Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Meet your CSWA: Aparna Venkatesan

In our series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. Today's feature is on Aparna Venkatensan.

Aparna Venkatesan is a cosmologist working on a number of research topics including studies of the first stars and quasars in the universe and the physical conditions in early-universe galaxies. Aparna is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of San Francisco (USF), and a former NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow. She has received multiple NSF grants, AAS and APS grants, and the Single Investigator Cottrell College Science Award. She was recently featured amongst USF’s Changemakers. She appeared recently in a number of episodes of The Weather Channel’s show The Strangest Weather on Earth.

Aparna currently serves on a number of local and national committees to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and astronomy, including the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, and as co-Chair on the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. She is deeply committed to increasing the participation and retention of underrepresented groups at all career stages in astronomy, physics and the sciences. She has been active in Native American/indigenous education programs/issues, as well as in recruiting and retaining women and minorities over her entire research and teaching career.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?

I was about 12 years old when Carl Sagan’s TV show Cosmos began airing in India on Sunday mornings. I looked forward to it all week, and every episode was very mind expanding for me. I’d already fallen in love with mathematics as the universal language of the cosmos, and watching Sagan made this concrete for me. I ended up going to Cornell University for my undergraduate degree and worked down the hall from Sagan – it felt like I was living the dream!

How did you end up working in the field?

I left my home in India when I was 17 to do my undergraduate degree in astronomy at Cornell. I’ve followed a pretty traditional path in academia, getting the usual degrees and progressing through the Ph.D. and a postdoc at CU-Boulder, with no breaks other than periodic leaves to take care of a parent’s illness or to have children.

Who inspired you?

When I was younger, the traditional scientific figures of Kepler, Galileo, Faraday, Einstein, Dirac, Feynman, the Curies etc. inspired me greatly. Of course there were wonderful Indian researchers and teachers who also inspired me in my schooling years. Now, as a mid-career person, I continue to be inspired by these figures, but I am more interested in and place value on the hidden or forgotten scientists and astronomers across the centuries. I also have come to greatly value the perspective of nontraditional students and colleagues, and the non-Western perspective in science.

What is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy?

A faculty member who has been granted tenure, and is at the next career rung ahead of Assistant Professor (which is usually tenure-track).

What community issues are important to you and why?

I’ve had a decade of nearly free education at the US’s top universities and consider it one of my top career obligations to give back, esp. as many US-born students do not have the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

Watching the sunrise over the giant dish at Arecibo after observing galaxies all night. Sometimes at dawn the Southern Cross is hanging right over the dish filled with swirling mist that evaporates as the sun comes up.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Know that you belong, and never give up. And actively seek out your career champions, keeping an open mind for the unexpected allies.

What do you do for fun?

Singing Indian classical music and bluegrass, yoga, hiking, walking on the beach.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

To help make astronomy and scientific institutions more inclusive of the aspirations and scientific potential of all people in the 21st century.