Thursday, June 13, 2019

Interview with Dr. Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, Vera Rubin Presidential Chair for Diversity in Astronomy at UC Santa Cruz

Dr. Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, was inducted as the inaugural Vera Rubin Presidential Chair for Diversity in Astronomy last month. Vera Rubin was on the steering committee of the Working Group on the Status of Women in Astronomy whose report led to the creation of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. She was also a champion of inclusive science—mentoring students from various backgrounds. I spoke to Dr. Ramirez-Ruiz about what this chair means and about his intentional work to increase the diversity of voices contributing to the field of astronomy.

Why is it important to have an endowed professor in diversity?
Our department at UC Santa Cruz has made intense investments, both intellectually and emotionally speaking, to make sure our graduate program is diverse. These conversations started when Dr. Sandy Faber was chair and we spoke many times about the broken [student to faculty] pipeline. We wanted to figure out how to enhance our ability to attract professors that are women and/or under-represented minorities. When we had a search for a theoretical astrophysicist, we got 220 applications and only 20 were women. This prompted us to start thinking differently about how to increase diversity. If we were to hire our professors from our own graduate program, then there would be no leaky pipeline problem. If every single dept took it upon themselves to do that then they would generate their own pipeline for their professors. We then discussed how universities are very happy to be diverse provided that whoever they hire as diverse individuals sort of blends with the status quo. We wanted to have a program where we celebrate diversity and our differences by not having people have to give up their identity to be included. We realized that in order to create that environment you need a lot of funding for structures and support.

I’m very proud of this chair in the sense that it's the first time, I think, in the history of astronomy that an institution says this [diversity] is important to us and we’re going to invest in it. This is not a chair for me. It is a chair for the ages.

This chair exists to support not only the individual but also the cause of diversity. It’s not this idea that since you are a person of color you have to all of a sudden be altruistic. There’s also the component that I can benefit my own science by supporting my [research] group because my group is intrinsically diverse. The whole idea of role models is that people that are similar to you, especially if you are not the status quo, gravitate around you. If you are supporting those students then you are making good use of the funds.

Why is promoting and retaining women and people from under-represented groups important to the field?
My driving motivation is really to identify what we can do to have as many transformative scientists as we possibly can. The only way to achieve that is to be able to have a wide range of diverse voices. This has been shown by Dr. Katherine Phillips in many fields and I have reproduced her results in my own courses.

I divide the students into groups that are either homogeneous or diverse and I give them an order of magnitude question to solve. I also put together a team to think about the many ways the students could answer these types of questions based on the knowledge they have. So we have a clear measure of what it is to arrive at an innovative answer. The team assesses the students’ answers and the standard result is that people from homogeneous groups tend to not find the most creative solutions while diverse groups do. When you ask the homogeneous groups: ‘Did you find the best solution? Are you satisfied with the degree of creativity of your solution?’ They usually say yes. When you interview them about [their interactions within the group], they have very cordial and seamless interactions. But when you asked the diverse groups, they have strong hesitations about the value of their solutions. When you ask about their interactions, there was significantly more discussions and more contention. In that premise, having leadership and realizing that you have to support that creative environment and make sure that people feel empowered by the answers that they’re giving you. Letting them know that it is ok to play with ideas, to sometimes say things that are not completely correct, and that they have a safe environment to do it is very important. In order to get the best scientific outcomes, we have to support diversity. So I feel our field needs all those voices if we want to keep up with accelerating development, creation of new ideas, and moving the field forward.

What things have you implemented or supported in your academic position that you think are crucial to promoting and retaining under-represented groups?
Besides the important admissions components that need to be addressed—such as eradicating the GRE—I have been heavily involved with the Lamat program which I started using an NSF CAREER grant. Lamat means star in Mayan. I started this program with Hartnell College as a program for transfer students from community college. The idea is that before they transfer to UC Santa Cruz they come and do research, usually for three summers. The rate of them publishing a first author paper is very high—almost 50%. Every single one of them has gone to graduate school. Half of the Latinos that have an NSF graduate fellowship came from this program. They are getting accepted to the top grad programs and as a result, our numbers in physics went from 7% to something like 23% Hispanics. And as we build the program that is significantly more diverse, the graduate students are acting as mentors for these students. So it's also enhancing their own ability to do cutting edge science bc they get to work with these amazing individuals. I mean we usually get like 120-200 applications for 10 positions. So there is certainly the need for these programs. So we recently expanded and doubled the number of students we accept.

I am also involved in creating networks for theoretical astrophysicists that are women and minorities. I organized a meeting in Copenhagen Denmark with Sarah Markoff that only had women and minorities in attendance in order to openly discuss barriers. The goal is to increase inclusion in computational astronomy and the computational sciences in general. This came about because we realized in our department was certainly increasing in diversity but the fraction of students going into computational sciences and theory was still small.

I think we have to support students that are not conforming to the status quo. For example, at the conference I organized in Copenhagen, we provided childcare. We have these workshops for 6 weeks and we pay for childcare. Some of them have significant challenges in many areas and funding can help a lot in providing support.

What do you plan to do with the endowed professorship?
There is a responsibility of being one of the few people in the field that has an endowed chair to support diversity. So I do feel I have to carry the diversity message to other universities and try to encourage these movements to be for the entire field. And this is something I haven’t been doing as effectively. I would like to support a national change in the conversation around diversity and equity. Particularly highlighting the great successes we’ve had in our dept. Our students are not only diverse but they are extremely successful at getting fellowships. We have the largest cohort of NSF graduate fellowships in the country. So being intentional about diversity has drastically benefited our program. And eventually, it will benefit the field. An area that we have to work extremely intentionally to try to enact changes where possible is in the promotion of women of color in our field.

I also want to support programs that our own students put forward. This stems from our success with the Osterbrock Leadership Program. It provides opportunities for graduate students to learn about and apply leadership skills to a project of their own design. Sandy Faber and Bob Williams, former director of Space Telescope, have partnered to bring the Osterbrock fellowships program to the national level. So I am interested in helping them achieve that.

Dr. Sandy Faber and Dr. Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz
Dr. Ramirez-Ruiz is a theoretical astrophysicist whose research explores the violent and capricious nature of the universe. He uses computer simulations to study transient phenomena such as collisions, mergers, and disruptions of stars, and his work is essential to interpreting the results of gravitational wave detections. Since joining the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 2007, he has earned numerous awards and honors, including a Packard Fellowship, a Niels Bohr Professorship, and most recently the 2019 HEAD Mid-Career Prize from the American Astronomical Society.

The Rubin Chair endowment fund received major contributions from several donors, including Sandra and Andrew Faber, John and Barbara Crary, and the Heising-Simons Foundation, as well as matching funds from the UC Office of the President.