Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Astronomers for Planet Earth: Dr. Adrienne M. Cool

This is the seminal post for a series of features on the incredible women from Astronomers for Planet Earth (A4E), a global network of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts dedicated to offering their unique perspective to the fight for global climate justice. To kick things off, we'll hear from Dr. Adrienne Cool, a faculty member at San Francisco State University's Physics and Astronomy Department. 

If you're interested in supporting the effort to combat climate change, join A4E's amazing community here: https://astronomersforplanet.earth/join-us-1. Really, really interested? Read the white paper, Astronomers for Planet Earth: Engaging with the Public to Forge a Sustainable Future, to learn more about what you (yes, you!) can do right now to tackle the climate crisis.

Dr. Adrienne Cool is an observational astronomer at SFSU and the director of the SFSU Observatory and Planetarium. 

What is your current career and how did you end up there?
I've been a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at San Francisco State University for more than 20 years. I started there after doing a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley.

What is your role in Astronomers for Planet Earth (A4E)?
I'm one of the founders of the organization. Since we began in the fall of 2019 I've been doing a range of things, e.g., working on the website, doing intake as part of the membership working group, coordinating weekly meetings of the North America group, participating in monthly international meetings, helping organize conference sessions and symposia, giving talks, and... learning to appreciate Slack when working with people in 15 different time zones!

What goals do you have for your role in A4E?
It's been very meaningful to me that nearly 1200 astronomers from more than 60 countries on 6 continents have joined A4E in the relatively short time since we were founded. As we grow we need to be creating structures and mechanisms that will enable more and more of our diverse members' voices to be heard. Students are also critical and have been leaders from the start; A4E wouldn't exist without them. I look forward to continuing to work with the amazing, caring, and committed people who have joined and are leading this organization as we shepherd ourselves through the next transition.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection between your passion for astronomy and the urgency of fighting climate change.
The US election in 2016 was a wake-up call for me. The climate crisis had been on my mind, but the outcome of that election made me think much harder about what I could and should be doing. That's when it hit me that astronomers have an unusual perspective on our planet that could be harnessed in the struggle to combat the climate crisis. Who else knows quite as viscerally as we do just how far away the stars and their attendant planets are, not to mention the delicate set of conditions that lead to habitability? And though astronomy is a relatively small field, we have a surprisingly big reach. Astronomers all over the world interact with millions of people every year in classrooms, planetariums, and more. Putting those two things together--the astronomical perspective and the reach we have--can be powerful, I think.

How does your career in astronomy intersect with the fight against climate change?
I'm fortunate to work in a university with a diverse and engaged student population and a strong commitment to social justice and activism. So it's not a stretch to see how working on astronomy, the climate crisis, and climate justice all intersect.

Dr. Cool teaches the next generation of astronomers at a sidewalk astronomy event for Mercury's transit across the sun on November 11, 2019.

How can the astronomical community engage with the climate crisis movement? 
There are many ways we can engage. Fundamentally, A4E exists in order for astronomers to help one another find ways to engage effectively with the climate crisis movement and make meaningful change. One way of course is to work to make our own field sustainable. That includes observatories, astronomical institutes, universities, science museums, planetaria and more. Another is to use our voices as educators and public speakers. When we're talking and teaching about astronomy and astronomical discoveries, we can make a practice of making the link between what we're learning about the cosmos and what it means about the preciousness and vulnerability of our own planet. There's more, but those are two main strands I see.

If you weren’t in the field of astronomy, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be a carpenter. Or maybe a school teacher. I've always loved teaching and building things. 
Do you have any advice for future astronomers who might also be interested in addressing the climate crisis?
Join us. Astronomers for Planet Earth needs your ideas, your voice, and your help!

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The experiences of women in graduate physics and astronomy programs - an interview with Ramón Barthelemy and Melinda McCormick

Written By: Jeremy Bailin

Left: Dr. Melinda McCormick, assistant professor at Western Michigan University's School of Social Work; right: Dr. Ramón Barthelemy, assistant professor at the University of Utah's Physics and Astronomy Department

Ramón Barthelemy (RB) and Melinda McCormick (MM) have been doing research on the experiences of women in graduate programs in physics and astronomy for the past decade. Dr. Barthelemy is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Dr. McCormick is an Assistant Professor at Western Michigan University in the School of Social Work. Jeremy Bailin (JB) sat down over Zoom with them to talk about their work.


I'm wondering if you can talk about the research that you've been doing on women in graduate astronomy programs.



So Melinda and I have been working together now for almost a decade on this project. The original study was a series of exploratory interviews with 21 women in their graduate physics and astronomy programs. They all had passed their qualifying exams, so all of them were near the dissertation phase and all of them were going to R1 institutions that had strong programs in both physics and astronomy. So we tried to control as much as we could to make a cohort that was fairly similar to each other. The interviews were all done in person on location. We used an open ended protocol structure, so there were five questions. The interviews were conversational in style, so it was more just like discussing their experiences, and I would use follow up questions as necessary. Once we had all of those wonderful interviews, we transcribed them and then Melinda and I met weekly to analyze them line by line to look at the results about their educational trajectories, experiences as undergrads, experiences in graduate school, experiences with mentorship, as well as probably what has been most interesting and something we've discussed the most, which is their gendered experiences with a focus on micro aggressions and sexual harassment.



The results for me were the really exciting part. As a qualitative researcher, I love getting into reading what people are talking about in terms of their experiences. My background is I have a Ph.D. in sociology and I'm a social work professor. So I bring a very different viewpoint to Ramón's work. But one of the first things that I got excited about was figuring out -- Ramón, you remember that paper where we talked about capital? So we figured out that a lot of these women who had gotten this far, it was because they had all of this social capital going into the programs. And I just felt like that was a really important thing to talk about because, you know, we want to think that that myth of American meritocracy really matters. And what was coming through again and again was how well positioned most of these women were to be in graduate studies.



I think one of the interesting things about our collaboration is that I'm a Ph.D. in physics education research. Dr. McCormick has a Ph.D. in sociology and does awesome work on LGBT youth outside of our collaboration. But bringing together our two viewpoints has been really powerful. And it's actually pushed me a lot as a researcher because in the sciences, we oftentimes think that there is an absolute truth, right? But from the social work and the sociology perspective, Melinda's really pushed me to think about how truth is more squishy than what we'd like to think it is, and that the narratives and things that we say, you know, like the meritocracy, the idea that anybody can do physics and astronomy if they want to isn't necessarily true. As Melinda and I wrote about, we looked at social capital, but we also looked at educational capital and monetary capital.



Ramón and I were both doing this when we were grad students ourselves. And I can remember reading some of these women talking about how many schools that they were applying to. And Ramón and I are both going "I couldn't even have afforded to apply to that many schools." So that's when some of the capital stuff became much more evident. And then even figuring out who they are exposed to in their lives, people who are already in academics who could then help them navigate this trajectory. Whereas Ramón and I were both first generation college students. So that part really stuck out for us as well.



To what degree was having the capital especially important, given that they were also women?



My initial reaction to that is even though they had all these forms of capital, they still had to go through the gendered experiences. When we look at this, we have to be able to understand both privilege and discrimination all wrapped up into one. Because as individuals, we can have a lot of privilege that gets us to where we are. But then we can still experience discrimination, right? We can hold these two concepts and ideas at the same time. So I think what's interesting is even though these women were incredibly accomplished, had went to the best schools, had been trained by family, friends that were astronomers or their parents were scientists, even though all of these factors had played in their favor, they still experienced micro aggressions, gender discrimination and other problems with mentorship in communities in graduate education. I would argue that, and this is just pure conjecture, but I would guess that if they had not had any of that capital, those forces probably would have pushed them out. And the fact that we interviewed very few people that really came from the same first generation working class that Dr. McCormick and I come from was a little bit telling. One of my concerns at the end of the project was how do we give voice to the people who weren't represented in this sample and the people who aren't included.



Because giving voice to those folks, I mean, that's a lot of the work that Ramón and I both do, is we want to give voice to folks who are in underrepresented and marginalized communities. That's the underpinning, I think, of a lot of our work. And then finding that who we ended up talking to were not in that group.


But nonetheless their experiences were very telling, especially in terms of the field. Because recently I was invited to speak at the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers). They invited me to come talk about how to talk about sexual harassment. And that came directly out of my work with Ramón. I just think it's fascinating. Like, here's this sociologist, social worker, coming in to try to help people understand what it is, what it looks like, and then how do we address it in reality?


I feel like our most important paper was really the one on the micro aggressions and the sexual harassment. It's a hard thing to talk about because if people aren't aware of micro aggressions, it's really easy for them to be dismissive of them. But I think it was really important for us to do that article so that people could make the connections between what the definition of a microaggression is and then see how it impacts women based on their gender over and over within their educational programs in physics and astronomy. And we had a couple of women who talked about more extreme experiences of actual sexual harassment that were pretty horrifying to hear about, and the fact that this has been able to go on for so long in this field, it's problematic. So I'm glad that we're able to bring something --- hopefully more people than you are reading what we're doing!



Were there any people who had other intersecting identities that affected their experience?



Oh, yeah, absolutely. But the sample was overwhelmingly white and was overwhelmingly upper class. But of the 21 participants, there were one or two that came from the working class. There were a few that were people of color, not necessarily underrepresented in physics, but they were people of color. And then we also had women in the sample who were also parents. We had people that were in the process of having children. And we did see that these things impacted their lives.


I think one of the more powerful things is the follow up interviews that I'm now conducting, because one of these women that we're talking to again, 10 years later, she actually came out as bisexual and queer in the process of the ten years since I had spoken to her. And one of the startling things is when she came out as queer, it dramatically impacted her career in physics and astronomy. And not in a positive way, unfortunately. It had a very negative impact on the relationships that she was in personally, which impacted her career, but then also impacted how she was being treated at the place that she was working. And I think that's one of those things is identity isn't stable, so as we talk to these folks 10 years later, we see that their identities change, and in this changing of identities, you see the impacts. And what was really interesting is I've only interviewed six of the original 21 so far, but two of those six talked about their whiteness. They talked about how they have been doing alright. They've had gendered problems, but they felt like their whiteness has been something that has strongly supported them in their careers, because as they've gotten on in their careers and they've worked with more women of color, they see that there's these additional barriers. So I think one thing that's really lacking when we talk about gender and sexuality and marginalization and ability and working class is oftentimes we don't talk about how our own privileges impact those experiences. And in particular, when we talk about women in physics and astronomy, we rarely talk about whiteness. But it is the whiteness oftentimes that can allow people to pass and navigate because at least they have that in common with the oppressors.


I think what's surprising too is looking at their visions of success. What were their definitions of success and what did they view as their greatest accomplishment? And I'm asking the same question ten years later so we can look at the change between what they saw as the greatest accomplishments and success in graduate school and what they see now as professionals. And one of the concerning findings was that how people were talking about their experience in graduate school was the same in 2012 as in some of the early papers in 1994, because they talked in terms of surviving. That exact term, "surviving". Even when they talked about publishing a paper, getting a degree, they talked about it in terms of "I just got through this." And that same storyline is also playing out a little bit in the new interviews that I'm doing now six years later.


And looking at gender for some of the people, it has really reified itself. It's become more concrete in their experiences. For one participant, looking back, she talked about things in a gendered lens in a way that she didn't necessarily see at the time. And I think that's been the most interesting thing is how people's perspective has changed and how, when that perspective changes, they look back at their experiences a little bit differently. And even for the one person I talked to that didn't really have too many gendered experiences, she still discussed it and said flat out, "I got lucky." And it was the fact that she's at this particular institution with a particularly small department where people think about these things constantly. But she would discuss the challenges she knew that her peers had. So even in the rare cases where we have people that didn't report that they had gendered experiences, the ones that I've talked to so far 10 years later are talking about it in terms of "I'm lucky that I'm not having them."



You have kind of a survivor bias in that the people that you were interviewing were already people who had successfully gotten into a graduate program. Do you have any feeling for what might be missing from those who never got that far?



Yes, my answer to that is yes. So only something like 30 percent of undergraduates actually go into graduate school and then physics graduate programs are notoriously difficult. So then you have a further amount of people that leak out at that point. I don't like that word "leak out". But you have a number of people that are forced out at that point. So the sample in the study, it's just like any scientific study, you have to limit it to the sample that you have. And in our sample there is survivorship bias because there's no possible way not to. So we wanted to look at it and say, OK, these people made it through the program. They're highly successful, incredibly competent. They have the skills to be good physicists and astronomers, but yet they still experience these things. So our study really in a lot of ways is a best case scenario.



I know that you've noted that the numbers in physics are much worse than the numbers in astronomy as far gender balance. And of course, a lot of astronomy happens in physics departments. Do you know whether the experiences of women who are graduate students in astronomy, in physics departments or physics and astronomy departments is different from those in pure astronomy departments?



It's important to remember that astronomy is a large factor smaller than physics. So there's also a numbers game that's going on with that. But I think one of the most startling things in this study is originally I did want it to be comparative between physics and astronomy. But then when we read all the physics and astronomy papers, and a series of our papers were specifically just on women in astronomy, but like the sexual harassment paper, it was the same across the groups. And the microaggressions, there wasn't any difference.


The only difference that I could really come up with, and this is anecdotal, it's not a trend, is when people experienced the most egregious, as Melinda said, horrifying examples, the only one that found any restitution was a person who was in astronomy. And it was because a woman found out what happened. It was originally brushed off. And oftentimes they would report these things, and it was brushed off by men. To the point we had one participant who had this man who was effectively stalking her, and whenever she came to the building, he would get violent and he would start punching walls. And the department chair didn't care. He didn't think that it was a big deal. So she ended up having to take action to protect herself. We saw this over and over again where the individual students had to take actions to protect themselves. And the only case where we had an egregious example where the individual didn't have to protect themselves was in astronomy. But that being said, you know, I can't say that that's a trend, because when I talk to these women 10 years later, one of the women that's in astronomy had different but similarly egregious experiences in their new workplace. So my conclusion from this study, if we were to extrapolate, which again could be problematic because of the small sample size, is that there isn't a difference.



You know what I do recall being different, reading the two? I loved the descriptions of some of the women about why they went into astronomy. They were just so beautiful. It was really, I don't know, there's just this real depth of feeling and pull towards that field that really stood out to me.



Yeah, I agree with that. That's one of those really positive things.



Do you think there's any practical takeaways that either departments or individual graduate students, either women or other genders, can take away that can help improve the situation?



Yeah, I can speak to that a little bit. In my other life as a physics education researcher, I do graduate program reform. That's generic graduate program reform, not specific to identities, but I think that it's salient here. With the Loom Model, what we found, and that was based on Dr. Barbara Whitten's work from Colorado College, she talked about how you have to have the infrastructure built around students in order to support them, and then you have to actively be engaging with the students and engaging with that culture. Policies are necessary, but not sufficient to improve people's experiences. You also really have to pay close attention to the individual cultures.


So one of the big findings in our graduate program reform is that even though our graduate program changed all of the policies to support students, the individual culture in research groups doesn't change. And until you change the culture in those individual research groups, you're not going to be able to reach every student. But you have to have policies in place that protect students. One of the challenges that our students face is that there's this very hierarchical, linear relationship in physics where your dissertation advisor controls everything. So one policy that we have here at the University of Utah is that every year when you meet with your dissertation committee, there's a moment in the meeting where the dissertation chair actually leaves and then the student can talk one on one with the other committee members, and then we do it vice versa where the committee member comes in and the student leaves so that way they can talk.


So you have to have these policies in place that destabilize power structures, diffuse power structures. This all goes back to queer theory and Foucault, which is this idea that you have to disaggregate power. Those are the important things. You have to have policies and structures in place that are failsafes for students. You have to constantly check in with students to know where they're at in their career trajectories and then provide off ramps. Or not off ramps, but provide pathways. In one of our papers we used a roundabout as an example, because we shouldn't think about higher education as a strict linear pathway. You should think about it as having many different pathways and that students enter and then choose and that all of them are equally valuable, but that they're just different pathways. So putting those policies in place is necessary, but not sufficient. You need to constantly check in with students and then when you hire faculty, you need to hire faculty that actually care about these issues. It's a buyer's market when it comes to hiring faculty. And I would argue it's better to hire the faculty member who clearly is empathetic, understanding and a great mentor that has no grants than to hire the faculty member that has three million dollars in grants because you can teach someone how to get grants. You can professional development that. Teaching someone how to be empathetic, understanding and supportive and culturally aware is a much harder challenge.



Are there any other results of the research that you think would be important to disseminate?



I think I think one of the challenges is this, and I already mentioned this earlier, but when we had the most egregious examples of harassment and even some more egregious micro aggressions, oftentimes people were met with silence. Department chairs, oftentimes straight white men, effectively didn't care. I would argue that they didn't do their job. And a lot of these people were also legally liable. I mean, you can look at this in 10 different ways. We look at it from the well-being-of-the-student perspective. But you also can look at it from a legal perspective, and a lot of these departments could have been sued under the ground for what they did. But what we found is that, like Melinda said, people had a passion for physics and astronomy. They wanted to keep doing it. So they had to find workarounds to survive. But that's not students' responsibility. Students shouldn't have to find workarounds. It's our responsibility. It's students' responsibility to learn physics and astronomy and be passionate. It's our responsibility to make sure that they're safe, protected and in a positive and welcoming and affirming environment.



And when they're met with silence and invalidation of their experiences, that is so harmful. So, of course, that's going to make it harder for women or folks who are being treated badly to be able to step forward. It's partly getting people to just recognize that this happens and it has a negative impact on our students, and if we want students to be there and if we want to help them grow and learn and do the cool things that they have the ability to do in the world, then we have to be looking after them. And I think we can use some of the stuff from Title IX, which is what I talked about in my [AAPT] talk. That's our basis to draw from. You shouldn't be discriminated against based on your sex or your gender presentation. And I think we don't always realize that that gender representation stuff is also included in Title IX because we don't talk about it.


But just that safety piece. Even with microaggressions, we don't always have to do a ton. But we have to, you know, put up posters with women in them, have books that include women's work. That's part of creating that culture. And also just saying, "yes, I hear you that that happened and it's not OK." Because a lot of times when people are mistreated in that way, it's not that they're looking for something huge from us all the time. I think I look for something huge from us as human beings because I want us to be better. But sometimes we just want acknowledgment of what's happened, somebody to say, "yeah, that happened, and it sucked, and I'm really sorry." That can go a really long way.


Friday, August 20, 2021

AASWomen Newsletter for August 20, 2021

AAS Committee on the Status of Women           
Issue of August 20, 2021
eds: Heather Flewelling, Nicolle Zellner, Maria Patterson, Jeremy Bailey, and Alessandra Aloisi

[We hope you all are taking care of yourselves and each other. --eds.]

This week's issues:

Image of Carolyn Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker at the telescope
1. In Memoriam: Carolyn Shoemaker, 1929–2021 

2. Academic Institutions Must Do Better to Protect Caregivers This Fall
3. Underrepresented Minority Communities in Planetary Science Travel Grant
4. Message from the IAU About the Scientific Community in Afghanistan
5. Sonar, Esforzarse y Lograr: Reach, Strive, Achieve - From Costa Rica to Mars
6. Job Opportunities
7. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter
8. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter
9. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Crosspost: Mallory Molina awarded Ford Fellowship for astrophysics research, diversity efforts

 Written By Rachel Hergett for MSU News Service

Credit: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez for MSU

Mallory Molina, who studies black holes in dwarf galaxies at Montana State University, was awarded a 2021 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in June.

In addition to recognizing the academic achievements of the awardees, the competitive Ford Foundation Fellowship Program — administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — is grounded in a mission to increase diversity on college campuses.

“The Ford expects you to not only do research but to increase the diversity in higher academia, using the diverse human experience to enrich the academic experience,” Molina said. “It speaks to how both my research and my equity and inclusion efforts are valuable. That means a lot to me. Equity and inclusion work has always been a very strong component of who I am as a researcher.”

Molina is one of 26 postdoctoral Ford Fellows for 2021 and the first postdoctoral fellow at MSU. The fellowship includes a $50,000 stipend and an invitation to attend the Conference of Ford Fellows in October. It will support Molina’s ongoing inclusion initiatives and fund a year of astrophysics research with Amy Reines in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.

“Mallory is exactly the kind of person we need as a leader in academia,” Reines said. “In addition to being a top-quality researcher making important discoveries, they also work hard toward making physics and astronomy more inclusive.”

Molina knew they wanted to be an astronomer at age 4, when a visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston opened their mind to myriad questions about the universe. But early in their academic career, Molina considered abandoning the dream.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t like astronomy,” Molina said. “It was because I felt isolated and alone.”

As a Mexican American, Molina was met with negative comments and cultural bias from peers as an undergraduate student at Ohio State University. The young university student craved a supportive community within the field, people to engage in conversations about the things they were learning and share in the struggles.

Molina was discouraged and the situation didn’t improve in graduate school. The Sloane scholar was contemplating dropping out of Pennsylvania State University when they reached out to their academic inspiration: their father, David, who grew up in Mexico City and is now chair of the economics department at the University of North Texas. Molina’s father pushed them to find other solutions, both for themself and students who come after.  

“If someone leaves because they don’t like astronomy, fine,” Molina said. “But it’s not fine if they leave because they think no one cares.”

Read more about Dr. Molina's work creating equitable spaces for future astronomers and her incredible research on supermassive black holes at the link below:

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Crosspost: Code-Switching and Assimilation in STEM Culture

 Written By: Annareli Morales, Curtis L. Walker, Dereka L. Carroll-Smith, and Melissa A. Burt

Credit: Jalen Sherald from The Inclusion Solution

The scientific community cannot claim it is becoming a diverse and inclusive culture based on numbers alone—not if professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color must leave themselves behind to be part of it.

Picture a young weather enthusiast walking across the stage to receive their meteorology degree. They feel pride in this culmination of their years of hard work. They also recall how that hard work always seemed to appear to others. Friends and family called them “proper” during visits home from school, creating a distance that lingered. Their colleagues and peers frequently offered their own unsolicited impressions:

“You are so articulate!”

“You need to be more professional…”

“You cannot show up like that.”

“You are not like those other Black people.”

Or in another common story, an early-career scientist reflects on the cost of their profession. They earned a degree, but they had to permanently relocate for school and the only career opportunities available to them. Visiting home and family is emotionally exhausting because it is a constant reminder of what was given up to focus on those limited opportunities. They raise a new family away from their abuelitos, missing out on making tamales with their tías or dancing to cumbia at their cousin’s quinciañera. As they slowly lose their grasp of their native language, they fear their children will also lose that deep connection with their Latino heritage. Sí se puede, but is it worth it?

On the surface these stories may sound and feel similar to most of us who pursued higher education or careers in academia. Who hasn’t felt inadequate, had trouble finding their place in a new environment, or ultimately felt as though they did not belong? The difference we authors want to express is that although the situations and experiences may sound similar, the consequences of these experiences for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) professionals in geosciences are very different. Additional stress, emotional labor, and baggage cause long-lasting trauma for BIPOC professionals. We feel this trauma. It is visceral. And it bubbles to the surface even as we write this article. Pursuing careers in this extremely white dominated field requires us, more often than not, to assimilate either internally or externally to the culture, to code-switch. In the process, we lose our authenticity.

This assimilation, however, is counterproductive to the creation of a richly diverse and inclusive scientific community that is prepared to address the questions of our modern world, and more importantly, it is deeply disrespectful and harmful to the BIPOC scientists whom the community boasts about recruiting. We are asking our colleagues to form a better awareness of code-switching, why BIPOC scientists perform it, and how we can address the deficiencies in our community that require it.

Read the rest of the article here: https://eos.org/opinions/code-switching-and-assimilation-in-stem-culture 

Friday, August 6, 2021

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Crosspost: I Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize for It. | 'Almost Famous' by NYT Op-Docs

For this week, be sure to check out this incredible documentary, "The Silent Pulse of the Universe," created by Ben Proudfoot for the New York Times on Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell. We've highlighted Dr. Bell before in an earlier crosspost, but she absolutely deserves another (several hundred).

Growing up in a Quaker household, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was raised to believe that she had as much right to an education as anyone else. But as a girl in the 1940s in Northern Ireland, her enthusiasm for the sciences was met with hostility from teachers and male students. Undeterred, she went on to study radio astronomy at Glasgow University, where she was the only woman in many of her classes. In 1967, Burnell made a discovery that altered our perception of the universe. As a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University assisting the astronomer Anthony Hewish, she discovered pulsars — compact, spinning celestial objects that give off beams of radiation, like cosmic lighthouses. (A visualization of some early pulsar data is immortalized as the album art for Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures.”) But as Ben Proudfoot's "The Silent Pulse of the Universe" shows, the world wasn’t yet ready to accept that a breakthrough in astrophysics could have come from a young woman.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Meet Dr. Moiya McTier, astronomer, storyteller, and author

Written By: Tiffany Wolbrecht

Photo of Dr. Moiya McTier outside smiling at the camera

Meet Moiya
Dr. Moiya McTier is an astrophysicist, folklorist, and science communicator based in NYC. She's written a science fiction novel, given hundreds of talks about science around the world, helped design exhibits for the New York Hall of Science, and is currently working on a popular science book about the history of the Milky Way galaxy for Grand Central Publishing. Moiya's favorite way to combine her unique set of expertise is to build fictional worlds based on facts and science, which she does through workshops, classes, and her podcast Exolore. You can learn more about Moiya and her work on her website moiyamctier.com

Why did you choose to study astronomy? 
So many of my astronomy colleagues fell in love with the night sky when they were children. My introduction to the field was a lot more recent and a little less inspired. I found astronomy by chance in my sophomore year of college when a friend asked me to go with her to an introductory astronomy class. I wasn't very interested, but the professor said we'd get free pizza every week, so I registered for the course. By the end of the semester, I thought it was so cool that we could study stars and galaxies and other space phenomena billions of lightyears away without leaving our random little rocky planet.

I don't think astronomy is inherently more exciting or interesting than other fields, but I do appreciate how useful it is for getting other people interested in science. I like to call astronomy a "gateway science" because it's something that pretty much everyone on Earth can experience without training or fancy equipment. And I like to think that once I help people get their foot in the astronomy door, they can't help but take more steps into the room.

What are your aspirations?
Since graduating with my PhD in April, I've been able to pursue science communication full-time, and I feel so much more fulfilled than I ever did as a researcher, so this is definitely what I want to do with the rest of my life. More specifically (because science communication is a broad term), I want to use storytelling and comedy through a media lens to help people better understand the science of the world around them. I want to write books, give talks, host podcasts... and I'm already doing these things! My next big goal is to host my own science-comedy TV show to reach people who wouldn't self-select to attend more traditional outreach events.

Who inspired you?
People ask me this question often, and I feel bad saying this, but the honest answer is that no one inspired me to do what I'm doing. Growing up, I knew I was good at math and science, but I didn't see anyone who looked like me doing it professionally. My only example of a Black lady scientist was B'elanna Torres, a fictional alien Star Trek character. And even today, there are only about 100 black women in the US with PhDs in any physics related field! Since I didn't have any relatable role models back then, I forged my own path through science and into science communication. And when I'm feeling tired or worn out in my work, I'm inspired to keep going by my Black peers who are pushing barriers RIGHT NOW and by the young black girls who don't have to be the first because we broke that barrier for them. The field still has so so so much work to do before it's "fair" or "equitable," but I'm inspired by the people pushing for that progress.

What have you been working on since graduating? 
Right now, I'm finishing up a popular science book about the history of the Milky Way Galaxy, but I'm writing it from the galaxy's point of view as if it's writing its own autobiography. The book is expected to be published in Fall 2022 by Grand Central Publishing. As for what's next... I don't have any concrete plans yet, but I have a lot of stuff in the works. I guess you'll just have to follow me to find out what happens :)

What skills did you gain through completing your degree?
I think the most important skill I learned in my PhD program was the ability to see both the forest and the trees at the same time, to see how the smallest details fit into the larger picture. In the US, a PhD program can take five, six, or more years (my mom took 16 years to finish her PhD in English.) In that time, PhD students are expected to become the world's leading expert in a specific subject, which takes time, and means approaching a single question from as many angles as possible. It's so easy to get lost in the weeds of your research project, but part of earning the PhD is learning to untangle all of your research threads.

Are there any expectations you had about the astronomy field that you have found differed from reality?
I never really intended to be an astronomer, so I never formed expectations about astronomy specifically. But my mom was working on her PhD in English when I was young, so I grew up in the academy. I spent time in college classrooms before I could talk, and I was actually participating in college classes by the time I was 10. So I always thought of academia as a magical place where smart people could learn and share knowledge and let their ideas flourish. I didn't have this word back then, but I expected it to be a meritocracy, and it most certainly isn't.

Now I see that academia favors the privileged, that it isn't available to everyone who wants to access it, and that it's set up in a way that ignores the needs of the very people who can make it great. Application fees, "goodness of fit" conversations in hiring committees, the GRE, opaque hierarchical structures...these are the parts of academia that I didn't expect to face. These are the parts of academia that pushed me out of the field.

What community issues are important to you and why?
The astronomy community has started to reckon with a lot of its issues recently, many of them publicly. Issues surrounding unpunished sexual harassment, lack of diversity and equity, forcing trans scientists to keep their deadnames on scientific publications, grad students living below the poverty line despite the fact that universities literally could not function without grad labor, outdated publishing practices that stifle creativity and perpetuate existing social heirarchies, etc. There are too many issues in the community and they're all important to me because they all affect the way that we can share our science with the rest of the world.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Well, first, I would say that everyone's career path is unique, so don't get too hung up on copying anyone else's path precisely. But if you're interested in doing full-time science communication after going through grad school, here are my tips:
1. Figure out your motivation. Why do you want to do scicomm?
2. Find your preferred audience and scicomm style by practicing often! Do you like working with kids or adults? Are you more goofy like Bill Nye or grandiose like Carl Sagan? Are you more comfortable writing or speaking? Look for opportunities to test these out while you're in grad school so you're ready to go once you graduate.