Thursday, January 28, 2016

Guest Post from Hannah Wakeford: Writing My PhD Thesis

This guest post from Dr. Hannah Wakeford is a re-posting of her original blog piece, found at the Stellar Planet blog site:
Handing in my PhD thesis to the University of Exeter.
About Hannah Wakeford: Dr. Hannah R. Wakeford currently works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow. Hannah is working with Dr. Avi Mandell in the Planetary Systems lab (693) characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets through observations with HST, and working towards a better understanding of how exoplanets can be understood further with JWST. In 2015 Hannah received her PhD in Physics from the University of Exeter, where she worked with Dr. David Sing on Exoplanet characterization. While at Exeter, Hannah was also the producer and host of The Science Hour on XpressionFM, IOP 3 minute wonder national winner, Co-creator of Top Female Scientist Card Game, producer and presenter of H&M Astro Video Log, BSAC scuba diving instructor, and eater of pastries (except during lent). You can follow Hannah on Twitter (@StellarPlanet).
Over the years I have found that saying you are doing a PhD can be taken one of two ways by people; 'that sounds fancy you must be a genius or something' or simply 'why?'. The former are never trying to put you on a pedestal, and the later are not trying to get you on the defensive, but the dichotomy is sometimes difficult to deal with.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mindfully Responding to Microaggressions

Today's guest blogger is Anonymous. Anonymous has a PhD in chemistry and recently completed a postdoc at an unnamed national lab. She has since transitioned to a non-science career and is enjoying it! She’s interested in community organizing, the bugs in our neural programming, and the ways we transform our painful experiences into growth and  value.

Last time, I wrote about confronting a non-friend about his hurtful comments (see part 1) and subsequently recognizing the narcissism behind his behavior.  Although I felt (and still feel) confident that ending the relationship was the right decision, for a long time I didn’t feel great about how I’d responded during the attack.  In fact, I wondered if I could have done better and felt bad that I hadn’t known exactly what to say.

As I worked through these feelings, I realized that knowing what to say to someone else wasn’t nearly as important as knowing what’s going on inside myself - in other words, being mindful. In order to respond to attacks effectively and be happy with my decisions, I needed to resist the immediate urge to focus on them, their behavior, and responding. Instead, I needed to take a step back, recognize my feelings and needs, and focus on how I could act to support myself.

This is still a work in progress, but here are five things I try to remember when I am faced with bad behavior:

  1. This is difficult, and it is normal for me to feel _____ right now.
These simple words have amazing power. When I’m able to recognize how difficult it is to be a human being, I give myself permission to not know, to struggle, and to make mistakes - in essence, to be who I am in the moment instead of impossibly, already perfect. When I stop judging myself for having negative feelings and simply acknowledge and accept them, I’m better able to process those feelings and direct them towards growth.

I think that many of us, when faced with microaggressions, have learned to downplay how frustrating and hurtful they can be.  We’ve learned this after being bombarded with messages like, “You just need to let it go,” “Other people have it worse,” and, “You’re making noise just to get ahead.”  (Translation: “You shouldn’t be feeling bad - and if you do, you’re either being ridiculous or greedy.”) Sometimes the lesson is further reinforced by advice that is ostensibly meant to be helpful (though I‘m pretty sure this advice wasn’t actually meant to be helpful…).

When faced with these messages, I try to acknowledge my feelings and counter these messages with NO: NO, this is a difficult situation and it is okay for me to feel hurt/angry/frustrated right now; NO, I will choose for myself when it will be okay to let this go; NO, you’re being an unempathetic jerk right now and it has nothing to do with me.”

It also helps  to hear these messages from friends. (We regularly did this for each other in the peer support group that helped me survive my postdoc.) Not only does outside validation reinforce the positive new messages, the knowledge that you’re not alone goes a long way towards fighting secondary feelings of isolation and shame. Eventually, saying NO might start to feel natural, as well as pretty good.

  1. My worth is not dependent on a particular response.
One of my biggest current struggles is getting past trying to being a “good” person. It’s exhausting, as Courtney Martin points out, because it’s hard to know exactly what that means and harder still to maintain it.  That said, my fear of making a mistake and so being “bad” is so ingrained and pervasive that it turns many situations into pits of despair. A simple question of how to best respond to an insensitive remark becomes a major dilemma in which I MUST PROVE MY WORTH AS A HUMAN BEING (BUT PROBABLY WILL NOT). Any moment in which I don’t say anything because I am afraid or don’t know exactly what to do becomes PROOF THAT I AM A BAD AT LIFE.

It’s paralyzing. If this is you, let me say that you are not alone.

So I do my best to mindfully counter these messages, too: I am worthy. I offer myself permission to make mistakes, to be uncertain, and to take the time to fumble my way through what is usually a difficult and messy situation. I am still a worthwhile human being. My worth is not dependent on a particular response.

It’s not easy, but countering those messages and believing the new ones also become more natural over time. When the fear of being bad is no longer suffocating, it’s much easier to choose a response and feel good about it.

  1. If I have to choose between...I choose me.
I may not know what Erykah Badu had in mind when she wrote this song, but in this context, it reminds me that I have a choice of where to focus my attention as “the most important thing”. For example, I can choose to focus on the other person and what they said or did. Alternatively, I might choose to focus on myself so that I can figure out what I want and need to feel safe. I don’t always have the presence of mind to immediately choose the latter (which is okay, because see #1), but when I finally get to the point where I can, I inevitably feel better about my situation and my choices.

As another example, when I’m deciding what to do, I can focus on how other people might respond to my decision. Alternatively, I might take that into account, but choose to focus first on understanding what my goals and desires might be, and how I can prioritize my own health and happiness as the most important thing. Again, I don’t always choose the latter (in fact, I’m pretty bad at it), but have always felt better after struggling (and growing) to get there.

  1. Some people aren't interested in changing right now, and that's okay.
In learning to be kind to and make choices on behalf of my own health, I’ve also learned to let go of my desire to make choices for other people. I think of it this way: in asking people to change, I’m probably asking them to question their identity and exorcise a demon or two. That’s hard, slow work even for people who *want* to do it. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t hold others accountable - in strong, emotionally supportive relationships such as friendships and partnerships, you should be able to do so and have them take it seriously. (If not, run!) Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible at work.

So instead of restricting my idea of a positive action to “whatever makes this person change NOW”, I try to broaden my goals, and thereby my definition of success. For example, if I genuinely like the person, I might gently confront them with the hope that they may come around someday, and count that honest/brave conversation as my success. If don’t like them and don’t want to spend the time on it, I might choose to set boundaries and consequences (e.g., walking away, asking them to stop), and count that awareness and protection of my needs as my success. If I think that I need to speak up in order to feel good about myself or because there is power in showing solidarity with others, then I will attempt to do so professionally and count that bravery and relationship building as my success.

My definition of success might be different every time. It might not always work out 100% the way I hoped. But knowing that I have various options and framing them as things I can do for myself often makes the decision process easier.

  1. Focus on positive reinforcement.
It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re surrounded by toxic people and behavior. As a result, I think there’s great value in seeking out positive people and relationships as rebalancing forces, whether from a personal or a workplace culture perspective.

For example, if there’s one unprofessional person in your lab, see if you don’t have to take him on alone - carefully see if you can ask for emotional or overt support in private conversations with other colleagues. Limit your time with this person if you can or need to, and try to spend time with the people who build you up. If that person one day says something thoughtful or empathetic, point it out. (Think of it like training a dog - with positive reinforcement, maybe he’ll do it again.) Thank friends and allies and let them know that you appreciate their support - the reminder that you’re not isolated feeds your soul, too. All of these things remind you that, as hard as this person or their behavior is, they are just one part of your life and are something that you can survive.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Astronomy Without a PhD

Jessica leading a bike ride along the Neponset River
in Boston, educating fellow Bostonians about the
open space in their community on a Girlz Roll ride,
along one of her many alternate paths.
As much as the astronomical community is spending more time considering alternate paths for PhD astronomers, we, as a community dedicated to inclusiveness, should look at alternate paths that have been and can be taken into professional astronomy. For various reasons, some of which may be related to my personal gender issues and others due to the way my mind works (or doesn't), I was not a great candidate for a PhD. program when I was in my 20's.

In the process of organizing and attending the Inclusive Astronomy conference last summer, I started out representing transgender people in astronomy, but realized that I was part of another group which had been largely excluded from consideration during that conference, astronomers without doctorates.

The first conference on inclusive astronomy of which I am aware was a meeting called "Space for Women" held at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1975. Organized by the CfA's Women's Program Committee, headed by geologist Ursula Marvin and astronomer Martha Liller, it was held in celebration of the International Women's Year, drew more than 300 young women, and featured women speakers and panelists working in a variety of capacities.  Research scientists, editors, computer programmers, administrators, and engineers all discussed their experiences. A popular booklet, entitled "Space for Women: Perspectives on Careers in Science" grew out of the conference. In addition to suggestions on how to prepare for scientific or science-related careers, it detailed several of the major issues raised at the conference, juxtaposed with thoughts expressed by different participants.  I am old enough to have been peripherally involved in this conference as my then-spouse worked as a programmer at the Center and was very involved in organizing the conference.  My participation involved drinking too much champagne at the final reception and enjoying a drunken, rainy bike ride through Harvard Square and down the Charles River to our home in Brookline.

The point of this story is that the 1975 conference focused on the many ways which an under-represented group, women, could contribute to the astronomical enterprise, and that, not just making sure that the pipeline into academia (or the commercial world) is fairer, is what I feel that being inclusive is about.  Although I didn't know it at the time, when I was between astronomy jobs and writing software for a financial services company, I already had my terminal professional degree, a Masters degree from MIT. My  thesis, which I finished a year earlier, attempted unsuccessfully to map the composition of the surface of Mars, included developing a data reduction system for a very early imaging vidicon spectrograph, understanding map projection and writing software to figure out where on Mars we were looking, and learning computer graphics.  If that project had been successful, my career might have gone in an entirely different direction, but as it was, I gained some knowledge and skills which have been the basis of much of the scientific work I have done in the 40 years since.

Although I didn't get into Cornell for a PhD, my programmer-turned-ecologist spouse did, and we moved to Ithaca in 1976, where I soon got a job in the Laboratory for Planetary Studies writing software for Jim Elliot, the possibility for which was suggested by Carl Sagan in my rejection letter.  I was soon putting some of my knowledge of data reduction to work reducing and modelling time series data from occultations of stars by planets.  Six months later, I was flying on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory over the Indian Ocean helping discover the Uranian ring system.  Because I worked in a small group with a senior researcher who consistently included everybody who contributed to scientific results, my first publication was a significant paper in Nature.  When my job moved, it was back to MIT and Cambridge, where I had friends, and I put down roots. I got wrapped up in the occultation enterprise, and was soon putting my mapping skills to work forecasting future occultations and publishing papers of those predictions and analysis of events.  I also got involved in image processing and wrote display software in exchange for getting our group time on a new CCD detector. Doing science was so much fun that I didn't want to stop and take courses, which I had never been as good at as I needed to be.

When that job ended, I had enough skills (and helpful contacts) to land a job at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory across the city (and much closer to my apartment) working on the Space Shuttle Infrared Telescope under Giovanni Fazio.  When that project ended, I stayed on at SAO to work on spectroscopic data reduction. All of the skills and knowledge I accumulated along the way were useful in developing more image display software, a graphics terminal emulator for xterm, a radial velocity package, RVSAO, several more spectrograph pipelines, and a package of world coordinate, catalog, and image manipulation tasks, WCSTools.  I've also been a full member of the American Astronomical Society and its Division for Planetary Science and Division on Dynamical Astronomy for over 30 years, serving on organizing committees and the DDA committee, and running the DDA web site for 15 years.

I spent the extra time I would have spent doing my own research being a bicycle and open space activist in the Boston area, equally sharing the raising of a daughter (who is now in grad school working on what may or may not be a terminal Masters degree), and generally becoming involved in Boston, its history, its politics, and its arts.

When I occasionally regret not having done the extra work for the status of a PhD, I look at the work I have done and all of the people who have used my software or the results my pipelines have produced and feel like my life in astronomy has been successful after all.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Proudness: What Is It? Why Is It Important? And How Do We Design for It in College Physics and Astronomy Education?

The below post was originally written for the June 2015 Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy. The first few paragraphs are reproduced here (with permission).  Read the full article here.
Photo credit: Matt Beardsley
Dr. Angela Little is a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University. Her current research asks: "How do students develop a sense that they are capable in physics?" She is also exploring multimedia as a tool to bring many cross-disciplinary and within/outside academia voices together around the idea of "feeling capable."  This article expands on her invited talk given at the 225th AAS Meeting, January, 2015, in Seattle, WA. [1]

Transitions are tough on students, especially big transitions like the one between high school and college. Among the many reasons why this transition in particular can be tough, a big one is that students from a wide variety of high school preparations are often thrown together into large introductory STEM courses. In these courses, it’s easy to mistake background for innate ability, and students often compare themselves to their classmates through grades and through their relative speed on homework and exams. These comparisons can heavily influence students’ decision to major in, for example, computer science [2] and most likely have similar effects on majoring in STEM in general. This tendency to mistake background for ability is likely amplified in courses and majors in physics, math, and computer science, where students face additional U.S. cultural narratives around the need for inherent “genius” ability: either you’re a math person or you’re not [3]. Researchers have also shown that such genius narratives particularly affect African Americans and women from all racial backgrounds due to U.S. stereotypes about these groups [3], [4], [5], [6].

Instructors can play a critical role in either pushing back on these genius narratives or amplifying them further. When instructors don’t point out to students that they might be coming from different backgrounds than their peers, don’t teach the holistic set of skills important to succeeding in science and college more generally, and don’t support students in learning how to give effective self- and peer-feedback to improve their work, no wonder students frame their struggle as something inherent to failures in their own brains.

I’m one of the co-founders of The Compass Project, an APS-award winning program at the University of California, Berkeley that supports undergraduate physical science majors, particularly from marginalized backgrounds. Compass builds an encouraging community, engages students in physics projects, and has a special focus on being reflective about the learning process. In my curriculum and program design work for Compass, I often felt that I was fighting against students’ experiences in introductory calculus-based physics. Among the experiences with negative impact on students is that courses were often graded on a curve, which served to amplify students’ comparisons with one another on every exam. Previously, as a TA for introductory physics, I even had one student in a section refuse to work with anyone else because he had done well on the first exam and “didn’t want to bring up the curve.”

What would it look like for students to have additional information, beyond comparison with other
introductory physics students, in deciding whether to major in physics and astronomy? How might it influence students’ decisions on a major if they were also engaged in a challenging project of interest to them in which they could acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, be supported to grow and improve, and feel really good about the outcome?

This is just the first few paragraphs of this article. Read the Full Article in the June 2015 Edition of Status.

References Cited
[2] Lewis, C. M., Yasuhara, K., & Anderson, R. E. 2011 August, “Deciding to major in computer science: a grounded theory of students’ self-assessment of ability. In Proceedings of the seventh international workshop on Computing education research, pp. 3-10. ACM.
[3] Leslie, S. J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. 2015, “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines, ”Science, 347, 262
[4] Nasir, N. I. S., & Shah, N. 2011, “On defense: African American males making sense of racialized narratives in mathematics education,” Journal of African American Males in Education, 2 (1), 24
[5] Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. 1995, “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans, ”Journal of personality and social psychology,” 69 (5), 797
[6] Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. 1999, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance", Journal of experimental social psychology, 35 (1), 4

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Discovery Program Series: DAVINCI (PI: Lori Glaze, Managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

This post is part of a series discussing the recent NASA Discovery Program mission selections for further refinement.  From the 27 proposals submitted in November of 2014, NASA has selected 5 missions for further refinement in the next year. Part 1 of the series focused on the overview of the Discovery refinement selections and an interview with the Lead Program Scientist for the Discovery Program, Dr. Michael New. Part II focussed on the Psyche Mission (PI: Linda Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University, Managed by JPL). Part III will focus on the NEOCam Mission (PI: Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Managed by JPL).  Part IV will focus on the Lucy Mission (PI: Hal Levison, Southwest Research Institute, Managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center). Part V will focus on the DAVINCI Mission (PI: Lori Glaze, Managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center).

Mission Overview: DAVINCI

The Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission would send a probe on a journey down through Venus’ atmosphere, winding up in the planet’s roughest and most geologically complex terrain. The probe would explore the planet’s atmosphere essentially from top to bottom, even the deep layers largely hidden from Earth-based instruments and orbiting spacecraft. DAVINCI would be the first U.S. probe to target Venus’ atmosphere in nearly four decades.

The top-level goals of DAVINCI are to
Understand the origin of the Venus atmosphere, its evolution and why it is different than Earth and Mars,
Understand the history of water on Venus and chemical processes at work in its lower atmosphere, and
Provide insight into tessera origins and their tectonic and weathering history.

DAVINCI is designed to study the makeup of the planet’s atmosphere at a level of detail that has not been possible on earlier Venus missions and to investigate the surrounding surface with cameras. DAVINCI will fly two different types of mass spectrometers, as well as temperature and pressure sensors, to explore how Venus’ atmosphere formed and then changed over time, including what happened to its water. The findings would help scientists understand why Venus and Earth took such different paths as they matured and provide another point of comparison for studies of rocky planets in other star systems. Goddard would manage the mission, which launches in 2021 and descends through the Venus atmosphere in 2023.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Genetics, Race, and White Privilege

Stephanie Gogarten has a PhD in Astronomy but currently works as a staff scientist in the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington. She lives on an island near Seattle with her wife and three young children.

I recently read the book Seeing White, recommended by John Johnson. As an astronomer turned statistical geneticist (Career profile), I spend a fair amount of time at work thinking about genetic ancestry and how that relates to the social construct of race. As a person with some African-American heritage who looks white, I have also struggled with how to define my own race: other people see me as white, but how do I see myself?

In reading the book, I was especially struck by the stories of people whose identities cross the boundary between white and non-white. In particular, I was interested in the story of Gregory Williams, author of Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. I still remember the dinner table conversation when I was a young child in which my parents explained to me that although my family appeared white, my father's identity was mixed race European American, African American, and Native American. Due to pale skin and a strong resemblance to my white mother, I am seen as white by everyone I meet. My sister has darker skin and more closely resembles my father, so she is more frequently seen as mixed race (at least, people are not shocked when they learn she is mixed race, as they are with me). In the shuffling of genetic traits from one generation to the next, I got more of the external features usually associated with whiteness -- a chance occurrence that has shaped both our identities. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Events at the 227th American Astronomical Society Meeting

Several key events will be occurring at the 227th American Astronomical Society meeting, held January 4th-8th at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. Danny Barringer posted to Astrobetter for the upcoming meeting, and Jason Wright had previously written a first timer's guide to the AAS meeting for Astrobetter.

Below are highlights for events that may be of interest:

1. Student Pavilion and Mentoring Events:
The NEW Student Pavilion, located in the exhibit hall, will provide a unique space for students to meet, network, and collect information.  The Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the Committee for Sexual-Orientation & Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) have teamed up to provide table space and well as mentoring opportunities Tuesday-Friday.  Mentoring sessions will be held at 10 AM and 2 PM each day and will include mentors form various backgrounds (more information on mentors will be available in a future Women in Astronomy blog post).  The sign up sheets will be available starting at the UG Orientation Reception and will then be available at the student pavilion.

Friday, January 1, 2016

AASWOMEN Newsletter for January 1, 2016

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of January 1, 2016
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Elysse Voyer, Heather Flewelling

This week's issues:

1. Women in Astronomy Events at the 227th AAS Meeting
2. Seeking Women to be Interviewed at AAS 227
3. Career Profile: Astronomer to High-School STEM Educator    
4. A Remarkable Year
5. The Discovery Program Series: Lucy
6. Why So Few? Unconscious Bias II   
7. Project to Tackle Stereotyping in Subject Choice Launches in Scotland       
8. Calculating Conference Diversity      
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 of the AASWomen Newsletter