Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Men and Women, Like Totally, Talk Differently?

About a year ago, while preparing to go on the post-doc job talk circuit, I was practicing in front of my research group at Berkeley.  A post-doc pulled me aside after my talk and pointed out to me that I have a particular vocal tic.  A tic, she said, that tends to be more prevelant in young women called "uptalk."

Uptalk (or high rising terminal) is the use of a rising, questioning intonation even when making a statement. The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, which some interpret as a signal of uncertainty and subordination (Lakoff 1975).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What does it mean to be smart?

Today's guest blogger is Nicholas  McConnell. Nicholas earned his PhD in 2012 and is now the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawaii).  His research focuses on supermassive black holes and giant elliptical galaxies.

High intelligence is a common stereotype about astronomers and physicists.  Indeed, many of us have performed well throughout school and on standardized tests.  But in graduate school problem sets are replaced by open-ended research questions, and steady affirmation gives way to occasional, even frequent, frustration.  Yet our colleagues seem brilliant and productive.  For many people, research provides fertile ground for self-doubt.  "Am I as smart as I thought I was?  Do I have what it takes?"

This self-reflection can have different flavors.  Social psychologists, most prominently Carol Dweck and her colleagues, have performed research supporting two distinct perspectives regarding personal intelligence.  One is a "fixed" mindset, which views intelligence as an innate quality attained early in life.  The other is a "growth" or "malleable" mindset, which views intelligence as a quality that can be exercised and strengthened.  Individuals tend to consider their own abilities through one of the two mindsets, although there is room for overlap (for instance, one may believe that intelligence is innate but creativity is malleable).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Undergraduate Science Education at a Crossroad

This past weekend I attended a 3-hour symposium on undergraduate education at the AAAS meeting in Boston.  While the subject was not immediately focused on gender equity or diversity, it is closely related, and interesting linkages were made by symposium participants.  In brief, improving undergraduate education requires leadership for culture change of the same kind required for improving the status of women and other underrepresented groups in the physical sciences.

The symposium had four outstanding speakers and a breakout session followed by wrap-up.  The first speaker was Susan Singer of Carleton College, who is now Director of Undergraduate Education at NSF.  She chaired the National Academies report Discipline-Based Education Research.  The report summarizes education research approaches and findings in several disciplines including astronomy and physics.  It is a good introduction to the research basis for interactive, inquiry-based teaching methods, but is not a primer or beginner's guide.  The challenge of spreading these methods more widely will be assisted by a companion "Practitioner Report" that the NRC committee is working on and hopes to complete by next year.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Monday, February 18, 2013

Annie Jump Cannon and the Spectra of Stars

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I got the idea for this piece from a blog by Astroian (Ian Cohen) and then did my own research.  Annie Jump Cannon is familiar to many astronomers through the Harvard Classification Scheme for stars that she invented: O, B, A, F, G, K, M.  Also, her name comes up every year when the AAS award named for her is given out.  It is for a woman scientist within 5 years receipt of her PhD for "distinguished contributions to astronomy".

Annie has an interesting life story.  She was born in 1863, the daughter of a shipbuilder father and astronomy-loving mother.  She went to university to study math and physics and unfortunately contracted scarlet fever while an undergraduate at Wellesley and became partially deaf.

It was hard as a woman to become an astronomer in the late 1800's, but she had the diligence to search for opportunities and the good fortune to be taken in by Sarah Whiting, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Wellesley.  Through her help, Annie was able to work part time as Dr. Whiting's assistant and later pursue graduate studies.  I don't believe she received a PhD at that time, although was later (1925) awarded an honorary PhD from Oxford, the first awarded by Oxford to a woman.

In the late 1890's Annie was hired as an assistant by Edward Pickering at Harvard.  She became a member of the "Pickering women" group to produce the Henry Draper Catalog (funded by the Draper family) of stars and stellar spectra.  The pay was low, less than that earned by the secretaries, but the work was grand.  She did an enormous amount of observing to make the catalog.  During the catalog production a disagreement broke out over how to classify the stars.  Annie as able to find an elegant solution that was a compromise between the factions, resulting in the OBAFGKM scheme.  It divided stars into spectral classes based on the strength of their Balmer absorption lines.  She eventually became the William C. Bond Astronomer at Harvard and was awarded the Henry Draper medal of the NAS.  She died in 1941.

Annie Jump Cannon was a pioneer in astronomy in the early 1900's.  Her work and splendid example helped pave the way for future women to gain acceptance as astronomers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Accepting where we are and looking forward as best we can

Today’s guest blogger is Deanna Ratnikova. Deanna is the Women and Education Programs Administrator with the American Physical Society. In this role, she works on the Women in Physics program and provides administrative support to the Education and Diversity Department. She earned a B.S. in Chemistry at Austin Peay State University and a Master of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


I've recently interacted with many people—both young and old—who feel disappointed (or even angry) with their career path trajectory. Whether it's the economic climate, the environment for female scientists or workplace politics to blame, the common thread is that everyone had high expectations for themselves, worked hard to reach those expectations but still fell short.


Not too long ago, I was also discouraged with my career path trajectory. During grad school I made a plan for how I'd get to my "dream job", but then reality set in and I had to take the opportunities which eventually led me to my current position. I struggled with self-acceptance and being happy with my career progress because it didn't conform to what I had envisioned.


Eventually, however, I came to an agreement that maybe this is where I’m supposed to be. I realized that it was possible I wouldn't even like my "dream job" if I did achieve it (this is what happened to one of my grad school buddies who I envied for a couple of years before finding out how unhappy he was in his "dream job").


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reaching Parity: Lessons from the NSF AAPF


Today's guest-blogger is Eilat Glikman. Eilat holds an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University.  She studies dust reddened quasars and their role in quasar/galaxy co-evolution, as well as faint quasars at high redshifts.  

I returned from a long and stimulating American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting which began for me the weekend prior with the annual NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellows (AAPF) Symposium. Those who have attended the AAPF Symposium over the years will tell you: it is usually the highlight of the entire AAS meeting.

This year's symposium was my last and I was feeling both sentimental and grateful to have had the privilege of being connected to an incredible bunch of scientists through this fellowship. The subject of the talks ranged from exoplanet detection, general relativity theory, galaxies and AGN, as well as dark matter detection and efforts to expand astronomy education to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. A remarkable and inspiring itinerary. And as I watched and listened, it occurred to me that there seemed to be a lot of women contributors. So I counted, and then tweeted:

“According to the schedule #AAPF13 has 9 male fellow presenters and 11 females. Exceeding parity: something to be proud of!”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Guest Post: J. Rigby on "While you're fixing broken family leave policies, cover queer families."

This week's guest blogger is J. Rigby. Dr. Rigby is an Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Operations Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. Dr. Rigby's research interests include galaxy evolution, rapidly star-forming galaxies, and the star-formation, metal-enrichment, and black hole growth histories of the universe.

The 2013 winter AAS meeting in Long Beach featured a special session about family leave policies for grad students and postdocs at every one of the 28 US institutions that grant PhDs in Astronomy.  Dave Charbonneau and Laura Trouille of CSWA have surveyed the current state of our field.

I hope the survey results motivate our community to improve our leave policies.  If I want full participation of women in science, we've got to drop these antiquated policies that assume that scientists don't ever have to take leave to adopt, birth, or otherwise care for a child. As an egregious example, at four US institutions that grant astronomy PhDs, graduate students lose their health insurance if they go on parental leave.

Let me speak to those brave academics who are motivated to take the hood off their institution's broken family leave policies, pull out the stripped gears, and suggest fairer replacements.  Good going, brave repairmen and women!   Now that you've got the the policy disassembled…  Could you add protections for queer families?  It's the same theme of furthering diversity and fairness in a historically hostile environment.  It requires you to educate yourselves, engage queer allies, and stand up not only for your own interests, but for fairness and the interests of other minority groups, toward the greater goal of diversity and equality.

Does your institution allow employees, graduate students, and post-docs to put their same-sex partner on their health insurance plan?  (Look up your university or your company.)  What about the child of a same-sex partner?  Does paid leave cover adoption and leave by a non-biological parent, or does it only cover leave for birthmothers?  These are three questions that you can ask, and improve the answers to, that have a huge impact on equality at your home institution.

A bit more on each of these.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Child-friendly Sabbaticals?

I'm the kind of gal who likes to plan for the long haul. This is part of why being a postdoc was so wearing, because I could never plan more than a couple of years in advance.
Now that I have a tenure track position, I can daydream about things like getting tenure, sending my kids off to college, retiring someday... Okay, maybe not retirement quite yet.

Anyway, it occurred to me the other day, that someday I might want to go on sabbatical somewhere. But how would that work, given my family situation? Just as others have discussed both here on this blog (see also this post) and elsewhere, there are real challenges inherent in academic life that those of us with families have to face. Going on sabbatical is one of them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On the two body problem

Figure 1: The two-body problem. Image taken from this blog


In academia there is something called the "two-body problem." The original two-body problem involves the gravitational interaction between two massive bodies, e.g. a planet orbiting a star. This is a problem in the mathematical sense, as in something interesting about the universe that we would like to figure out. This classical two-body problem has a solution, but interestingly it is in the form of a transcendental equation that can only be solved numerically. But when done so, it looks like this. Pretty nice, huh?

It turns out that there's an even more difficult two-body problem in science academia, but this one has to do with the attraction between two humans (cf Figure 1 above for a succinct description). The problem arises when one or both individuals are academics seeking post-graduate job positions. The problem, in a traditional sense of the word, is related to the fact that academia has been honed and perfected over the centuries to accommodate only a specific type of coupling. If you are an academic and in a relationship, there is a closed-form solution to the two-body problem if and only if the partner/spouse is not also an academic and has the ability/willingness to move every 2-3 years over the next six years while academic partner takes various postdocs and/or other job positions. Personally, I was fortunate to find this "solution." Most do not.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Super Bowl? Super SO!

Some of you may have noticed that the Super Bowl was yesterday. I figured we wouldn’t bother doing anything since the Packers weren’t playing. I know, right? Thus, when my SO suggested having a small get together, I wasn’t that enthused.  I had way too much to do: grade homework, prep for next week’s classes, analyze data, and attend a faculty meeting (at school, on Saturday). I had no time to shop, clean, cook… or any of the things that need to be done when hosting an event, small or otherwise. Most people work an extra day on office-related tasks, and I could not add another activity to my already-full weekend agenda.

“Don’t worry”, he said. “I’ll take care of everything!”