Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Meet the CSWA: Angela Speck

In our newest series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.  Angela Speck was named after the iconic Angela Davis, she likes bright colors, is a nerd at heart, and has wanted to be an astronaut since she was 5 years old. Originally from Yorkshire (England) she went to college in London where she was able to pursue her childhood dreams by majoring in astrophysics. After a brief stint as a r&d technician in a Lancashire company run by crazy new-age hippies, she returned to London and completed a PhD in astronomy. Now the Director of Astronomy at Mizzou (University of Missouri), she continues to research and teach astrophysics and to share her passion for all things extra-terrestrial. Her research into the nature of stardust is apt for a woman called A Speck.

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

I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut when I was five. This was the year my dad started college; I regularly lectured his (PoliSci) classmates on the heavens and why the move the way they do.

How did you end up working in the field?

I was told it was a good pathway to becoming an astronaut. Being originally British and also from a somewhat ant-establishment family, it turns out that studying astrophysics wasn’t enough – but I didn’t know that at the time.

Who inspired you?

I don’t really know how to answer this question. I don’t remember any one person being my inspiration. I didn’t even know that one of my granddads met Valentina Tereshkova until his funeral. I just knew I wanted to be an astronaut. Maybe it was re-runs of Star Trek in the early 1970s.

What is a Director of Astronomy?

I’m both a regular professor and the director of a program. As a regular professor, I do astrophysics research (into the nature of stardust); I teach astrophysics/astronomy; I reach out to the public with programs on astronomy and I serve on committees related to astronomy and/or university policy. As the director of astronomy I am in charge of constructing and maintaining the astronomy curriculum within the Physics & Astronomy department. I also recruit both undergrad and graduate students and provide both research and outreach opportunities for students interested in astronomy.

What community issues are important to you and why?

There are many issues that are important to me and they tend to have overlap. I don’t tend to view research, teaching and service as separate components of my job – they are integrated. Issues around inclusion and equity have always been important (my parents named me after Angela Davis – so it was inevitable). But those issues impact how we do research and how we teach, how we present and disseminate research, and how we engage multiple different audiences, from our professional colleagues to the general public and everyone in between. We need to increase diversity in STEM fields, but we cannot do this without understanding how to be more inclusive. I want the world to be a better place and I think I can use my little corner of the world to move us in that direction.

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

I worked for 3 years promoting the recent Total Solar eclipse across the entire nation, as well as intensively across a large swath of Missouri. It was the hardest I have ever worked and it culminated in seeing a truly spectacular sight. Seeing the eclipse was amazing. I know it was amazing for non-astro folks too – but for me it was the end of a long hard slog and that made it extra special.

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

This is such a tricky thing. I love to help people figure out what they want to do and whether this is really what they want to do. But assessing that involves spending time getting to know people. The advice needs to be tailored to the person and their specific situation. So I guess my advice is – find someone locally (or fairly closeby) in the field who is willing to work with you. Shadow them, find out what they actually do in a typical day and then realize there isn’t such a thing as a typical day. See if there is someone who will let you be an intern. I have had high school students do projects with me (sometimes for high-school credit). And do all the math! In a state with a large rural population, many students arrive without having had the opportunity to do high level math – so do all the math you can wherever you are, because you need that before you can get into most of the fun courses.

What do you do for fun?

I have kids, chronic pain and am overly committed to doing astro stuff – not sure I have time for separate fun. I used to have a pet hedgehog called Hufflepuff, but she died. I do have fun with my kids; and I have fun doing public astronomy events, and I have fun strength training – which started as part of my pain management and is now important to my sanity. So my fun and my work and my role as parent are all integrated into my fun times.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

To make my corner of the world better. There are many aspects of being a woman in astronomy that need addressing, but they essentially all come down to respect and raising awareness of gender imbalances within the field. My wish would be for everyone in astronomy to be aware of their implicit biases and willing to adopt best practices to overcome those biases. We have a long way to go.