Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guest Post: Eilat Glikman on 'In Praise of Remote Observing'

This week's guest-blogger is Eilat Glikman. Eilat holds an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University.  She studies dust reddened quasars and their role in quasar/galaxy co-evolution, as well as faint quasars at high redshifts.  Eilat has two young children ages 7 and 4 and is dedicated to finding that elusive formula for work/life balance.  

When I decided to pursue a career in astronomy (and academia) I was not aware of the incredible amounts of travel required.  I hate to travel, get stressed in the run up to a trip, am terrible at packing and get homesick quite easily.  Of course, when I arrive at my destination I usually enjoy myself, whether it is observing and getting awesome data or going to a conference and having stimulating and vibrant discussions.  Still, it was a rude awakening when I realized the extreme amounts of airline miles that some astronomers rack up (and the frequent flyer culture that ensues).

In graduate school, I made the best of my trips by adding Hawaiian vacations to IRTF runs.  But toward the end of graduate school, when I was pregnant, traveling to a remote mountaintop in order to go observing was no longer tolerable and I started taking advantage of remote observing whenever possible.  And maybe it is because my first remote observing experiences were with the well-tested interface at IRTF, but once I got a taste of observing without travel, I was hooked.

During my postdoc at Caltech, I used the remote observing facility to observe with the Keck telescope, and delighted in the fact that I could put my toddler to bed, kiss him good night, drive to the office, work all night and come home to sleep during the day.  Comparing this routine with one that adds two days of travel and being completely away from my family, the work-life friendliness of remote observing becomes completely apparent.

I have since written entire papers based on remotely obtained data, from Keck and IRTF.  More recently I have been using WIYN’s remote observing capabilities to do my science at Yale.  And last night I used a new, quite complicated (on paper) instrument on WIYN for the first time.  The first half of the night was for my science, after that my observing partner and I handed the reigns to the next team.  I drove home, within 30 minutes was asleep in my own bed, and am now back in the office ready to go for another half-night.

I cannot express enough how wonderful that feels.

(I will leave for another post some tips on how to maximize good rest during a remote observing run, especially with children.)

The IRTF offers an ideal model to follow.  Anyone with an approved observing program can observe remotely, from anywhere.  The last time I observed with IRTF, I did it from the comfort of my own home.   The data were beautiful and it might have been the best observing run I ever had!
Observatories, astronomy departments, listen up:  If you want to maximize productivity from your facilities, be accessible to more people, and level the playing field for astronomers with different work-life situations and (I didn’t even mention) funding situations, invest in remote observing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Astronomy vs. Data Science

In response to my last post about the transition from Astronomer to Data Scientist many readers wanted to know the pros and cons of academia versus tech. Below I outline a few of the major differences between these career paths. Obviously, there is a lot of variety in individual companies, institutions, and experiences -- so please understand that the below is simply my (somewhat biased) perspective.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Report from SCUWP

As I finished writing this blog I noticed a nicely written one just posted by Ed Bertschinger on a similar topic.  So here is a report on the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, but from the Southeast conference as compared to Ed's Northeast conference:

My wife, Ellen Williams, attended an interesting conference last week to help undergraduate women in physics and related fields get started in their careers.  It was part of a program called Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics cosponsored by AAS CSWA and APS CSWP, which has simultaneous regional conferences in six regions of the United States.  She attended the one in Florida in the southeast sector, hence SCUWP.

The conference goal from their web site is to "help undergraduate women continue in physics by providing them with the opportunity to experience a professional conference, information about graduate school and professions in physics, and access to other women in physics of all ages with whom they can share experiences, advice, and ideas."  They have talks by professionals, student talks and panel discussions on various topics.

Ellen gave a talk on her experiences as a physics professor at U Maryland and Chief Scientist at BP.  She then participated in panels on the Status of Women in Physics and Careers in Physics.  These conferences are held on the same dates in all the regions, and all the conferences participate in a plenary talk broadcast to all the sites at the same time.  This year the talk was by Margaret Murnane from U. Colorado JILA on "Why Diverse Teams will Meet the Science and Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century".

The energy level of a room filled with over a hundred aspiring young women scientists was multiplied times six in the plenary session as the audiences all saw each other and participated in a rousing cross-continental cheer of enthusiasm at the end.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

This weekend, nearly 1000 undergraduate women in physics gathered in 6 locations around the country for meetings to encourage and support young women advancing in physics (we were told that 987 undergraduate women were attending).  The AAS/CSWA was a co-sponsor, along with the APS CSWP, which provided superb organizational and logistic support to the conferences -- see the APS conference website.  I attended the Northeast Conference at Cornell; CSWA member Michelle Montgomery was a faculty lead for the Southeast Conference at the University of Central Florida, and Meg Urry was a speaker at the Colorado School of Mines.  They and others will agree that this was an inspiring event for everyone who attended.

To put the numbers in context: each year about 6300 physics bachelors degrees are awarded, about 1300 of which go to women.  Most of the student attendees were sophomores through seniors.  About 1/4 of all the women in the US who will earn bachelors degrees in the next three years attended the conferences!  Congratulations to all of the organizers and to the national organizing committee for this impressive outcome.

In addition to having a common format, the conferences held a single plenary session with Margaret Murnane in Colorado; her talk and the Q&A from all sites were webcast.  Dr. Murnane talked about her career path and how she had resolved the two-body problem; she gave great advice including the importance of persistence.  The plenary session also showed attendees just how large the numbers were as the cameras switched from school to school during the Q&A session.  There is strength in numbers!

This was my fifth NCUWP conference, and the best one yet.  Students from small and large colleges, from Maryland to Montreal and from Ohio to New Hampshire shared their enthusiasm and energy with each other and with the handful of faculty in attendance.  I was inspired by the student research presentations, by the realization of many students that their dreams of a career in physics are achievable following the examples set by many before them, and most of all by the one-on-one conversations with students.  To any faculty member who has struggled with the difficulties of increasing the numbers of women in physics, I say go -- next year apply as a recruiter or panelist.  It will be an inspiring, energizing way to begin your year.

Friday, January 18, 2013

CSWA Special Session at the AAS: Family Leave Policies

At the 221st AAS meeting at Long Beach, CA, the CSWA sponsored a special session entitled, "Family Leave Policies and Childcare for Graduate Students and Postdocs." The principal organizers were CSWA members Dave Charbonneau and Laura Trouille.

Slides from the presentations by Dave Charbonneau, Natalie Gosnell, Bob Mathieu, Edward Ajhar, and Charles Beichman are now posted as PDFs at

Charbonneau's presentation included a report of preliminary results from the CSWA's national survey of department chairs on this topic. Gosnell and Mathieu reported on implementation of a forward-looking policy at UW-Madison. Ajhar reported on the NSF's work-life balance initiative, and Beichman described NASA's fellowship programs and their parental leave policies. Laura Trouille briefly presented preliminary results from the postdoc family leave survey. These results are also posted at the website listed above.

If you couldn't attend the session, take a look at the slides for a snapshot of the current state of this issue, which is critical for 21st century careers in astronomy.

If you'd like to voice your support for improving family leave policies for our community, please consider signing As of this post, the petition has over 1100 signatures. 

AASWomen for January 18, 2013

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of January 18, 2013
eds. Caroline Simpson, Michele Montgomery, Daryl Haggard, and Nick Murphy

This week's issues:

1. Follow-up: Are STEM Programs Working??

2. Women in Astronomy Blog: Recent posts

3. So Many Exoplanets... So Few Women Scientists

4. Presentations from CSWA Special Session on Parental Leave Policies Available

5. Top Picks for Riveting Reads on Women and Science

6. Dartbeat: Another Response to the "Science: It's a Girl Thing" video

7. APS Speakers List Featuring Women and Minorities

8. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

10. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Canary Islands, Observing Runs, and Children

Greetings from La Palma in the Canary Islands, where I am observing at the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo with the new HARPS-N spectrograph, hunting for exoplanets.

Ahhh, how my view of observing runs has changed in the past 8 years!

My reaction to the news that a proposal for telescope time has been accepted has changed dramatically since my wife and I had children.  My first thought used to be "What is my observing plan?"  Now, it is  "What is my childcare plan?"

I used to worry about travel arrangements for myself to get to the observatory, but instead I now worry about travel arrangements for my mother-in-law, or my parents, to get to Boston (or other arrangements for long term childcare, such as a nanny who might be able to stay over at our home).

The majority of my research program is based on automated observatories and the use of space telescopes such as the Hubble and Spitzer, and these (as well as opportunities for remote observing) have been enormous allies with respect to work-life balance.  But there is no getting around the fact that I, like most observational astronomers, do occasionally need to travel to distant locales -- Chile, Hawaii, the Canary Islands -- and these trips are going to have a minimum of a 1 week turnaround. And, of course, even if you are a theorist who has never observed at a telescope (really? the shame!), sharing your ideas (and career advancement) demand that you decamp for conferences (admittedly these are often in somewhat less dramatic locales).

So, this gets me to the point I want to make here: I would like to make the case that childcare is a research-enabling expense, and thus we should as a community think about ways to treat is as such and allow parents, particularly those not yet in permanent positions, to be reimbursed for these costs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Where are the women professors? Unconscious gender biases

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog.

I started out this series with a simple axiom: men and women are equally capable of succeeding as professional astronomers. I then made the observation that women are underrepresented in faculty positions compared to the percentage of women graduating with PhDs. What could cause such a deficit? One possibility is unconscious bias in the minds of those hiring professors. Let's check out the evidence.

One of the great triumphs of the progressive movements of the 50's and 60's was the removal of discrimination from the realm of acceptable societal behavior, at least for women and racial minorities. (Today we are witnessing a similar struggle against discrimination of the LGBTI community. More on this after I attend my Caltech Safe Zone training next week.) The end result of these progressive victories is the end of overt sexism and racism (mostly).

Monday, January 14, 2013

First the Facts

Today's guest blogger is Annika Peter.

I am a dark-matter and gravitational-dynamics junkie, currently finishing up a postdoctoral position at UC Irvine, and moving to a faculty position in the Departments of Physics and Astronomy at The Ohio State University. My husband is also an astrophysicist, currently a professor of astrophysics at Caltech. He is taking a professorship at OSU, too, so we have successfully found an excellent solution to our two-body problem! My two favorite aspects of my job are thinking deeply about and trying to solve some of the major mysteries of the universe, and working with undergraduate and graduate students. I am also a practical problem solver, which means I spend some time scheming about how to improve the scientific enterprise and university education.

Before jumping into a discussion of women in science, I thought it would be useful to provide some references and numbers. Not only do I think that these data are good for anyone in our field to be familiar with, but it will be a good jumping off point for some of my future posts.

Participation of women in physics and astronomy in an academic setting: We all know that there are few women in physics and astronomy, but what does “few” mean? There are several good databases with numbers on this subject. The first place I would recommend looking is the NSF, which maintains a set of tables on graduates and employment by field, sex, disability, race and ethnicity, citizenship, and year. The American Astronomical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women maintains an extensive set of links to various studies and informational resources. The American Physical Society has some useful information on its website.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are STEM Programs Effective?

Since graduate school, when the issues facing women in STEM first became apparent to me, I’ve been involved in several programs that seek to increase the number of women in STEM majors and career fields; most of these programs focus on K12 female students.  Some of these programs have national reputations, such as ExpandingYour Horizons, while others are regional, such as Girls Go Tech or Techbridge.  Still others are local one-off events, such as when female scientists participate on conference panels, gather in focus groups, or visit classrooms.  Though there is a national need to promote STEM to young women and many many organizations are conducting programs to do so, I wonder if these programs are working and if they really are making any difference at all.

I wonder this because yet another report about the lack of women in STEM fields has been released.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Astronomers Taking Advantage of the Web

Every January it takes me some time getting used to writing the new year. But '2013' seems particularly futuristic. I can just see Heinlein writing, 'It was the year two thousand and thirteen...'

Oh, what Henrietta Leavitt could have understood about our Universe with the technology we have access to today! But, how do you think she and others would have used today's social media for professional development, networking, and creating career opportunities?

As we look to this new year and how we can best utilize this blog to connect with and help our community, I first want to look back to 2012 and learn from you all.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Astronomer to Data Scientist

I recently made the transition from astrophysics researcher to data scientist for a tech company (Yammer / Microsoft). Below are suggestions for people in academia / research who are interested in pursuing a tech job.

Most tech companies are interested in smart, talented people who can learn quickly and have good problem solving skills. Scientists have these attributes. Therefore if you apply for jobs at tech companies, you'll likely get at least a response from a recruiter. However, once you get an interview, there are many other skills that the company will try to assess, skills that you may or may not have already.

Below are some tips which will help you both in the application / interview process, as well as on the job at a tech company.