Monday, December 31, 2012

Quality Family Time

Winter break is a wonderful time. If you're a younger grad student, it's a welcome respite from classes. If you're an older grad student or a postdoc, it's a welcome respite from hordes of undergrads. If you're pre-tenure faculty like myself, it's time to get back into all that work that you put off while teaching during the semester: doing research, writing papers, preparing for next semester's class, etc. My to-do list is a mile long. And above all, if you're an astronomer heading to the AAS Meeting next week, you're frantically doing last-minute calculations and polishing up your talk or poster.
The trouble is, my kids also have time off from school themselves. Now, if I had been on the ball, I might have been able to sign them up for winter break camp someplace, but my organizationals skills were all used up on other things during the semester. It almost would be easier if my kids were younger, because whatever day care set up I would have would probably be able to accommodate them.
And, of course, there's the question of why child care duties should always have to fall to me, the mom? Well, in my particular case, there's any number of factors that play into it, but one major point is that my husband has a "real" job where he can't work from home and has to use up valuable vacation time if he doesn't go in to work. On the other hand, my job is much more flexible: I can work where ever I like and no one keeps track of my vacation time. Hence, it's my problem if the kids aren't usefully occupied.
So, here's what we have been doing to keep the kids out of my hair while I try to get work done. There's been a lot of TV and video games, but I've been limiting their screen time to 2 hours a day. I insist that we go for a walk each day, no matter the weather. This keeps us all from going completely stir-crazy. We made each kid write a list of activities to do while I work to keep them out of my hair. Use of these lists has only been partially successful so far. There has been a lot of reading of books and playing with LEGOs. Not so much practicing of instruments or working on long-term school projects.
What do you do for childcare during school breaks? How do you keep your kids and yourself sane? Please share your ideas in the comments!
p.s. Best wishes to all WiA readers for a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Science is a girl thing

Any top ten list of affronts to women in science in 2012 would have to include the European Commission's tone deaf video effort purporting to encourage girls to enter science.   The video that presented fashion models in a misguided marketing effort raised more than hackles and protest -- it stimulated a series of responses from women scientists and girls interested in science, which continue to stir the blogosphere.  The cumulative impact of the marketing campaign gone awry reminds me of Neils Bohr's definition of a profound truth as one whose opposite is also a profound truth.  An exclusionary presentation of women as fashion models pretending to be scientists has inspired a democratic outpouring of women scientists showing how much fun and accessible their work really is.

My favorite among these is this contest entry to the European Gender Summit meeting last month, commissioned by the European Science Foundation.  I also recommend the Science Grrl website and Calendar and this video entry from Dartmouth graduate women.

How can we inspire more young women to enter science?  We must change the perception that science is done by old white guys by showing girls more role models (not fashion models!).  Videos are good, but so is in-person, as is done by women at my engineering school.  The fields of astronomy and physics would be well served by promoting and rewarding such efforts.  To all of you engaged in this work, thank you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Invasion of Personal Space

Has this ever happened to you? You are attending a professional conference, like the AAS meeting, and presenting a poster on your work. Someone comes to talk to you, but they stand too close. They might even touch your arm or shoulder as they talk. They have invaded your personal space! First, a few things to keep in mind:

Diagram of Edward T. Hall's personal reaction bubbles (1966), showing radius in feet

(1) We are not talking about groping. Groping is unwanted explicitly sexual touching. It is illegal and should be reported. You might want to check out this article.

(2) Keep in mind the distinction between “intentional” and “clueless” behavior with respect to personal space. Sometimes, the area in front of your poster is just not big enough. If your work is really interesting, it could attract a crowd. People might get too close in an effort to hear you or because someone behind them is inching forward.

(3) AAS meetings are not only professional occasions but, at times, social events. Acquaintances are made, flirtations happen, and sometimes long-term relationships ensue – my husband and I met at an AAS meeting. However, when discussing your poster you have the right to expect professional behavior. A professional colleague (someone who is not an old friend, a former office mate, a significant other, etc.) should limit their personal contact to a handshake.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Spotlight on Careers - Request for Feedback on Interview Questions

Dear Readers,

In 2013-14, we plan to provide a series of ~50 blog posts highlighting the full range of career routes that astronomers pursue after their degree. Thank you to all our readers who provided great recommendations for people we should contact!

If you have additional recommendations, please email me at l-trouille [at] with the person's name and email address. We are especially interested in highlighting women, but are open to all suggestions.

We are now in the process of compiling questions to ask our interviewees. We would greatly appreciate your feedback on these questions and additional questions you recommend we include. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bullying: How It Affects You

Today’s guest post is from an anonymous contributor.

Joan Schmelz gave a wonderful talk at the Summer AAS in Anchorage, and I was so glad that a topic that certainly has impacted many people was on such prominent display. In fact, I almost wanted to email Joan and ask if she had heard about my experiences in particular, because it so well matched something I personally had gone through with a bully.

I am not sure if I am unique (I hope I am, but doubt it) in that I have had a chain of at least three bullies strung together in my young astronomy life. From a young hotshot professor who expected their new grad students to perform like postdocs, to a senior person in the field who took it as a personal affront (and went on a personal attack) when a student had a scientific disagreement with him/her, to a person going to my advisor and claiming that I was incompetent to do my own work without his/her having direct control over the science I was outputting. These incidents were daisy chained together: it seemed as if once I'd escaped one bully, another was waiting in the wings to take over. It got me asking many things, but firstly, was there something about me that attracted them to me as a target?

AASWomen for December 14, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of December 12, 2012
eds. Caroline Simpson, Michele Montgomery, Daryl Haggard, amp; Nick Murphy

This week's issues:

1. Planetary Graduate Program Clearinghouse

2. Salaries of Women in Science

3. Women in Astronomy Blogspot

4. Nature Takes on its Gender Trouble

5. Upcoming in STATUS

6. Why do So Many Women Leave Science?

7. "Science: It's A Girl Thing" Parody Video: Woman Neuroscientists Respond

8. How to undo stereotypes that hinder women in science

9. Women in Science: The Voice of Experience

10. Where are all the Female Geniuses?

11. The Gender/Resource Gap

12. SPS Internships for Undergraduates: Applications due February 1

13. Job Opportunities

14. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

15. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

16. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Monday, December 17, 2012

An End-of-Semester (Check) List for Graduate Students

Greetings from Tel Aviv, where I am attending the exciting Exoplanets and Binaries Workshop hosted by the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Tel Aviv University - Harvard/ITC Astronomy Program!

One element that I particularly enjoy about the business of exoplanets is the relative prominence of young researchers: It is a commonplace for the first author of an important new paper to be a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow.  So, that got me thinking that it might be helpful to share some straightforward professional development advice for graduate students.

Of course, given the subject of this blog I have my eye here particularly on advising women on how they might leverage their exciting research results toward broader professional success: At conferences I frequently encounter graduate student women who have stunning research promise but who could do more to increase the visibility of their work. Regardless, I hope this advice is of general use for all.

Most of the hours of the workday for a typical graduate student might be spent on the labor of research, namely the gathering and analysis of data, and the writing of papers.  This post isn't about how to tackle this core task of graduate school: Instead, I wanted to share a quick check list of 3 professional development tips, particularly aimed a students in their first 3 years of graduate school:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Tis the Season: Job Interview Resources & Advice

With phone and campus interview season underway, I thought it would be useful to compile CSWA, AstroBetter, and other site's advice and resources.

If you know of other useful resources or have additional advice, please add a comment. The more we know, the better prepared we can be! 

Monday, December 10, 2012

End-of-Year Bits

It's the end of the semester, and for many of us, that means grading the last homework sets and papers, writing a final exam, and calculating final grades.  However, mentoring and professional development continue, even if the calendar says it's time to take a break.

Mentoring: Now is a good time to talk to your undergraduate students about applying for summer research positions at NASA, JPL, and with various NSF REU programs around the country.  Once the semester is over, they will have all the time in the world (well, between video gaming, texting, and FBing!) to research opportunities in which they have an interest.  If you have a colleague who has funding for an undergraduate (or more), now would also be a good time to do some networking on behalf of your students.  In my experience, undergraduate students who participate in summer research programs beyond their home campus return the following fall with renewed interest and motivation and are more likely to pursue graduate study in our field(s).

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I recently heard an interview with Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. The upshot of this book is that success in college in beyond depends less on IQ or however it is you decide to measure academic intelligence, but more on character traits like persistence and optimism. This is in line with studies of delayed gratification, where researchers found that pre-schoolers who were able to resist eating a marshmallow were more successful later in life.
I've certainly seen my share of anecdotal evidence of the importance of persistence in achieving success. The kids who were at the top of class in elementary school getting to high school and deciding that honors geometry was too hard. The students who entered college as pre-med majors graduating with English degrees. They all had been used to getting by pretty easily, but at some point they hit a wall, and decided that rather than trying to scale it, they would turn aside. But many of the students that were behind those leaders, who were used to things being hard for them, would come to that wall, see it as just another wall, and surpass the students who had coasted along up to that point.
I'd also say that the analogy applies to success in astronomy. Especially in these tough economic times, the people who end up getting permanent positions are the ones who just keep on applying for jobs year after year after year, not necessarily the ones who do the best science.
Now, suppose you are a girl interested in pursuing science, and you encounter a wall. And suppose someone tells you that you can't climb that wall, because you're a girl. Or that if you climb that wall, the boys won't like you. Or you see that none of your friends are climbing it. There are lots of easier paths for you away from the wall.
Suppose you are a woman applying for postdocs in astronomy. Your wall is just a bit higher than your male peers, because of unconscious bias. You get a little less support for climbing that wall, because your graduate mentor seems more interested in grooming his male students than yourself. You have troubling syncing your wall-climbing with your spouse. You don't see many other women climbing the wall. The paths away from your wall are well-trodden, not to mention that it's especially difficult to climb the wall with a baby.
I guess my point is that persistence is a huge factor in success in any endeavor, and women have to persist harder to succeed in science. I'd like to see both a more level playing field, and more support for women in climbing over the barriers to success.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Charting a New Course in Physics Education

The following is a guest post by four members of the Compass Project: Nathaniel Roth, Punit Gandhi, Gloria Lee, and Joel Corbo.

The first year of college can be especially tough for a student interested in pursuing the physical sciences: Daunting assignments. Competition for grades. Uninspiring lectures. And, perhaps most overwhelming of all, a feeling of isolation in the face of it all.
Finding a supportive community can be crucial in order to persevere in this transition. It’s certainly easier to grasp the difficult ideas presented in lecture and in the homework when discussing them comfortably with friends. More profound, however, is the sense of being welcomed into a group where one can feel some notion of belonging.
The quest for community is harder for students who feel like outsiders at the outset. Gender, race, socioeconomic status, and other factors can act as immediate barriers. When the inevitable struggles with the subject material arise, it can be easier for students to drift away when they feel they never really belonged in the first place.
With these ideas in mind, in 2006 a group of physics graduate students at UC Berkeley saw an opportunity to make their department a more diverse and welcoming place. They launched an ambitious program called the Compass Project designed to foster a more inclusive, creative, and collaborative scientific community, aimed especially at incoming undergraduates in the physical sciences.  Since then, Compass has grown into a vibrant organization that has improved the academic experience for nearly 100 undergraduates and dozens of graduate students. The American Physical Society presented Compass with the 2012 Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education.
We have recently been given an opportunity to tell the story of Compass' founding and its subsequent achievements in a Points of View column on Physics Today online (the pre-print can be found here).  Many of the ideas mentioned above are discussed in more detail, along with a host of additional information. We encourage you to read the article to learn more, and we hope that you'll find that our organization's philosophy resonates with your own.