Thursday, August 18, 2022

Passing of Dr. Leisa Townsley

By Eric Feigelson, Sarah Gallagher, and Ann Hornschemeier Cardiff  

With great sadness, we have learned of the passing of Dr. Leisa Townsley.  She passed away peacefully in Colorado, after a battle with cancer, on Monday August 8th with her life-long partner Pat Broos at her side. She worked at Penn State for more than 28 years as a leader and, subsequently, the Penn State PI, for the Chandra ACIS instrument. She and Pat had relocated to Utah, and then Colorado in 2014 to work remotely for Penn State in anticipation of their retirement there.  

1964-2022 (
Leisa had a rich and substantial character and demonstrated fundamental integrity as a person and a scientist. She was greatly respected and will be deeply missed by the high-energy astrophysics community and others who knew her.

Her talents as a scientist were  truly remarkable. She helped establish the importance of X-ray studies of massive star-forming regions using Chandra and other observatories. She published Chandra catalogs of tens-of-thousands of young stars in dozens of clusters and associations, and she discovered diffuse X-ray emission in all regions arising from colliding OB-star winds. This work required the careful and comprehensive removal of point sources, accomplished using the superb ACIS Extract software package that Pat Broos and she developed. Her research invalidated the century-old belief that HII regions are suffused with 10^4K gas, finding they are instead filled with 10^7K gas with H-alpha produced only at the cloud surface. Leisa’s work helped establish the ‘birth of the hot interstellar medium’ that fills most of the Galactic disk, showing that the hot ISM from winds precedes the more spectacular supernova remnants. 

Colleagues have remarked on conversations with Leisa after she completed analysis of these regions, showing spectacular and unique color images of diffuse Chandra X-rays filling the gaps between Spitzer molecular clouds. These were views of how star formation was operating that led to conversations that no one in the world had been able to have prior to her work. She was a pioneer forging in directions that were enabled by the combination of her fundamental understanding of high energy astrophysics and her deep knowledge of the ACIS instrument. But this work only represents only part of her accomplishments: calibrating the ACIS instrument (she created the first model used to correct the charge-transfer inefficiency from the early CCD radiation damage), leadership of the 1 Ms mosaic of the Carina Nebula resulting in a book-length issue of the ApJ Supplement Series, constructively leading and participating in dozens of other Chandra studies, management of Chandra affairs at Penn St​ate, and more. Her death is a great loss.  

Aside from her professional excellence, Leisa, and her partner Pat, mentored a generation of Penn State graduate students and postdocs, in a manner that could be described as “aggressive welcome". She generously sat through many practice talks to give feedback, and improved the communication skills of a host of early career researchers. She made sure that new scientists appreciated the skill and effort required to characterize an instrument so that results could be trusted. She invited early career high-energy astrophysicists (and many others) into her home on a routine basis. Colleagues from outside Penn State would remark on having been invited to an informal pizza party at her house, only to arrive at her warm and welcoming abode, people wandering around in the yard, with two very happy dogs co-hosting the party. In an era when we are working on improving the culture of our field, Leisa Townsley embodied the ultimate goal:  to greet everyone warmly and to celebrate, and encourage, the scientific success of everyone. She acknowledged and respected the contributions of all team members and was a savvy leader who understood people well and brought out their best work. One of the Penn State grads commented on having invited her and Pat to an awards banquet some years after graduation and that Leisa remarked she wasn’t that important. To a generation of early-career folk at Penn State, Leisa wasn’t merely important, she was the reason they made it through. Her legacy is not only her impactful contributions to our understanding of star-forming regions, but the people in the community who are here, contributing and leading, thanks to her support and her example.

Please see the testimonial from the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and please share your memories of Leisa in the Comments below.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Career Profile: From Extragalactic Astronomy to Science Policy with Dr. Julie Davis

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers, planetary scientists, etc. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.
A person with shoulder length brown hair and blue-green eyes standing in front of a brick wall and smiling at the camera.

Dr. Julie Davis is the John N. Bahcall Public Policy fellow at the American Astronomical Society. She received her PhD in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she worked on large extragalactic radio surveys and extreme galaxy outflows. She graduated in August 2021 and moved to Washington, DC, where she now advocates for the astronomical sciences on behalf of all AAS members. 

How did you first become interested in physics/astronomy?

I have been interested in science generally for about as long as I can remember, but got into physics and astronomy around middle school. I really loved Hubble images and thought it would be amazing to work with those. I stumbled upon astronomy as a career option at age fourteen and decided then that I wanted a PhD.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the universe.

While I’ve always loved looking at the night sky, I didn’t truly connect until I started doing outreach programs in grad school. I did dozens of public talks and telescope observing at state parks around Wisconsin, which forced me to really learn the night sky. Now the annual motions of the sky are an important marker of seasonal rhythms for me, and foster a sense of place.

What has your career path been like since graduating with your PhD, and/or how did you choose your current institution?

I graduated just shy of one year ago, so the career transition was a bit rough thanks to the pandemic. I’m in my first role post-PhD, so I’m definitely still charting my course forward. Luckily, the AAS Bahcall Public Policy Fellowship was a really natural step. It’s set up like a traditional academic postdoc so it was easy to understand how it fits in my career growth coming from academia. I also deal with familiar topics–just from a different perspective.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

I’d say learning to communicate my science across a variety of contexts was the most valuable skill I picked up in grad school. Getting comfortable with public speaking through presenting at conferences or doing public engagement; learning to write persuasive grants and engaging outreach material; and especially talking about my science to university donors, which feels a lot like my current job talking to Congress about science funding!

How did you end up working in your field?

I’ve had a casual interest in science policy since I took a space policy course in undergrad. At the time I didn’t think it was a job you could do; rather, you became senior in your field and eventually get invited to interface with the government. I continued to grad school with the intention of pursuing the standard academic career path. In 2017, however, I applied and was selected for the AAS Congressional Visits Day, which brings early career astronomers to the Hill to talk to their Congress members. I met the then-Bahcall fellow, Heather Bloemhard, and through her learned this was a possible career path.

After that, I ended up doing a PhD minor in science communication, and joined a campus science policy group, Catalysts for Science Policy. Through that group I learned how to write policy memos, including one that we wrote at the request of the Wisconsin State Legislature. I really enjoyed the process of researching policy solutions and thinking through problems that had broad impacts. I decided I’d go all in on the science policy path and applied for the AAS and AAAS science policy fellowships. I had very supportive advisors who encouraged me to pursue this route, for which I’m immensely grateful, too.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of working in your field?

  • There are many moving pieces to keep track of, and a degree of unpredictability. Working in policy you need to keep up with everything Congress is doing on any number of issues important to your organization, and understand how these things affect you. It’s not always straight-forward to figure out when Congress might actually pass the budget, or what’s going on with legislation you’re interested in.
  • This job requires me to deal with lots of different people with lots of different opinions! Public policy is built on relationships, so I’m constantly interfacing with different groups, meeting new people, and maintaining those connections. I’m not a natural extrovert and still feel weird wearing a suit and running around congressional offices, so I have to put in a lot of energy here.
  • Much like science, policy change can be slow, incremental, and requires a lot of hard work. Increasing the NASA budget or implementing regulations on satellites to protect astronomy, for example, can take years of concerted advocacy. Sometimes it feels like you’re working on a lost cause or an unsolvable problem, which can be disheartening.
  • Working with lots of awesome people. I listed this as a challenge, but it’s also a pretty cool part of the job. I get to talk to astronomers at every career stage, staffers and congress members who are genuinely nice people, and even unexpected people and groups like SpaceX engineers or the Audubon Society.
  • I feel like I’m making a bigger impact than I could have as a researcher. My work helps make others’ science possible, and I love being able to help the field as a whole by wrestling with our biggest challenges.

How do you manage all of the different demands on your time? And/or how do you find time for your priorities outside of work?

My work-life balance has been pretty good so far, but my calendar can be very boom-or-bust. During Congressional recesses, there are less things to keep track of and work can feel almost leisurely. Other times, I have to work into the evening or over the weekend when, for example, an important bill is released that must be analyzed, or when we bring our volunteers to DC for Congressional Visits Day.

If you weren’t in your current field, what would you be doing?

Probably some flavor of science communication. I love writing, and really, really don’t like coding, so data science was never going to be a career path for me despite seemingly every other astronomer going that direction!

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

Since starting this job, I have been working closely with the AAS Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris to address the issues satellite constellations pose to astronomy. It’s this really existential issue, and it feels very David and Goliath in terms of how much power the satellite industry has compared to astronomy. However, we’ve recently managed to make progress on a potential legislative first step solution. Seeing tangible progress this soon is pretty surprising and it feels really nice, even if this isn’t even close to the end of the issue.

Do you have any advice for students just starting their career in science or science policy?

I can’t advise much beyond the first step after grad school, but if you’re a grad student interested in policy, I’d recommend a few things:
  • Work on your writing and science communication skills! Get involved in as many outreach and writing opportunities as you can. Demonstrate the ability to understand and talk about things outside of your specific research area, too.
  • If you can, get experience in a role that demonstrates your ability to work on sensitive topics requiring discretion and working with different stakeholders (e.g. department climate committees, grad application or hiring committees, etc).
  • Get acquainted with what’s going on with federal science policy by signing up for the FYI newsletter; apply for AAS Congressional Visits Day; join the National Science Policy Network; write policy memos for the Journal of Science Policy and Governance; get involved with your campus science policy group if you have one, or your local chapter Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally.

Describe your approach to job hunting, any networking resources you use, and any other advice/resources for early career professionals looking for positions in your field.

While I did a number of “informational interviews” with policy and policy-adjacent people, I was ultimately told the easiest way to get into science policy is to do a science policy fellowship. There are a number of fellowships ranging from post-bachelor’s to short terms you can do while still in grad school to full two year postdoc fellowships. There are other “traditional” policy career paths like interning on the Hill, but these don’t necessarily have the support network of fellow academics.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

I’ve been fairly lucky to always have supportive work environments that allow work-life balance, so I’m not sure how much advice I can give other than seeking out a positive work environment that respects your work-life boundaries. While I occasionally have to work extra to meet deadlines, I am otherwise fairly intentional in keeping my 9-to-5 hours. Very few things are so pressing that they must be done outside the normal work cycle, and rarely is one’s best work done when one is overworking.

Friday, August 5, 2022

AASWomen Newsletter for August 05, 2022

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
From item 5.
AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of August 05, 2022
eds: Jeremy Bailin, Nicolle Zellner, Alessandra Aloisi, and Sethanne Howard

[We hope you all are taking care of yourselves and each other. Be well! --eds.]

This week's issues:

1. Physics … is for girls?

2. The many versions of a female scientist

3. Women are better at statistics than they think

4. Florence Bell, an unsung hero of science

5. A guide to applying to astro postdocs. Part 1: Finding postdocs & Part 2: The application process

6. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

7. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

8. Access to Past Issues

An online version of this newsletter will be available at at 3:00 PM ET every Friday.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Crosspost: ‘Follow your dreams,’ writes astronomer Martha Haynes

Written by Linda B. Glaser for the Cornell Chronicle
The Sky is for Everyone is an international collaboration of essays featuring prominent women in astronomy, including Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Credit: Princeton University Press
When Martha Haynes was thirteen years old, her brother convinced her to give him a big chunk of her babysitting money so he could buy a telescope. He never used it much, but Haynes found the night sky fascinating.

“I remember showing the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter to a couple of passing police officers one night,” she wrote. The thrill she got from explaining to them what they were seeing has never left her.

“To me, interacting with students inside and outside of the classroom is the greatest reward of my academic profession,” wrote Haynes, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her chapter, “Hands on Adventures with Telescopes: From the Backyard to Cerro Chajnantor,” appears in “The Sky Is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words,” edited by Virginia Trimble and David A. Weintraub.

Read more about Dr. Haynes' groundbreaking career in astronomy at the link below: