Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Meet the CSWA: Greg Rudnick

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.  Here we introduce Greg Rudnick.  Greg grew up in Chicago and his interest in astronomy started with his desire to be an astronaut and was fostered by his family’s frequent camping trips to places with dark skies and bright stars.  He became convinced of studying astronomy after a Saturday morning astronomy program at the Adler Planetarium run by the University of Chicago and Adler.  During his career Greg has moved around a lot.  He started studying Physics at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and graduated in 1996, after which he moved to the University of Arizona for the Ph.D. program in Astronomy.  Half-way through his time there he moved to the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany to follow his adviser, who became director of MPIA. After his Ph.D. he moved to the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany for a postdoc, followed by a four-year stint as the Leo Goldberg Fellow at NOAO in Tucson.  He started as a faculty member at the University of Kansas in 2008 and has been there ever since.  He is currently an associate professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Physics and Astronomy Department.

Greg is an observer who studies the evolution of galaxies using observatories in the ground and space.  He is especially interested in the environmental effects on galaxy evolution.  When not doing that he runs an outreach program at a local high school, and loves cooking hiking, biking and being with his family.

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

I always loved science fiction and space but the singular moment that sticks in my mind is when I was camping at Badlands National Park with my family in grade school.  We went to a nighttime interpretive program and one of the rangers showed me Saturn through a telescope.  I was blown away and, while I didn’t know it at the time, from then on I never really strayed from a path to an astronomy career.

How did you end up working in the field?

While I explored alternate options throughout my history, I was basically interested in becoming a faculty member since being in high school.  I started in physics as an undergrad to be a bit more flexible, but realized by the end of my junior in college year that my gut instincts had been right and that astronomy research, and teaching about it, was where my true passion lie.  

Who inspired you?

I had amazing teachers and mentors from grammar school all the way through graduate school (and beyond.)  However, the first game changing one was a high school teacher (Larry Minkoff) who taught psychology but ran an academic competition in which I was involved.  I was a classic underachiever until that point but being constructively pushed by that teacher lit a fire in me.  I had many other amazing mentors in undergrad (Mats Selen and Susan Lamb) and in graduate school (Hans-Walter Rix) but Larry was the one who really showed me for the first time that I could excel if I dedicated myself to it.

What is a professor and Director of Graduate Studies (DGS)?

As a professor I do astronomy research, advise undergraduate and graduate students, teach, and perform outreach.  As DGS I am in charge of all aspects of the graduate program in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  I oversee the recruitment and admissions process, the development, implementation, and enforcement of graduate policy, and the process that we use to mentor and support our students.  I also am part of the Departmental Leadership committee that helps to run the day-to-day (and longer timescale) operations of the department.

What community issues are important to you and why?

I am personally very committed to making astronomy and physics both a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place.  I was very lucky to have the chances that I have had and the opportunity to take advantage of them.  However, I also realize that many people have not had those chances or were denied those opportunities.  I think it’s important to encourage inclusivity on all axes as early as possible and I work to do that in many ways, for example in a high school outreach program that I run and in the way I talk to my child. 

While I think we need to recruit female students and those from other diverse axes I also think it’s equally important to make sure that they can stay and be welcome too.  Retention is key but is often even harder than recruitment!  Therefore, I also work hard in our department and university to make our academic home a welcoming and safe place for all to follow their passion for physics and astronomy.   

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

That’s a hard one.  I love the travel that comes with astronomy, although plane rides and airports get old after a while.  Going to conferences in exotic places and traveling to remote places to use world-class telescopes have to rank up there.  Also, having great interactions with students comes in a close second.

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

First, don’t doubt yourself.  Second, don’t be shy to seek out peers and people above you who can both help you navigate the system and help you find out what opportunities you shouldn’t miss and what responsibilities you can afford to say no to.  As you get more senior, learning when to say no is a powerful skill, more powerful than knowing when to say yes.

What do you do for fun?

I bike every day to work in nearly all weather.  I love cooking, camping, hiking, and photography, although I only get time to regularly do the first (every night.)  Spending time with my family is also top of my list.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

I want to think about how we can make the most effective strategic choices for improving diversity and inclusivity in astronomy.  We have an opportunity to make an impact on the coming decadal survey and we should make sure to take advantage of that chance.  I also want to be more plugged into best practices on a national level to bring them back to my department, university, and region to help improve the gender diversity of astronomy in middle America. I want to use my privilege as a white male and tenured professor to help others to climb the ladder and to excel, while dismantling obstacles that prevent people from finding their own success.  Finally, I want to make sure that we effectively join forces with other AAS committees that are committed to the same core values to maximize all of our efforts.

What do you see as big obstacles to building a diverse and inclusive astronomical community?

A hidden obstacle to improving the diversity and inclusivity of astronomy in departments with low diversity is that it is difficult to build supportive cohorts when there are only a few students in each minority group.  Students and faculty are instantly “othered” from the moment they enter a white male dominated workplace, even a friendly one.  Aside from vigorous recruitment to improve diversity, another possible solution might be building student groups across disciplines to bring enough people together to help form support networks.  This is something I’m talking with people about implementing here at Kansas.