Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Call to Action – Help Jumpstart the U.S. Astronomy Olympiad!

Each year, high-school students from 28 countries participate in the International Astronomy Olympiads. Sadly, the U.S. is not represented.

One of my online astronomy students (an amazing high-schooler!) was looking for a way to continue pursuing her passion for astronomy after the end of our course. She came across this amazing opportunity, only to have her hopes dashed when she learned that the U.S. doesn’t hold Astronomy Olympiads… yet!

Do you think the American Astronomical Society should be helping to inspire the next generation by supporting this opportunity? Would you be interested in being an AO coach? Do you know of a high school that would be interested in being an AO host site? 

According to the rules, the first step is to create a National Astronomy Olympiad committee, hosted by the American Astronomical Society, the Academy of Sciences, a teachers association, university, or ‘other competent body’. 

You may be familiar with Science Olympiads. Science teachers started the Science Olympiads 29 years ago through a grassroots campaign. Now tens of thousands of kids participate each year (including me, back in the day, when I was falling in love with astronomy). The Science Olympiads are a great way to bring science to life, emphasize the problem solving aspects of science, and help kids make connections with other kids who love science.
Kids participate in local, regional, national, and internationals tournaments. The events are designed to use a variety of intellectual and practical skills. Some events require a quick recall of information. In others, kids brainstorm a solution and build their own apparatus. Throughout, participants are building their teamwork and science communication skills. 

Within the Science Olympiads is an Astronomy specialization. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics plays a major role in supporting this. For those who are interested, check out sample astronomy questions from past tournaments and the Science Olympiad Astronomy Coaches manual on CD.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

CSWA Town Hall in Indianapolis

CSWA is hosting a Town Hall at the Indianapolis AAS meeting. Please join us!

Title: Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Impostor Syndrome
Date: Tuesday, June 4
Time: 12:45 - 1:45 pm
Place: Wabash Ballroom 3 (Indiana Convention Center)

Abstract: Women and other underrepresented groups in astronomy can face a powerful combination of hidden obstacles. With unconscious bias, men and women both unconsciously devalue the contributions of women. This can have a detrimental effect on grant proposals, job applications, and performance reviews. Stereotype threat is the anxiety women face in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about women as a group. This anxiety alone can result in documented cases of lower scores on standardized math tests. Highly competent women may also face impostor syndrome where they find it impossible to believe in their own competence. They live with a fear of being discovered. The CSWA Town Hall at the Indianapolis AAS meeting will discuss these issues in the context of the AAUW report entitled, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” The Town Hall will include at least 30 minutes for discussion and answering questions from the audience.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Is your career making an impact? by Julia Kamenetzky

Julia Kamenetzky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Her research focuses on extragalactic submillimeter spectroscopy, utilizing Z-Spec, Herschel, and ALMA.

We’ve probably all thought about the level of income, independence, and flexibility that we desire out of a career; some people choose to prioritize one thing over another.  An additional aspect is the degree to which one feels their career is making a positive impact on the world.  In that realm, the physical sciences suffer from a bit of an image problem.  This problem is especially applicable to the AASWomen Blog because girls and women are more likely to prioritize a career that benefits society [1, 2, and others in 3], and basic research is often not seen as fitting that goal.   (Remember, this doesn’t mean that all women do and all men don’t, just that by ignoring societal impacts we’re missing a large group of talented people, and many of them are women.)

That idea led me to study the ways that various scientific fields fulfill the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts Criterion [4].  I completed the first iteration of this study as part of an excellent graduate course in science policy.  I won’t go over the results, but in the beginning of the paper I discuss the history of this criterion and the reaction to its implementation in 1997.  After completing the course, I wondered “why aren’t we as scientists having these conversations, why are the policy analysts talking amongst themselves, with little interaction between the two groups?”  (One of my former students had similar thoughts about an undergraduate space policy course - “It should be required for every astronomy major!”)  I had heard scientists complain about having to justify broader impacts, but often without a good understanding of the many things “broader impacts” may mean (it is NOT exclusively outreach or diversity), and without taking a moment to think about why they might be asked for such justification.  

I myself once faced the feeling that I wanted to be “helping people” and “making a difference” and that a career in science wouldn’t fulfill those dreams.  My research advisor pointed out that, even outside of teaching, a large part of his job is mentoring.  I realized afterwards just how naive it was for me to imply that he didn’t help people, when I had been the recipient of his mentoring!  That experience, and this project, helped me see that I can make a career in science fit with my goals.

Therefore, I would encourage scientists to actively engage in discussions about why we do what we do and what is our role as scientists in a democratic society.  Seriously acknowledge the impacts that you have as mentors, teachers, and researchers.  It may not have been your first priority, but you’ve likely made an impact anyway.  Articulating why what you do is not research for research’s sake alone could catch the attention of a young, talented student who is unsure if science is right for them.

[4] Kamenetzky, “Opportunities for impact: Statistical analysis of the National Science Foudnation’s broader impacts criterion.” Science and Public Policy, 2013, 40:1, 72 [Contact me for an individual copy if you cannot access the journal.]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Making a Difference

I've recently become involved with an effort on my campus to establish a Women's Advancement and Research Center. Its purpose is to promote women on campus at all levels of leadership, with a special emphasis on women in STEM disciplines.
Now, one of the things new faculty are warned about is over-commitment, particularly on service committees. Especially since as women we are often asked to be the "diversity representative" on many committee. And yet, many of the people I've met who are also working on this project are fellow women junior faculty. It would be nice to get more senior faculty, but in some departments there just aren't any tenured women faculty. It would be nice to get more men, too, but it seems to be hard to get many of them to join the effort.
On the other hand, we women assistant professors are pretty passionate about increasing the representation of women in our respective departments. I certainly care very deeply about promoting women in science. I would love to have more female colleagues on campus. And of all my service commitments, this is the one that I feel will have the most lasting and far-reaching benefits.
Right now, we're just in the beginning stages of getting off the ground, looking for funding opportunities and getting to know one another. I've stopped being surprised at the statement, "I'm the only woman in my department." I've stopped being surprised at meeting people who have heard of me before, simply because I'm the one woman in my department.
I've come to understand that women in astronomy have it a lot easier than many other fields, such as computer science and engineering, for example. I have learned of issues at all levels of the university where change can be made for the better. Here's hoping that this new Center will make a difference on my campus.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Math Teacher

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. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Andy Cantrell, an astronomer turned math teacher. After his first postdoc, he worked with a recruiting agency for private schools to find his new position. He describes his working environment as 'warm and supportive, and extremely family friendly'. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

ADVICE: Dealing with Discrimination and Harassment

This is the third in our new series of ADVICE posts as CSWA tries to ensure that information gathered over the years remains available to the current generation of students, postdocs, and faculty. This month, we try to deal with discrimination and harassment:

From: Joan Schmelz and Patricia Knezek [;]

The good news for women in astronomy is that incidents of overt sexual discrimination and sexual harassment have declined dramatically in recent years. The bad news is that there are still problems, especially for grad students and post docs. Sometimes we don't realize that these problems are still out there until something happens to us or to someone we know personally.

As members of CSWA, young women sometimes seek us out to ask for advice or just talk about problems. We do our best to help, but we are not trained professionals. We thought many heads can be better than two, so we asked for advice from readers of AASWOMEN on two particular issues. We would also like to encourage readers to broaden the topic to other issues. No doubt some of you have developed good responses and advice, and we would like to widely distribute this information in order to benefit all. Rather than betray confidences or reveal personal details for the two issues we are raising here, we have chosen instead to combine similar incidents that have happened to each of us and volunteer to be the guinea pigs.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Harrassment Jeopardy

My actual title is "Teaching employees about harassment law and policy using a game show". But the game show was "Who wants to become avoid making someone a multimillionaire" and both titles were too long. The setting was an all-hands meeting of a university lab, where about 40 graduate students, postdocs, staff and faculty learned about laws and policies relating to harassment from an employment attorney. I summarize what I learned in hopes that others will find it useful. Nothing herein is legal advice, and you should consult an attorney on matters of the law.

Harassment claims at a university are handled under three different broad categories: federal law, state law, and employer policies. The relevant federal laws are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Titles VI and VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and its amendments, Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Of these, Titles VI and IX and the Rehabilitation Act apply to educational institutions that accept federal funds; all others apply to employers. State laws vary of course, but generally include more extensive protections than the federal laws. Employer policies likewise often extend rights beyond those guaranteed by law.

The legal basis for harassment generally arises from so-called "protected classes" under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Sex was added at the last moment in a controversial move that may have been intended to defeat the Civil Rights act. Age was added as a protected class under the ADEA, and disability was added under the ADA. 26 states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; Massachusetts adds gender identity and transgender roles.  Employer policies often add further protections, and should be readily available from your employer.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Too Few Women Fellows Down Under

I read a World View article in Nature this week (2 May 2013) that shocked me.  It is about how few women there are in the Australian Academy of Science and was written by Douglas Hilton, head of the Department of Medical Biology at University of Melbourne.  The statistics he gives are eye-catching with only 8% of academy members being women … and the situation is even worse than that low number suggests.

The Australian Academy of Science is modeled after the Royal Society in the UK and is the ultimate honor for Australian scientists.  It is an independent organization with government endorsement.  The academy was founded in 1954 by a group of prominent Australian scientists and supplanted the previous Australian National Research Council. 

With the average age at election of 49 years, the academy is naturally an older segment of the Australian research community and it is not surprising that there is lingering gender inequality.  However, the disturbing situation described in Prof. Hilton's piece is that the numbers are not improving.  This year had 37 candidates considered and 20 members elected.  Of the candidates (and new members), not one was a woman!

The government is aware of the problem and stated in a 2005 review of Australian academies that the academies should "focus on addressing gender imbalances in their fellowships".  The fraction of women scientists in Australia is ~15%, which is not high but is significantly above the academy number. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Mother's Legacy

Today's guest blogger is Nicholas McConnell. Nicholas earned his PhD in 2012 and is now the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawaii). His research focuses on supermassive black holes and giant elliptical galaxies.

This essay is about my mother. It is in part a shameless effort to earn family brownie points by "timely" blogging. Nonetheless, my mother's attitudes form one of the windows through which I try to examine gender issues in astronomy, and they inform my actions toward male and female colleagues. As I share her story I hope that others in this forum find common threads with their own.

I was born in 1984, the summer before my mother's final year of law school. She was working for The First National Bank of Chicago, who financed nighttime law classes for her and nine other employees. After graduating and passing the Illinois bar exam, she worked as an appellate court clerk, then as an associate lawyer for the firm Sidley Austin. In 1988 she resigned to take full-time care of me and my two younger siblings. She explains, "The old and sexist saying, 'The law is a jealous mistress,' is true. I wanted the impossible: to both pursue my career and to be with you all full-time. I focus too intensely on each immediate goal to be good at part-time anything." (In spite of this self-assessment, she did co-found the Chicago Bar Association's Part-time Woman's Network Committee.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

En'hedu'anna - Our First Great Scientist

This week’s guest blogger is Sethanne Howard, an astronomer who has held positions with U.S. national observatories, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Navy. She was also Chief of the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, 2000-2003. Her research specialty is galactic dynamics. She has also been active in science education, especially concentrating on the history of women in science.

Many people, when asked to name an early scientist who is a woman, say Hypatia (Hy-pa-ti'-a). Actually they are about 2700 years too late! Women have been active in science since the beginning of written history. So cast your thoughts backward in time to 4300 years ago. This was the time of Sumer (an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia – modern Iraq). Writing had had not been around for very long (developed c. 3000 BCE).

Fortunately we have an abundance of Sumerian literature. They used cuneiform: imprints in damp clay, which was then allowed to harden. Initially the Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets recorded transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle, sheep, and goats kept by herders for their owners, production figures, lists for taxes, accounts, and contracts – the legalities we use today are not new.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Web Editor for Sky & Telescope

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. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Monica Young, an astronomer turned Web Editor for Sky & Telescope. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

When Money Can’t Talk

In one of my earlier posts, I wondered whether or not K-12 STEM programs are truly effective at helping to plug the leaky pipeline in the United States.  In that post, I referred to the study that found that countries that make economic commitments to science and science education report higher percentages of women in STEM careers. In this current period of continuing resolutions and a sequestration that are dominating the distribution of federal dollars and threatening to cut NSF and NASA (and other) programs, I wonder if an already bad situation in the Uniter States will only get worse.  Specifically, will young scientists in general, and perhaps even women in particular, be disproportionately affected by decreasing numbers of research grants and dwindling STEM education opportunities?