Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Astronomy Without a PhD

Jessica leading a bike ride along the Neponset River
in Boston, educating fellow Bostonians about the
open space in their community on a Girlz Roll ride,
along one of her many alternate paths.
As much as the astronomical community is spending more time considering alternate paths for PhD astronomers, we, as a community dedicated to inclusiveness, should look at alternate paths that have been and can be taken into professional astronomy. For various reasons, some of which may be related to my personal gender issues and others due to the way my mind works (or doesn't), I was not a great candidate for a PhD. program when I was in my 20's.

In the process of organizing and attending the Inclusive Astronomy conference last summer, I started out representing transgender people in astronomy, but realized that I was part of another group which had been largely excluded from consideration during that conference, astronomers without doctorates.

The first conference on inclusive astronomy of which I am aware was a meeting called "Space for Women" held at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1975. Organized by the CfA's Women's Program Committee, headed by geologist Ursula Marvin and astronomer Martha Liller, it was held in celebration of the International Women's Year, drew more than 300 young women, and featured women speakers and panelists working in a variety of capacities.  Research scientists, editors, computer programmers, administrators, and engineers all discussed their experiences. A popular booklet, entitled "Space for Women: Perspectives on Careers in Science" grew out of the conference. In addition to suggestions on how to prepare for scientific or science-related careers, it detailed several of the major issues raised at the conference, juxtaposed with thoughts expressed by different participants.  I am old enough to have been peripherally involved in this conference as my then-spouse worked as a programmer at the Center and was very involved in organizing the conference.  My participation involved drinking too much champagne at the final reception and enjoying a drunken, rainy bike ride through Harvard Square and down the Charles River to our home in Brookline.

The point of this story is that the 1975 conference focused on the many ways which an under-represented group, women, could contribute to the astronomical enterprise, and that, not just making sure that the pipeline into academia (or the commercial world) is fairer, is what I feel that being inclusive is about.  Although I didn't know it at the time, when I was between astronomy jobs and writing software for a financial services company, I already had my terminal professional degree, a Masters degree from MIT. My  thesis, which I finished a year earlier, attempted unsuccessfully to map the composition of the surface of Mars, included developing a data reduction system for a very early imaging vidicon spectrograph, understanding map projection and writing software to figure out where on Mars we were looking, and learning computer graphics.  If that project had been successful, my career might have gone in an entirely different direction, but as it was, I gained some knowledge and skills which have been the basis of much of the scientific work I have done in the 40 years since.

Although I didn't get into Cornell for a PhD, my programmer-turned-ecologist spouse did, and we moved to Ithaca in 1976, where I soon got a job in the Laboratory for Planetary Studies writing software for Jim Elliot, the possibility for which was suggested by Carl Sagan in my rejection letter.  I was soon putting some of my knowledge of data reduction to work reducing and modelling time series data from occultations of stars by planets.  Six months later, I was flying on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory over the Indian Ocean helping discover the Uranian ring system.  Because I worked in a small group with a senior researcher who consistently included everybody who contributed to scientific results, my first publication was a significant paper in Nature.  When my job moved, it was back to MIT and Cambridge, where I had friends, and I put down roots. I got wrapped up in the occultation enterprise, and was soon putting my mapping skills to work forecasting future occultations and publishing papers of those predictions and analysis of events.  I also got involved in image processing and wrote display software in exchange for getting our group time on a new CCD detector. Doing science was so much fun that I didn't want to stop and take courses, which I had never been as good at as I needed to be.

When that job ended, I had enough skills (and helpful contacts) to land a job at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory across the city (and much closer to my apartment) working on the Space Shuttle Infrared Telescope under Giovanni Fazio.  When that project ended, I stayed on at SAO to work on spectroscopic data reduction. All of the skills and knowledge I accumulated along the way were useful in developing more image display software, a graphics terminal emulator for xterm, a radial velocity package, RVSAO, several more spectrograph pipelines, and a package of world coordinate, catalog, and image manipulation tasks, WCSTools.  I've also been a full member of the American Astronomical Society and its Division for Planetary Science and Division on Dynamical Astronomy for over 30 years, serving on organizing committees and the DDA committee, and running the DDA web site for 15 years.

I spent the extra time I would have spent doing my own research being a bicycle and open space activist in the Boston area, equally sharing the raising of a daughter (who is now in grad school working on what may or may not be a terminal Masters degree), and generally becoming involved in Boston, its history, its politics, and its arts.

When I occasionally regret not having done the extra work for the status of a PhD, I look at the work I have done and all of the people who have used my software or the results my pipelines have produced and feel like my life in astronomy has been successful after all.