Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Meet the CSWA: Chair Pat Knezek


In our newest series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.  Today's post features the newly appointed Chair of the CSWA, Dr. Patricia Knezek! She will be serving as Chair as a private citizen.

Dr. Patricia (Pat) Knezek joined the National Science Foundation (NSF) in March 2013, and served as the Deputy Division Director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences in the Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences (MPS) for three years. She then became a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Director of MPS and just completed a year assignment to the Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure in the Directorate of Computer & Information Science & Engineering. Prior to joining the NSF she had been with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) as a staff scientist since 2001. While there she worked primarily with WIYN Consortium, Inc. (WIYN), a partnership of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University, and NOAO that runs two optical telescopes on Kitt Peak Mountain outside of Tucson, Arizona. She served as WIYN's Instrumentation Project Manager (2001-2005), Deputy Director (2005-2010), and then Director (2010-2013). She has also held positions at the Space Telescope Science Institute, The Johns Hopkins University, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the University of Michigan. She obtained her bachelor's degree in astronomy from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, in 1985, and her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1993.

Pat has been active in issues of diversity and inclusion for her entire career. She previously served on Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2002 – 2008 (chair 2003 – 2007). Some of her activities have included leading the development of “Equity Now! The Pasadena Recommendations for Gender Equality in Astronomy,” launching (with Rachel Ivie of the American Institute of Physics) the AdHoc group that developed the Longitudinal Study of Astronomy Graduate Students, and developing the Anti-Harassment Policy for AAS.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?

I first made my personal connection as a young girl. I grew up in cloudy suburban East Lansing, Michigan. But I would spend part of my summers on my grandparents’ farm in Texas. I would spend hours at night lying on top of the root cellar watching the sky. It was amazing from there!


How did you end up working in the field?

As far as I was concerned, it was never a question. The only other thing I ever thought about becoming was a nurse, but the sight of a friend of mine bleeding from a cut took care of that idea at age five. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the stars and planets. I was very determined. I cajoled my mother into auditing astronomy classes at Michigan State University (MSU) starting when I was ten, and getting her to take me along. (It wasn’t hard to convince her, she loves astronomy too.) I told my parents when I was 12 that I was going to get my PhD in astronomy, and that never changed. My physics teacher in high school didn’t teach an astronomy module, and he told me “girls don’t do physics.” I managed to convince him to teach that astronomy module. I only applied to colleges and universities with astronomy programs. I did detour into teaching high school for a year, but rapidly realized that that was not my dream, and went back to grad school.

Who inspired you?

My mom and dad were the first to inspire me. They were both the first in their families to go college, and my dad went on to become the first PhD in the family (in agriculture). They always encouraged their kids to explore and learn about our passions, and to pursue any career that interested us. They still do! I also remember going to one of those astronomy lectures at MSU that I cajoled my mom into attending, and Sue Simpkins was the lecturer for the evening. That made me realize that girls could be scientists! That was very inspiring for me.

Why community issues are important to you and why?


I am really passionate about diversity and inclusion, and making sure that the astronomical community continues to strive to have a culture that embraces that as key to having a vibrant, strong, and successful community. That includes providing opportunities to attract and retain underrepresented groups. I am also very interested in ensuring that the community continues to thrive in a challenging and rapidly changing world. I have been fascinated to watch how the way we do our science has been changing as things like the Internet, computing power, and more powerful observational facilities have become integral to what we do. I want to find ways for us as a community to continue to capitalize on things that offer us ways to accelerate our discovery.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I think one of my favorite most recent moments was when I was sitting in my office last fall, and a co-worker stopped by with his daughter. It was “take your kids to work” day. He said his daughter was really interested in astronomy, and would I be willing to tell her a little about what it meant to be astronomer? So I did, and he told me later that she went home and was so excited that she recited the whole conversation over to her mother. I was so delighted to satisfy her curiosity, and it made me remember that I love what we do – something that can get lost in the day to day of what happens within the NSF. I think I went home almost as energized as she did!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Be prepared to learn to do many different skills and to value what you do as important. I realized early on in my career what while I loved doing astronomical research, I was also really interested in enabling others to do research. That took me down a career path where active research was less and less a part of my job, and since being a highly successful researcher is the gold coin in our field, I struggled with feeling like a failure. One of my collaborators once told me “you could have been a good scientist.” It took me a long time to realize that I am a good scientist. I also happen to be a good manager and leader, and I have worked hard to develop those skills. Oh, and I would also tell them to start saving for retirement as soon as possible. Seriously. I wish I had.

What do you do for fun?

I love to cook, and particularly cooking for family and friends. Most of my family members are picky eaters, so I love the challenge of getting them to try something new and seeing them enjoy it. I also love to read. I’d read a book a day if I could. And I love hiking and biking, and spending time with my cats. I used to foster cats before they were adopted, and would love to get back into that.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

The CSWA has made significant progress on a number of fronts in the ten years (!) since I last chaired the committee. I want to see the efforts such as the blog and institutional site visits continue. I’m delighted to see the increasing coordination among the four diversity committees/working group. I think it’s time to revisit the 2009 strategic plan and evaluate where we are and what we need to do moving forward. The upcoming Women in Astronomy IV meeting will definitely inform that process, so I very much look forward to that meeting.

If you could invent something, what would it be?

I’d invent a teleportation device. Then I could get to all the places I want to visit without the hassle of airports and sitting in a cramped plane for hours. I used to love to fly. Not anymore. Of course, the downside is that everyone else would be able to teleport as well, and all the places I want to go would be really crowded!

The CSWA would like to thank previous Chairs Aparna Venkatesan and Christina Richey for their hard work. Aparna will be continuing on the committee as a member focusing on the CSWA cross-over with the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. Christina will be shifting into a Past Chair position, and will continue leading anti-harassment efforts within the committee and the greater community.