Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Blogger -- Hello! & One Example of the Mutual Benefits of Outreach

As a new member of the CSWA and first-time blogger, I thought I'd take this moment to introduce myself: I recently began my first (only?!) postdoc as a CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics) fellow at Northwestern University. In my research, I use optical emission line and X-ray diagnostics to identify galaxies that are actively accreting material onto their central supermassive black holes and the role that this accretion (and the consequent feedback) plays in galaxy evolution.

I've kept myself happy and sane by working to protect a life outside of research -- as a roller derby queen with the Mad Rollin' Dolls (my moniker was 'Big Bang'... really, what else could you be as an astronomer crashing around on wheels?), as a stilt walker and trapeze artist (still looking for good names for this alter ego, any suggestions?), etc.

I was also lucky to have been part of a great group of women (and men) graduate students at UW-Madison. Together we formed WOWSAP (Women of Wisconsin Strengthening Astronomy and Physics), a mentoring and networking group for women graduate students, postdocs, and early career faculty. The discussions we had and the professional development we provided for ourselves played a key role in keeping me in this field.

For the Spring 2011 AAS in Boston, CSWA has proposed to host a special session panel discussion on 1) ways to ensure the sustainability of mentoring programs and 2) sharing examples of how departments and institutions have managed to change the climate so that these programs become accepted as the norm. I'd very much appreciate hearing about your experiences with these two aspects of mentoring programs.

Have you had success (or encountered obstacles) promoting the sustainability and institutionalization of a program in your department, university, or other work place? What ways have you found to improve climate and culture with respect to mentoring/networking programs?

Outreach, in its various forms, has also provided an essential counterbalance to my time spent doing research. I'm sure many of you feel the same -- one very much energizes the other. My current postdoc position is ideal for me, with an 80/20 split between research and education/outreach. Which brings me to the real subject of today's blog:

Part of my CIERA appointment is as an advisor to the STEM graduate students involved in Northwestern's recently funded NSF GK12 'Reach for the Stars' program*. 'Reach for the Stars' pairs STEM graduate students with local middle and high-school teachers to develop computational modeling curricula for their K-12 science classrooms and provide authentic research experiences for the K-12 students.

Recently I read Kitts (2009), which provides further supporting arguments for programs like GK12. Kitts presents the results of surveying 2500 rural and urban middle- and high-school students on their attitudes about science as a career. On the positive side, the work of the last 10+ years in portraying scientists as people appears to have paid off -- most students no longer view scientists as 'other', e.g., caricatures in white lab coats. However, not surprisingly, a major hurdle remains the lack of direct interaction with science role models and lack of authentic science experiences**. The opportunity to identify with scientists and envision themselves as scientists greatly enhances youth consideration of science as a career (Kitts 2009).

The GK12 STEM graduate students, in turn, are gaining invaluable experience learning to effectively communicate their science, an extremely important skill that's given too little (if any) focus in most graduate programs. Incorporating their research into the K-12 curriculum forces the grad students to think about the big picture connections and motivations for their research, about audience preconceptions and ways to highlight the relevance to existing interests, about the use of jargon and how best to introduce and use specific terminology, about ways to gauge audience understanding, etc.

What have you found to be effective in developing your ability to communicate your science to a broad audience? What support are you providing for the students you're mentoring to develop this important skill?

My current list:

Within a department/research center:
- promote a culture of support and acceptance so that students have a chance to build their confidence, make mistakes, and constructively learn from these mistakes
- present articles in a journal club setting (not just within your research group)
- take the lead on summarizing an article for an astro-ph setting. Check out http://voxcharta.org -- my new favorite organizational resource
- mentor, mentor, mentor
- practice 2 minute talks (i.e., an engaging, big-picture 2 minute summary of your research for use in informal moments, like during coffee breaks at the AAS).

Through education/outreach in your local community:
- give public lectures for a general audience (look to your local science museum, community centers, retirement homes, etc.)
- lead activities for science clubs at local schools, science museums, community centers, etc.

*The NSF GK12 program, now at over 140 universities, began in 1999. Potential grad students -- check out this great program!

**There were no statistically significant differences between male and female responses in this survey. Differences with respect to race or socioeconomic status were not investigated, although the article notes that minority youth are particularly challenged in constructing a science identity because of cultural stereotypes about their competence (see Hanson 2008).

Kitts. 2009. "The Paradox of Middle and High School Students' Attitudes towards Science vs their Attitudes about Science as a Career", Journal of Geoscience Education, 57, 2

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The cost (and value!) of breastfeeding and doing astrophysics

Only now do I realize that while folks were sharing stories with me about breastfeeding and working, no one said it would be easy. My own mother, who has been an elected judge for over 30 years, breast-fed all three of us for a year. For some reason I figured it wasn’t too hard. The answer is, it isn’t too hard (it is possible to do this).

I also remember reading quite a bit about how much less expensive breastfeeding is than formula-feeding. This is quite true, but those figures don’t take into account the real cost of traveling with an infant. Disclaimer: I am traveling with my daughter. I know it is possible to pump and bring the milk back, but I made the choice (an expensive one) to keep her with me. This is an account of things you need to consider if you want to do the same.

I just embarked on a major international trip for a 10 day astronomy conference. We spent substantial additional money to pay for my husband and daughter to attend with me to keep breastfeeding going during the trip (note: children held on your lap are not free on flights, you have to pay hundreds of dollars in airport taxes/fees). Since I needed my daughter nearby, we didn’t find a cheaper hotel, we stuck with the conference hotel, which was a larger drain on my research grants. I was harassed a bit by airport security in Athens, Greece about my breast pump (what is this? Can we take it apart to scan it! Answer: NO!).

The expense and headache did yield results: I got to ask questions about accreting X-ray binaries, pop into the coffee break to chat, pop into the hotel room to nurse a fussy Anya, and then pop back into the conference. I nuzzled my daughter at lunchtime and I nursed her at night. So, it was a real pain and our bank account is now depleted, but I am very glad we did it that way.

Next up, I head to Cambridge, MA for the Chandra User’s Committee meeting. I am learning about day care in other cities. I had no idea how expensive this can be! Rates in Boston and Chicago (the two cities I’ve checked) range from $12-$20/hour and if you’re using a service there is an agency fee ($20-$40/day). To do the math, it can cost you a cool $140-$160/day for reliable child care in another city if you have to make a ‘cold call’. Lucky for me, I have a grandmother that I could fly in for $190 for a Southwest ticket. At these prices, it becomes worth it to call everyone you are related to and that you know well to find out if there are other options. However, all those phone calls and emails cost you time. Again, no one said this would be simple.

Part of the solution is to turn down some of the travel, which I have done too. However, my decision at this stage of my astrophysics career is that it would be detrimental not to travel at all. I also feel (my opinion!) that being separated from my daughter for more than an overnight right now is not good for the breastfeeding relationship. So, my decision is to do both.

Luckily, it is not too hard.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


First, I want to give a brief shout-out to those who attended the DPS Women's Lunch at last week's DPS Meeting in Pasadena! I found it to be a great opportunity to network and share ways to support fellow women astronomers. Susan Niebur has a nice recap of some meeting highlights at the Women in Planetary Science Blog.

I recently read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of the book is basically that those we consider geniuses didn't really get there strictly on talent alone. Rather, luck, opportunity, and hard work play as much, if not a larger role than any innate ability.

An example of luck might be being born just after the cutoff date for youth sports teams: Gladwell demonstrates that NHL players' birthdays are heavily biased toward the beginning of the year for precisely this reason. Opportunity is like Bill Gates' middle school PTA buying a computer. Hard work is summed up in Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, which says that it takes that many hours of practice to become and expert at something.

It isn't too far a stretch to apply the same ideas to the question of women and minorities in science. If factors such as luck, opportunity, and hard work play such a large role in creating geniuses, then unluckiness, misguidance, and discouragement clearly play a role in preventing people from achieving as well.

Let us consider the case of a hypothetical Jane, who is quite bright, but whose parents never even consider that she might use a computer, who is encouraged to follow her proclivities in writing rather than science, who pays a high social cost for devoting herself to her studies, and who experiences hostility from her male peers for beating them at what they consider their own game. Her brother John, who is equally bright, might be presented with different opportunities and encouragement. Would it then be any wonder that Jane might be directed toward becoming an English major while John studies math and science?

All this supports arguments that expanding opportunities for minorities and women and encouraging them to pursue math and science are effective ways to increase their representation. The question, really, is how to put that into practice.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Best policies for gender equity?

I’ve been having lots of discussions with gender equity allies around my university about how to make academic careers more attractive to women and how to help level the playing field for women once they are on the faculty. We are now seeking to reduce barriers through intelligent policies at the level of universities or research organizations and in the federal funding agencies. A group of us met recently with the new NSF Director, Subra Suresh, and were pleased by his interest in these issues.

Three areas seem to me especially challenging and ripe for policy improvements: maternal or family leave, child care, and accommodations for dual career partners.

Many organizations now have some form of family leave exceeding the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act, at least for faculty-level employees. What about for graduate students? Postdocs? Staff? What are examples of best practices? For example, should universities or funding agencies provide for paid leave? What about for postdoctoral fellows, who are not employees and therefore not subject to the same regulations as employees? Are these issues that have to be solved at the top level (e.g. university-wide) or can smaller units make initiatives? Are there examples of the latter? What should federal agencies do?

Child care is generally unaffordable for graduate students and places a financial strain on postdocs and staff. Many organizations have subsidized day care, however there are far too few spots for the demand. Should universities or funding agencies provide portable child care benefits? Some places do; what are examples of best practices?

Some university systems have made serious efforts to accommodate trailing partners in dual career couples, with obvious benefits to their hiring success. How important is this and what kind of accommodations work best?

Are there other topics you consider similarly important, where policies or funding can make a real difference?

I welcome suggestions from AAS Women and gender equity advocates.