Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living with a Learning Disability

I was recently contacted by a young, South African, boy who is a self-declared astronomy fanatic.  He reached out to me because his dream is to be like Albert Einstein, but he is failing his math and science classes due to a learning disability.  He fears that he’ll never be able to realize his goal and wanted my insights and advice.

I have a learning disability.  When diagnosed, my reading skills tested in the 20th percentile -- meaning that 80 out of 100 people are better readers than I.  I am also a Marshall Scholar, published author, and have a doctorate in physics from Berkeley.  During my exchange with this boy, I realized that perhaps some of my experiences regarding learning disabilities might be helpful to educators in this community (who have LD students) and readers of this blog who themselves have learning differences.

For me, the most challenging aspect of having a learning disability has been to accept how different I am, and to learn to advocate for myself such that I get the appropriate help and accommodations.  I live in a world that is set up for people who learn a certain way, I don't learn that way.  I have to work five-times harder to absorb the same information that a "normal" learner can take-in easily.  This is incredibly frustrating, time-consuming, and demoralizing.  I used to constantly compare myself to others and feel stupid because everything took me longer.  The challenge was to internalize that I am just as smart, but that I need the proper help to demonstrate that intelligence.

I was able to make real breakthroughs when I started working with an educational therapist who specializes in learning disabilities.  Many schools and universities have such professionals available to LD students.  My educational therapist helped me understand where my strengths lie and how to accommodate my weaknesses.  It was through working with him that I realized that physics was a good area for me to study.  He also helped me realize that I could more effectively process written words by using books on tape or having my computer read text out loud to me.

Joining a support group for students with learning disabilities was also very helpful. I learned about study techniques, resources, and how to advocate for and accept myself.  For instance, there is a college specifically for people with learning disabilities.  Some professors are willing to allow learning disabled students to turn in alternative assignments, like a video or audio version of the paper or an oral final exam instead of a written one.  I learned how to explain to my professors and peers why I needed extra time on written exams; how it wasn’t an unfair advantage, but merely leveling the playing field such that I could demonstrate my knowledge.  I had lighter course loads throughout my schooling.  As a result my education took longer, and I’m fine with that.

I would encourage anyone with a learning disability to try to find alternative ways to absorb information.  There are many videos and demonstrations on the web that can help you learn science and math.  Join study/discussion groups with friends, so that you are forced to explain the material to others, not just read about it.  Remember that most people diagnosed with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence.  Unfortunately, the pathways in your brain are connected in such a way that it is harder for you to process information and communicate your knowledge.  So the challenge is to find ways to make shortcuts in your brain, or find areas of study where these connections are less jumbled.  Experiment and try to figure out what works best for you.  Be patient with yourself, and know that there are many successful people in this world who have been able to overcome their learning differences.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The passing of pioneering astronaut Sally Ride 

Copied from NASA's Website, click here for the original.

In a space agency filled with trailblazers, Sally K. Ride was a pioneer of a different sort. The soft-spoken California physicist broke the gender barrier 29 years ago when she rode to orbit aboard space shuttle Challenger to become America’s first woman in space.

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally's family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."

“Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.”

Ride’s contribution to America’s space program continued right up until her death at age 61 this week. After two trips to orbit aboard the shuttle, she went on an award-winning academic career at the University of California, San Diego, where her expertise and wisdom were widely sought on matters related to space. She holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as a member of both investigation boards following NASA’s two space shuttle accidents. She also served as a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee, in 2009, which informed many of the decisions about NASA’s current human spaceflight programs.

"The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women, had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality," said Peggy Whitson, Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office.

However, Ride’s place in history was assured on June 18, 1983, when she rocketed into space on Challenger’s STS-7 mission with four male crewmates.

“The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it,” Ride recalled in an interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008. “That was made pretty clear the day that I was told I was selected as a crew. I was taken up to Chris Kraft’s office. He wanted to have a chat with me and make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew. I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said.”

“On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad,” Ride said. “I didn’t really think about it that much at the time . . . but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.”

Ride joined NASA as part of the 1978 astronaut class, the first to include women. She and five other women, along with 29 men, were selected out of 8,000 applicants. The class became known as the “Thirty-Five New Guys” and reported to the Johnson Space Center the next summer to begin training. Ride trained for five years before she and three of her classmates were assigned to STS-7. The six-day mission deployed two communications satellites and performed a number of science experiments.

Following that historic flight, Ride returned to space on another shuttle mission, STS-41G in 1984. The 8-day mission deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of Earth, and demonstrated potential satellite refueling techniques. She was assigned to a third flight, but transitioned to a role on the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger accident after that shuttle was lost in January 1986. When the investigation was completed, she accepted a job as a special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning.

Ride left NASA in August 1987 to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her long-time passion of motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.

A native of Los Angeles, Ride graduated from high school there in 1968 and enrolled at Stanford University. At Stanford, she earned four degrees, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. She also was an accomplished athlete who played varsity tennis at Stanford after being nationally ranked as a youth.

Ride received numerous honors and awards during the course of her career. Most notably, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women versus Women: II. Why Junior Women Can Navigate Their Own Path to Success

In part I of this two-part series, I confessed that I cringe when I hear women in astronomy put other women down. Last week’s post was aimed at junior women, but at the risk of alienating everyone, it is now time for senior women to sit up and take notice. I pay close attention when women talk about what it is like to be a woman in astronomy. One unfortunate theme that seems to repeat itself goes like this: a junior woman reluctantly complains about the senior woman in her department/group/organization who does not support her. Here are some generic examples:

A junior faculty member is having a baby. She is negotiating for release time with her department chair. The senior woman in her department argues that the rest of the department members should not have to do more work to cover for their junior colleague.

A grad student is dealing with sexual harassment. A senior woman advises her to keep her head down, not complain, and just finish her thesis.

A shy postdoc with an introverted personality is the victim of bullying. A senior woman advises her to get a backbone and stand up for herself.

A young astronomer wants to take a year off after her first child is born. A senior woman challenges the young mother to get back to work as soon as possible.

The common problem in all these examples is that the senior woman is expecting her junior colleague to follow in her footsteps. The first senior woman succeeded because she decided not to have children. The second snuck through because no one paid attention to her. The third used her strong personality to plow her way through trouble. The fourth attributed her ability to “have it all” to great daycare. These incidents support the idea that there should be more than one senior woman in every department/group/organization. No one should have to represent all women.

I remember a series of AASWOMEN Newsletter contributions from years ago where a junior woman confessed that she could not think effectively when she was pregnant, and as a result, had a difficult time doing science. A senior woman pounced on her, bragging that she was able to work successfully right up until the day she delivered. An e-mail frenzy ensued, with each subsequent contribution describing the “right” pregnancy experience.

I remember thinking at the time that all these descriptions represented a spectrum (there’s a nice astronomical word) of experiences. No pregnancy was more right than another. They were all valid. Why then did we spend so much time and energy putting each other down? I can only speculate because I myself don’t understand it; does putting other women down somehow make us feel better about our own situation, predicament, and/or accomplishments? Or is it more about thoughtlessness than malice? We need to be supportive of paths, choices, and experiences that are different than our own. We should all walk a mile in each other’s shoes.

Younger women are getting tenured and federal positions, chairing review panels, and becoming PIs of new instruments. Sometimes, it is easy to get negative about these things. Why them and not you? It is so easy to get into that “us” versus “them” frame of mind! Don’t let yourself fester in this negative space. Rather, remind yourself that as a group, junior women should be able to go further than their senior counterparts, simply because they have less opposition. Incidents of overt discrimination and sexual harassment are not completely gone, but they are seriously waning. CSWA is working to make the astronomy community aware of unconscious bias and bullying. We hope that these incidents will begin to wane as well. Senior women, if you ever feel envious of the accomplishments or opportunities of a junior colleague, remember that you helped create the environment where those accomplishments and opportunities were possible. Be proud of them, and in the process, don’t forget to be proud of yourself.

Senior women, stop charging ahead and take a moment to turn around – figuratively speaking, of course. Younger women do not have to walk solely in your footsteps to succeed. Your individual efforts have blended with those of all the other women who have made it. You have helped create an environment where junior women have more freedom to make their own choices. They are individuals, not your clones. Support them in their troubled and challenging times and celebrate with them as they triumph!

Thanks to Nancy Morrison and Caroline Simpson of CSWA for sharing their insights on these issues.

-Joan Schmelz

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Report from Anchorage AAS: CSWA Town Hall

I attended my first Summer AAS Meeting last month, in Anchorage, AK. I will admit that the location was a big draw for me. Of course, I fully enjoyed the scientific aspects of the meeting as well. And while 22 hours of sunlight a day is an interesting novelty, it's nice to go to sleep in the dark, too.

The CSWA hosted a Town Hall on Astronomical Bullying during the meeting, which is the real point of this post. It was held on Monday, June 11, with an estimated 50 or so attendees. It was a little hard to tell exactly what our attendance was, since we were given an enormous ballroom.

Our CSWA chair, Joan Schmelz, began the Town Hall with a short presentation defining astronomical bullying, along with some advice on how to deal with it. Her slides are available here. Really, by astronomical bullying we mean bullying in a professional context which can take place in any field, but we examine it specifically within astronomy. This kind of bullying, in a nutshell, is unprofessional conduct not limited to sexual overtones, although gender dynamics can sometimes play a role. They are situations which are not really sexual harassment, and not necessarily discrimination, but still affect your career negatively.

If this kind of bullying happens to you, make sure to document everything, with dates and times and details. Try to find an ombudsperson at your institution. But above all else, talk to someone you trust about it, whether it is a friend, a mentor, your mom, whomever. If all else fails you can always contact Joan herself.

After Joan's presentation, we had an engaging question and answer period, including discussions of how harassment policies already in place at some universities could also be brought to bear in bullying cases, how the climate at some institutions and within some sub-fields of astronomy foster an environment of bullying, how this ties into the national conversation on bullying, and what might the AAS be able to do as a professional society to rein in bullying. Joan commented that every bully believes that he or she is upholding a standard, which gives some insight into bullying behavior and why the competitive field of astronomy suffers from it.

There was also some discussion on how to get more people to attend CSWA Town Hall meetings, since it often feels much like preaching to the choir. David Helfand, our newly-inaugurated AAS President was in attendance, and it's great to have his support of our efforts.

If you went to the Town Hall, what did you learn from it? Was there anything you would have liked to see discussed? If you missed it, what questions do you have for those of us who were there?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Women versus Women: I. Why ALL Senior Women Should be Role Models

I confess that I cringe when I hear women in astronomy put other women down. We all too often divide ourselves into “us” versus “them”: senior women who are/are not effective role models for girls in STEM; women who do/do not return to work immediately after having a baby; women who do/do not stand up for themselves against bullies; women who do/do not make waves when confronted with sexual harassment. Women of astronomy, we have common foes – discrimination, harassment, bullying, to name but a few. Let us unite and spend our energy fighting these enemies. At the same time, let us not waste our valuable time on artificially generated women-versus-women battles like the Anne-Marie Slaughter-Sheryl Sandberg “debate” that has resulted in such media frenzy. Slaughter and Sandberg each made choices that were right for them. We should not second-guess them, and their choices should not have any negative influence on us. Let us all support each other and be a bit more understanding of the choices others make.

Since becoming chair of CSWA three years ago, I have (occasionally) been asked why the AAS needs a committee on the status of WOMEN in astronomy. The questioner has almost always been a young woman, a graduate student, who may have felt that the existence of our committee somehow diminished her individual accomplishments.

You might think that such questions would be depressing. After all, I spend a lot of my time, energy, and creativity on women-in-astronomy issues. Actually, my reaction is quite the opposite. Hurrah! I think to myself. Here is a young woman who has never (noticeably) experienced discrimination, sexual harassment, or bullying, and perhaps more importantly, there is no one in her peer group who has had to deal with these issues. I am chair of a committee whose number one goal is to put itself out of business. Although she does not realize it, this young woman has just made my day. We (and by “we” I mean women in astronomy and the men who support us) have created an environment where some women at the graduate-student level think that our profession has reached the stage where CSWA is no longer necessary. I know better, unfortunately, but I take her question as a sign of progress.

I have also heard comments about how senior women are not good role models because they never (1) got married; (2) had children; (3) made waves; (4) backed down; (5) had a life outside astronomy; etc. There is a long list; just pick your favorite. I would counter that ALL senior women should be considered role models. They “made it” in an environment that was a lot tougher on women than the one we face today. In the process, they made it easier for the rest of us to succeed. We no longer have to walk solely in their footsteps; many individuals have trampled enough earth to create a wide-open space that allows the rest of us to navigate our own path. There is no single “right way” to astronomical success. Thanks to the women who went before us, a life in astronomy can include marriage (or not), babies (or not), daycare (or not). You can work halftime, fulltime, or double time. You can succeed with a shy or a brazen personality. You have the power to make the choice that is right for you as an individual, as half of a couple, or as part of a family. Not all success stories are the same. The right choice is the one that is right for you.

Did your advisor ever accuse you of enrolling in college to earn your MRS degree? Did university nepotism rules ever keep you out of a paid research position? Did you ever have to hide a pregnancy because you would be fired if anyone found out? When you married your college boyfriend, did anyone expect you to work as an unpaid research assistant to support his career? If these things sound outrageous, then you should read Chapter 2 of Vivian Gornick’s book entitled, “Women in Science: Then and Now.” The interviews for the book were conducted in 1980, and the 25th anniversary edition has recently been released. 1980 was not that long ago. You might be surprised at the obstacles faced by these women.

This particular post is aimed at junior women - to encourage them to appreciate the contributions of senior women. Just because you are not following exactly in their footsteps does not mean that they did not contribute to your success. They created the environment where you could succeed. My advice – appreciate them; they are our role models!

Senior women, don’t think that you are off the hook! Part II of Women versus Women is aimed at you. Be sure to check in next week.

--Joan Schmelz

Friday, July 6, 2012

From Astrophysics to the Hill

This week's guest blogger is Johanna Teske, who is finishing her fourth year as an Astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, Steward Observatory. Johanna's science research focuses on observing and modeling exoplanet atmospheres, studying in particular their relationship to their host-star atmospheres. She also dabbles in education research, studying on how science fits into the worldview of students and how their enculturation of science helps/hinders their learning and understanding of it. She is excited and honored to be posting on Women In Astronomy.

From Astrophysics to the Hill
By Johanna Teske

Dr. Anna Quider is currently a Congressional Fellow working in a representative’s office on the Hill. She was awarded her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge after starting there on a Marshall Scholarship in 2007 and continuing through last year on a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. I met Anna when she came to the University of Arizona to speak in an "alternative/non-academic careers" series that we stared last year for our graduate students and post-docs in Astronomy and Planetary Science. Her Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship is facilitated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), though funded by the American Physical Society (APS). 

J: Can you describe what is involved in getting your fellowship?  
A: The application can be accessed on the APS website ( and it is due in January of the year you’d like to start the fellowship. Generally, interviews are held in March/April and offers are made soon after interviews. I was awarded a stipend for one year from the APS and it runs from September 1st through August 31st of the next year. People who are awarded this fellowship then go through placement week in September where they interview for a job with any Congress-person/committee office that they like in Congress, House or Senate, Democrat or Republican, any topic, any person that they want. There are some offices/committees that get in touch with AAAS because they would like to have a Fellow, but others don't know about the fellowship program, and fellows can contact them directly.

J: How do you choose where to work/who to work with, there seem to be so many options?! 
A: That is true! You become quickly overwhelmed. There was something like 75 or so options on our list from AAAS, between offices (personal offices), working on the staff of a senator or Congressman/woman. There were also committees, like, the Committee on Natural Resources, that you could work on, as well. I based my interviews off the list of offices who already said they wanted a Fellow. Between first and second interviews, I did something like 23 interviews, in almost 2 weeks. I wanted to interview in offices that said that they would be flexible with my portfolio, and where the member that I would be working for was on committees that I find interesting. I knew I wanted an office that was really going to invest in me and mentor me as a person. I didn't have something to "go back to", whereas some fellows were only taking a year off from their permanent job or something. For me, it was like, "This is my life, so here we go!'

Wave-Particle Duality

What does sexism have to do with wave-particle duality? Not much, unless you have been reading the book reviews and letters in Physics Today. The February 2012 issue includes a review by Robert March of Quantum Physics for Poets by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill, where we learn that "a window shopper at Victoria's Secret illustrates the probabilistic behavior of photons". This allusion seemed quirky but harmless until we read the fuller explication by Richard Wolfson in the June 2012 issue followed by a defense from the book's authors, who assert that "we have not received a single complaint thus far from anyone else that our book is sexist."

The book authors' test of reader reactions was incomplete; in quantum verse, they did not sum over all paths. Wolfson reports that his letter caused another reader to complain to Lederman and Hlll, and Hill told her they would change the example in a future version of the book.

There are a variety of lessons one may draw from this example depending on one's philosophical stance. One conclusion appears free of any personal views toward feminism or quantum wierdness: It is possible to change perceptions.

Is it possible to eliminate the implicit bias that fails to see how one's cultural metaphors exclude others? Sometimes I think that solving this problem is much harder than solving the many-body Schrodinger equation. Astronomers and physicists like intellectual challenges. This one is worthy of our sustained effort.

Monday, July 2, 2012

AASWomen for June 29, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of June 29, 2012
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery

[This week's guest editor is Daryl Haggard. Daryl is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Northwestern University. She studies AGN and their host galaxies, accreting compact binaries, and accretion-driven outflows using multi-wavelength and time domain surveys.]

This week's issues:

1. Janet Luhmann Wins Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Award

2. The Ongoing Struggle to Balance Work and Career

3. My Daughter’s Experience with Math and Science

4. "Science: It's a Girl Thing" (Just Add Lipstick)

5. Science it's a Girl Thing - FAIL?

6. Survey of Job/Career Satisfaction

7. Google Doodles, Lack of Gender Diversity

8. Acing the Physics GRE

9. Job Opportunities

10. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

11. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

12. Access to Past Issues