Tuesday, August 20, 2019

AAS Board Reflections: Adam Burgasser

In order to familiarize the astronomy community with the AAS Board and encourage participation, the CSWA created a Reflection Survey for outgoing AAS Board members to complete after their terms ended in June. Over the coming weeks, we will feature the responses we've received on the Women in Astronomy blog. Enjoy!

Our first participant in our AAS Board Reflections project is Adam Burgasser, PhD. Dr. Burgasser is a professor in the department of Physics at UC San Diego, and an observational astrophysicist, whose research interests include the lowest mass stars, low-temperature brown dwarfs, and extrasolar planets. He also conducts research in Physics Education and Art-Science collaboratories. Adam received his PhD in Physics at Caltech, followed by a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Los Angeles, and a Spitzer Postdoctoral Fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History. He was on the faculty at MIT before coming to UC San Diego in 2009, where he directs the Cool Star Lab. Adam is committed to addressing inequities in Physics and Astronomy, and has served as member and Chair of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, co-organized the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy Conference, and co-directs the UCSD-Morehouse-Spelman UC-HBCU Physics Pathways program, among other activities. He has also served on the AAS Board of Trustees. He has been awarded UC San Diego’s Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action & Diversity Award, Outstanding Mentor Award, and Distinguished Teaching Award. Dr. Burgasser is a member of the International Astronomical Union, American Astronomical Society, National Society of Black Physicists, and SACNAS.

Name: Adam Burgasser
Current Position: Professor, UC San Diego
Degree, Year, Institution: PhD, 2001, Caltech
AAS Board office, term: Board member, 2016-2019

Why did you choose to serve on the AAS Board?

I was very interested in both understanding how an organization like the AAS worked, and to be both a voice and an activist for making our community more inclusive. The AAS has played a significant role in my own career, from connecting me to a network of scientists - and friends - to enabling me to share and learn about what’s happening in my field. But I had only a small understanding of how the Society actually functioned, and particularly how decisions were made, so this was an important learning experience for me. I had served as the CSMA Chair before my Board service, and we had had disagreements between our Committee and the AAS governance at large, so I felt it important to try to change things “from the inside”, or at least better understand why some issues (e.g., police violence targeting black men) seemed to be avoided by the Society leadership. I think I made some progress on both fronts.

What was one (or more!) Board accomplishment(s) that you are proud of/excited about from your time in office?

I was (and still am!) involved in the Ethics working group. This long-term committee follows an initial task force formed by former AAS President Meg Urry to establish better policies and procedures for addressing a range of issues, from harassment and bullying to inappropriate publication practices to establishing reasonable guidelines of ethical behavior among scientists. It’s important to remember that this effort started soon after several high-profile cases of sexual harassment, but there are all kinds of incidents and interactions that don’t get that kind of attention but can nevertheless be devastating personally or professionally. This effort is a work in progress, but we have learned a lot (with much input from the community) on the importance of appropriate transparency, accessibility, communication, and timely response to incidents; as well as how individual ethics violations are embedded in the climate of the Society, structural discrimination, practices of remediation and restoration, etc. This work has been both intellectually stimulating and personally important to me, and I am proud that the AAS is a leading the effort to establish norms of ethical practice for scientific organizations.

This is a very specific thing, but I was also very proud to play a role in arranging Ka’iu Kimura’s plenary presentation on A Hua He Inoa at the 233rd AAS in Seattle in January 2019. It is so important to remind our community that we don’t work in a vacuum - well, maybe our space telescopes do! This means both recognizing Astronomy as a cultural practice and by definition a diversity of practices; and also that the practice of Astronomy affects people around the world, both positively and negatively, and in ways we might never imagine. Ka’iu’s talk was a reminder that to be inclusive in our science is to acknowledge the contributions from many cultures, disciplines, people, and places.

What was one (or more!) important thing(s) you saw come from the diversity committees during your term?

My term started soon after the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 conference and Nashville recommendations, and it was great to see some of those recommendations become reality within the AAS organization. In particular, WGAD came into existence and has been exceptionally active in making astronomy more accessible to all. I retained my committee membership with CSMA (as their Board representative), and this committee has seen a real resurgence in young, brilliant minds taking action to address the barriers our minority colleagues continue to face. This includes invigorated relationships with SACNAS and NSBP, and a lot more attention to the mental health of “young” (including undergraduates, graduates, postdocs and junior faculty) astronomers of color, thanks in large part to the current co-chair Nicole Cabrera-Salazar. Finally, we had a lot more communication between the diversity committees through shared reps, and I think that helped coordinate some of our activities and goals (e.g., the Women in Astronomy IV conference in 2017 felt much more inclusive of intersectional issues).

Is there an initiative (or initiatives!) you hope that the AAS pursues or continues to pursue in the future?

In addition to the Ethics work described above, I am encouraged that the AAS is making efforts to support young career astronomers in pursuing a broader range of careers. As a graduate student, it was made clear to me that not becoming a professor was considered a “failure” in terms of career, but this is a pernicious myth. There are far more rewarding, important, and remunerative jobs in both the private and public sectors that our training is well suited for. To support these, there are aspects of career preparation that we can do better, and we need to ensure that employers understand the value of an Astronomy degree. Another issue is that our system has become one of “postdoc holding pattern” between PhD and career position - for up to a decade or more! - which is extremely disruptive, particularly for families. We need to develop a system that gives young astronomers more permanent career options sooner and eliminates “professor” or “faculty” as status symbols.

I also hope the AAS will continue to work with our collaborative coding community (e.g., astropy, dot-astronomy, etc.) to support these efforts, which have become so important to the research and teaching activities in our community.

Incidentally, these issues - and others - are very well covered in the recent state of the profession white paper contributions to the Astro2020 decadal survey, and I encourage both the AAS - and readers of this post! - to read these and advocate for positions that will improve our community.

What advice do you have for continuing and incoming AAS Board members?

The best advice I can pass on was given to me by Dara Norman, who was outgoing from the Board when I came in: “Your time will be surprisingly short, so choose one or maybe two important objectives and focus on those”. I also recognize that, even after leaving the Board, I have many opportunities to advance our Society through its various committees; the Board is not the only place to have an impact.

What suggestions do you have for people who are considering serving on the AAS Board in the future?

This is a good way to see how the Society works from the inside, and (in small ways) steer the ship to assure it serves the community well and succeeds as an organization. It is a real learning experience in leadership, so I encourage early- and mid-career folks to consider serving. It is also a reasonable level of commitment: monthly phone meetings and in-person meetings at the conferences, plus a day or two per month of work outside the meetings. Plus you learn a lot more about the resources and opportunities that the Society provides; e.g., the WorldWide Telescope, book publication, etc.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for doing this! It helps make the governance of the AAS much more transparent.

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