reported.

Having been head of a large physics department, and now as a university-wide equity officer, I have a lot of data indicating that in its prevalence of people problems Astronomy is not unusual among academic disciplines, nor among professions in general. I've concluded that theoretical astrophysics is much easier than optimizing the success of a talented group of people in an organization. Physicists solve easy problems using idealized models. A different set of skills is needed to solve real-world problems involving real people.

I have a lot of thoughts, a few recommended actions, but no master equation solve the problems preventing people from achieving their potential. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Care. One of my favorite quotes comes from President Theodore Roosevelt: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." The fact that you are reading this suggests that you do care; if so, please share it with someone else.

2. Assess. Astronomers live on data. Do a climate assessment in your organization to measure the experience and satisfaction of all people, and be sure to do it in a way that gives safety to everyone. There are probably people in your organization who are afraid to speak up. Maybe you're one of them. Find a way to express yourself anonymously in a way that the leadership will hear. Requesting a CSWA Site Visit is one possible way.

3. Lead. Leadership is first about being accountable to yourself, and then being accountable to others. Every faculty member is a leader, whether they acknowledge it or not. (I've often heard faculty say they don't want to become a leader, when what they really mean is they don't want to be a manager. There is a difference.) Indeed, leadership is not a function of rank or role; I've known many students and support staff who are outstanding leaders.

Department leadership (in a university, or in any segmented organization) is especially important, because culture and climate are local. It is therefore discouraging how little preparation is given to department heads and others who fill roles that call for genuine leadership.

Academia is unusual among the professions in having a set of highly privileged actors -- tenured faculty members -- who have great freedom in their actions. If that privilege is not balanced by responsibility and accountability, harm can result. Academic freedom does not convey the right to harm others.

In academia these privileged actors often feel a stronger affiliation with their colleagues elsewhere than at their home institution. After all, tenure, grants, awards, and status are conveyed in large measure by one's professional colleagues in an academic discipline. Weak tenure letters will not lead to a successful case no matter how much one's department colleagues love a faculty member. In effect, academic disciplines set the standards for admission to their practice.

This fact means it is not easy for an astronomer, say, to influence faculty behavior in a department of engineering, law, or medicine, just as it is not easy for a member of one of those fields -- even a Dean or Provost -- to influence faculty behavior in an astronomy department.

How, then, are we to improve the experience of astronomers? The answer seems clear. The astronomy community needs to enter the accountability chain of leadership. That is why it is so important that the AAS has an Anti-Harassment Policy. But it is not enough for the policy to be enforced at AAS meetings; AAS members should not adopt one set of standards for AAS meetings and different ones in other professional settings.

Recently I attended a workshop on abrasive conduct in higher education that was attended by ombudspeople, HR officers, legal counsels and a few university administrators. One of the themes that we discussed was the need to redefine academic success to include conduct, not just individual achievement. This is definitely counter-cultural in academia, where the tenure system focuses almost exclusively on individual achievement. I believe this is a place where professional societies can, and do, play a helpful role.

Although Astronomy is not unusual among professions in terms of its frequency of behavioral challenges, I am proud that it is among the more active disciplines in terms of setting higher standards. The work of the AAS Council and Committees, including CSWA, is helpful in this regard. More can be done, and I hope that the community will continue on calling for higher standards of accountability and professionalism in all settings.

[The image above is taken from the CSWA banner, where it is described as one showing  men and women astronomers interacting collegially. It is from the AAS Congressional Visits Day 2010.]