Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Career Profile: Astronomer to STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist

 The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is compiling 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 Regina Barber DeGraaff. Regina is a Mexican-Taiwanese-American, pop-culture-obsessed, astrophysicist, who teaches physics, astronomy, and science communication at WWU. Regina completed her PhD in physics at Washington State University in 2011, studying distant extragalactic globular clusters using the Hubble Space Telescope. Over five years ago Regina co-created and began to host the radio show (KMRE) & WWU podcast Spark Science. This talk show strives to humanize the scientist and make Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) accessible. She also created the position of the STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist at WWU devoted to the retention and support of underrepresented students and faculty in STEM. Through all her efforts, Regina’s goal is to break apart the scientist stereotype so that anyone can see themselves in science.

To access our previous Career Profiles, please go to http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/search/label/career%20profiles

What field do you currently work in?
Higher Education - Physics/Astronomy/Science Communication teaching; Inclusion/Equity/Diversity administrative position

What is the job title for your current position?
Senior Instructor: Physics & Astronomy Dept (half-time); STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist: College of Science and Engineering (half-time). Host of Spark Science

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Western Washington University

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Bellingham, WA

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?
PhD in Physics (2011 WSU)

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?
This position. Before that Bellevue College adjunct instructor. Before that I studied globular clusters using Hubble Space Telescope images.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I started hosting and producing a podcast over five years ago so in my early thirties, a few years after my PhD, I started gaining experience in science communication and media producing.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I attended conferences related to science communication and I was accepted to a media fellowship in 2019.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
SACNAS (The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) is the largest national organization focused on racial equity in STEM (sacnas.org) and has been the best resource for the community, career advice, and leadership training. I have been a member and active in the organization since 2011.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
While finishing my PhD I gave birth to my daughter and my advisor moved to another institution two years into my program. I chose to not follow my advisor to his new location but I did move away from Pullman to help my husband's career. I finished my PhD remotely in Seattle (with some help from UW astronomy department). Due to funding uncertainty, I worked for one year at a private high school teaching physics and math while writing my dissertation. Continued funding issues pushed me to work as an adjunct instructor at Bellevue College while I finished my dissertation. Once I completed my PhD, I choose not to apply for a post-doc since I liked my positions at Bellevue where I also became involved in outreach, inclusion, and diversity work. I also have a family so moving across the country or world was not an option. My dream was to work at my own undergrad institution so I reached out to my former professor who was now the chair of the physics department to ask if they could use someone with my talents: teaching and inclusion work. I started working as a non-tenure-track instructor at Western Washington University in the fall of 2013. I worked for two years as a full-time instructor while volunteering my time to advise clubs, colleagues, and leadership on equity, inclusion, and diversity issues. I proposed a new half-time position so that I would not get burned out and so I could be compensated for the work I was doing. The new dean of the College of Science and Engineering agreed and these are the roles I have to this day. 
In 2015, I was "discovered" by the local radio station manager who happens to also be an employee of Western Washington University and she guided me into the field of science communication and media production. I now produce a podcast and teach two classes on science communication. After I got accepted into a media fellowship last year, my network related to popular science media has grown. I hope to continue making entertaining and inclusive science content in the future.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Two things were essential to my success that I honed while in graduate school.
There is a lot to be said about finishing what you start. The downsides are burnout and anxiety if you don't take care of yourself. The upside is the proof to future collaborators and employers that you can be relied on. Also in the media space, ideas are cheap. The product is what people can see and the logistics and effort to complete something are never as obvious as first thought. Finishing projects shows problem-solving skills.
To make it through a degree, one needs a community and supporters. In every program I have been in, I have created study groups, support groups, and asked for advice from faculty or bosses. I learned early that I need to utilize every opportunity but a network is there to show you the opportunities or point you in the direction of where to find them.

Describe a typical day at work.
Answering a ton of emails
Planning with people -- initiatives to create institutional change (meetings)
Planning a class lecture
Reading an article

How many hours do you work in a week?
I try my hardest to keep my work hours to 40-45

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job?
Seeing students and colleagues feel seen and supported at WWU, especially people who have felt they are not heard due to their non-dominant identity.

What do you like most about your working environment?
The freedom to start something new

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Better during the pandemic. I try to leave weekends for family. I set a rule to not answer work emails after business hours

How family-friendly is your current position?

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Seriously think about your boundaries - what do you think is reasonable for your work week or your mental health? 
Read articles or books about setting boundaries
Make your boundaries clear to collaborators
Stick to your boundaries
It is ok to say "No" or "Maybe Later". Many things are not as urgent as you might think.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
All WWU employees have access to classes at the university. I utilize the tuition waiver to learn the languages of two parents, Spanish and Mandarin. I like to take walks too while listening to audiobooks or podcasts. I play video games with my kid and nephews online.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Sure. barberr at wwu dot edu

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