Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Meet Your CSWA, Kathleen Eckert

Kathleen Eckert is a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania working on galaxy shape measurement algorithms for large imaging surveys to better understand our universe. She received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a goal of understanding the masses of galaxies in terms of their stars, gas, and dark matter for the RESOLVE survey. She currently lives in Richmond, VA (working remotely) with her husband, twin toddler girls, and a toddler-wary cat.

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

When I was in third grade, I did a project about lunar eclipses for science class. I usually wasn’t very enthused about putting together art projects for school, like dioramas, but I remember planning and assembling a series of paper plates to show how eclipses work. At that point science was my favorite subject, which never really changed throughout school.

Who inspired you?

I was inspired from a young age by my mom and grandfather. Both of them excelled in math and encouraged me to study math and science, even when I struggled at times. I know I was really fortunate to have family members who gave me that encouragement, which a lot of girls and young women do not receive, and I really credit it with my persisting in studying physics and astronomy.

What community issues are important to you and why?

In terms of the wider community, two issues that are important to me are addressing homelessness and climate change. In terms of the second issue, I often feel very helpless because it feels like one person can do so little. I’m inspired by the current mass movement from the younger generation and hope political and business leaders will hear our voices.

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

I think my favorite moment has to be arriving on Cerro Pachon (one mountain over from Cerro Tololo) to commission an instrument on the SOAR telescope. We arrived on a weekend, so there were just 6 other people on top of the mountain. It was breathtakingly beautiful and the night sky was incomparable to any other place I have been.

What do you do for fun?

My favorite activities are gardening and baking. Growing up, I had an herb and cherry tomato garden, and I once did a science experiment to test whether using butter or margarine produced better cookies. Now that my twin girls are getting older, I’m trying to get back into both those activities and include them.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

I have recently joined the blogging team, which I feel provides a direct connection between the CSWA and the wider astronomical community to discuss issues affecting women in astronomy. For instance, we have recently started a new series on the 2-body problem, which is a perennial issue for academics and especially for women. We have already received interest from community members to publish their own experiences on the blog and we welcome anyone to submit blog posts.

I am also interested in reviewing the maternity and family leave policies that affect astronomers at all stages in their career. From anecdotal and personal experience, there is a wide discrepancy in how leave works for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty, as well as for astronomers outside academia, and I’m interested in compiling a list of current leave policies to produce recommendations for the AAS.

What changes would you like to see for women in astronomy?

I think the biggest change I would like to see is demographics. Even in a department that’s relatively supportive, I’ve been in journal clubs where there are one or two women and a sea of men. That can be a really intimidating environment to speak up and that really won’t change unless the proportion of women and minorities in a department increases.

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