Tuesday, September 10, 2019

AAS Board Reflections: James Lowenthal

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!

James Lowenthal is Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor and Chair of Astronomy at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He received his BS in Physics and Astronomy from Yale in 1986 and his PhD in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 1991. He did postdoctoral work at the Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and as a Hubble Fellow at the University of California Santa Cruz. He studies the formation and evolution of galaxies, especially actively star-forming galaxies at high redshift, seen as they were when the Universe was less than 10% its current age. He uses Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, and the Gemini telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. Through the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is a member of the graduate faculty, he also uses the 50-meter Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico. He supervises Smith College undergraduate students in an ongoing exoplanet transit observing program using Smith’s own roof-top 16-inch telescope. He served as Vice President of the American Astronomical Society from 2016-2019 and serves on the AAS Sustainability Committee and the AAS Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris. Lowenthal is active locally, nationally, and internationally in the movement to fight light pollution and protect the naturally dark night sky. He also works to promote education and action to stop climate change. He began his career as an amateur astronomer in New York City and rural Connecticut, grinding the mirror for his Newtonian 6-inch f/8 reflecting telescope at the Hayden Planetarium in the 1970’s. 40 years later, he still uses that telescope in his backyard in Northampton.


Name: James Lowenthal
Current Position: Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor and Chair, Department of Astronomy, Smith College
Degree, Year, Institution: PhD in Astronomy, 1991, University of Arizona
AAS Board office, term: Vice President, 2016-2019

Why did you choose to serve on the AAS Board?

Serving on the AAS Board is very interesting and rewarding. It’s not like lots of other academic committees, where members are serving because they have to; instead, everyone on the AAS Board truly wants to be there and to help the astronomical community. It’s a very committed, passionate, and competent bunch, and even though there are frequent disagreements over this policy or that, there is lots of mutual respect.

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

  • I’m proud that we VPs, who organize the scientific content of the AAS meetings, continued to diversify those meetings, to the point where the plenary speakers at the Seattle meeting in January 2019 were more than 1/2 women, and of those, 3 were people of color. I also initiated a process to solicit nominations for plenary speakers from the AAS membership, to expand and diversify the pool further.
  • I did my best to keep two issues in front of the Board: climate change, and light pollution. Astronomers are in an important position to address both, and both affect all of us. I’m glad that the Board passed a statement calling for increased efforts to fight light pollution, and that the chair of the Sustainability Committee, which I founded as a Councilor in 2010, is now a member of the Strategic Assembly.
  • I worked hard to improve communication among the three VPs and to rationalize the process of planning the meetings, which is quite complicated. There was large turnover in the AAS meetings staff over the last few years, and good communication is always a challenge as well as a key component of success. Fortunately, the other VPs and the AAS staff were always fantastic: very professional, hard-working, good attitudes.

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

The revised Code of Ethics. This is an important document and set of policies, and the discussion at the Board level was always very serious and detailed and passionate.

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

Quickly assess the impact on astronomy of large constellations of low-earth satellites. If the impact is as large as now appears likely, the AAS should play a key role in raising public awareness and pushing for national and international dialog and regulation. But soon!

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

Sign up for the committees you care about most. Don’t rush to judgment, especially on emotionally-charged topics. Do speak up when you feel strongly about something.

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

Do it! It’s time very well spent both personally and professionally. You will be joining an illustrious list of past Council and Board members including most of the famous astronomers you know.

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