Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Meet Your CSWA, Gregory Rudnick

Gregory Rudnick grew up in Chicago. 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 MPIA in Heidelberg, Germany to follow his adviser. After seven years of postdocs at MPA and NOAO, Tucson he started as a faculty member at the University of Kansas in 2008. He is currently a professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the KU Physics and Astronomy Department.

Greg is an observer who studies the evolution of galaxies using observatories on the ground and in space. He is especially interested in environmental effects on galaxy evolution. When not doing that, he runs an outreach program at a local high school, and he 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?
 
The first inkling that I might want a career in astronomy came when I participated in the Astro-Science Workshop at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.  As part of that Saturday morning program faculty from around the Midwest came to the planetarium and taught a couple hours to a bunch of nerdy high school students, yours truly among them.  Not only did I find the material incredibly interesting, but I also found out that I was pretty good at it.  I participated in that program for two consecutive years and from that point on I was basically interested in becoming a faculty member.  I now realize the privilege that I had to attend that program.  I had the high school teachers who told me about it and the parents who agreed to drive me 8 miles downtown on wintery Chicago mornings for two years.  I don’t know if I would have made the same decisions without those opportunities.

Despite my conviction to go into academia, I always kept in mind what kind of alternate careers I might enjoy.  I thought about teaching high school or being a national park ranger.  Going into data science wasn’t really a thing back then, and I know how that dates me.  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) who all showed me by their examples how to be a good person and a good astronomer.

It also sounds cliche, but my sense of activism was largely inspired by my parents, who have dedicated themselves to social justice causes their entire adult lives. At the same time, my brother, also a champion of social justice, has constantly pushed me to challenge my pre-conceptions and to question the status quo. I owe my current involvement in groups like CSWA to the values they instilled in me.

What is a professor?

I am a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas. I am also our departmental 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 am especially interested in how I can increase the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of our graduate program and our department as a whole. As part of my DGS duties, 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 and equity across all axes, and as early as possible in a person’s life. I work to do that in many ways, for example in a high school outreach program that I run that works to bring astronomy research to a diverse group of high school students. It also pans out in the way we talk about current and historical issues within our family.

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 thrive. Retention is key for this 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. As part of those efforts I led the successful application of our department to become an APS Bridge Program partner site, and am the local head of that program.

In the age of COVID-19, I’ve paid special attention to how the extra burdens that we are all facing are hitting our most vulnerable department members the most, and taking action to protect them.

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. Having no travel in the age of COVID-19 has been a big adjustment and I look forward to the chance to travel again once the world hopefully returns to a sense of normalcy.

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

First, don’t doubt yourself and don’t let “them” get you down. Second, don’t be shy to seek out peers and people above you who can serve as unofficial and official mentors. They can help you navigate the system, help you find out what opportunities you shouldn’t miss, and help you decide 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?

Pre-pandemic, I biked every day to work in nearly all weather. Now I go for walks every morning, sometimes with colleagues and friends (socially distanced of course.) I love cooking, camping, hiking, and photography, although I only get time to regularly do the first (every night.) I normally go to Germany every summer for time with family and for work. Having to stay home for the first summer in memory has given me a chance to take up gardening. I’ve planted beans, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, lettuce, kale, onions, chard, and lots of herbs. It’s a delicious hobby but one that has brought home again the privilege of having nice outdoor space in which to relax. Spending time with my family is also top of my list.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

While on the CSWA in my past tenure, I helped in the development of white papers for the Decadal Survey and in the writing of a paper that we will be submitting soon to BAAS. I also helped to develop the strategic plan for the committee that we are now finalizing. I think a significant part of my role in CSWA in the coming years will be to help implement that plan and decide on how we carry out and assess the many projects that we conceived of as part of the planning process.

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 let people do that. 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.

If you weren’t in the field of astronomy, what would you be doing?

At times when I wasn’t sure if I would be successful continuing in academia, I often tried to keep alternate career paths in mind, though I’m vested enough now in academia that I don’t foresee a career change in my future. That being said, one career path that always intrigued me was serving as a park ranger in our national park system. I love teaching and love the outdoors, and that path seemed like a great way to combine those loves.

What changes would you like to see for women in astronomy?

We need to make the quest for equity and inclusion for women in astronomy have to become more fundamentally intersectional. The efforts that underpin this goal should not burden the least disadvantaged in our community. Rather, I hope that CSWA, which has historically been dominated by white folks, can play an important role in reaching out to other communities so that individuals at the intersection of multiple axes don’t have to add that work to the huge work they are already doing just to exist in our field.

While there is a significant amount of momentum behind improving the role of women and individuals from other underrepresented groups in astronomy, this momentum sometimes seems more intellectual than actionable. Academic departments, which are the home for the majority of the CSWA constituents, face huge hurdles in trying to change the status quo. Faculty with tenure built upon a lifetime of privilege are resistant to dismantling or significantly altering the system that brought them to where they are. Department chairs and other leaders of departments who may be devoted to DEI issues have limited power to implement significant changes and have limited effectiveness in bringing the faculty as a whole on board. Individual faculty who are dedicated to DEI issues and who are often young and untenured, bear an unfair burden in trying to change the department culture. We have a large challenge in front of us to not only determine and disseminate best practices for the field, but more importantly to convince a majority of faculty that they are the right things to implement, even if it means changing the playing field on which those faculty developed their careers. Some of this will come from top down action by administration, but a large fraction has to come from grass roots efforts from faculty, pursued in a way as to not be easily derailed by the “old guard."

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