Tuesday, September 24, 2013

NASA on Reddit. Join in!

NASA is inviting the general public to participate in a question and answer session with women working on the agency’s next generation of a space-based telescope as part of a Reddit.com event on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. EDT.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s next-generation space observatory and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Webb telescope will provide images of the first galaxies ever formed, and explore planets around distant stars. It is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Reddit, a popular on-line community where users vote on content they find interesting, has many sub-forums. This particular Q&A session will be take place on the TwoXChromosomes subreddit, which is intended for "thoughtful content - serious or silly - related to gender, and intended for women's perspectives."

The Webb telescope project has gathered women with diverse and interesting jobs to answer questions about their experiences working on a NASA flagship mission. The following women will participate:
  • Allison Barto: Program Manager, previously Webb optical systems engineer
  • Christine Chen: Associate Astronomer, Webb MIRI Instrument Scientist
  • Pam Harris: Senior Resource Analyst
  • Stephanie Hopkins: Project Support Specialist
  • Amy Lo: Webb Alignments Thread Lead
  • Maggie Masetti: Webb Social Media/Website Lead
  • Stefanie Milam: Planetary Scientist
  • Nikki Rawlings: Senior Resources Analyst
  • Marcia Rieke: Professor of Astronomy & NIRCam Principal Investigator
  • Desiree Stover: Photographer
  • Amber Straughn: Astrophysicist
  • Shannon Valley: Legislative Affairs Specialist
  • Julie Van Campen: Webb ISIM Deputy Systems Engineer
  • Tracy Vogel: Editor/Writer
Those interested in asking these women questions about their experiences working on the Webb telescope will be able to do so starting at approximately 1 p.m. EDT, when the Q&A thread will be posted. They will answer questions for approximately 2 hours, beginning at 2 p.m. EDT on the Reddit "TwoXChromosomes" subreddit:

Once created, the Q&A thread will be posted to Webb telescope’s various social media presences; follow here for more information:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday morning music break (nerd style)

Via Ed. I have to admit I was highly skeptical at first. But about 20 seconds in, I was sold.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 3)

This is Part 3 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin (You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.). Kristen is a former classmate of mine from UC Berkeley (go BADGrads!) and she is also my grand-mentee from the UC Berkeley Astronomy peer mentoring program. Kristen went to work at Northrop-Grumman upon receiving her doctorate and she now lives in SoCal. I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences on the astronomy "industry" (non-academic) path. My questions and Kristen's insightful answers are given below.

9) How'd you break the news to your advisor that you were going to leave academia? How'd he take it?

What you imagine your professor will do when you tell
her/him that you're leaving the academic track.
I was incredibly fortunate in the advisor-student relationship I enjoyed during grad school.  So many people have either work-style or personality conflicts with their advisor, and I was lucky to avoid that. As a result, I had an advisor with whom I shared a truly wonderful working relationship, who promoted me to colleagues and at conferences, and who invested a lot of time, energy, and money in my professional development towards a mutually agreed upon goal, my pursuit of a tenured faculty position.  When I made the decision to leave academia, there was therefore a lot of guilt, to the point that I seriously contemplated not leaving for this reason alone.

Fortunately, my sister (outside academia) gave me some of the best advice I've ever been given: Other people (besides your spouse and family) do not make their career decisions based on you; you can't make your career decisions based on them.  You are the only one who has to do your job and live your life, so you have the sole right to choose what to do and how to do it.

So I set about breaking the news to my advisor.  I started early, when I was applying for jobs, and let him know that I was applying to both postdocs and non-academic positions.  We talked a lot about why I was doing that, and his opinion that I should take a postdoc was fairly clear, though he certainly did not force this opinion on me.  I was offered and accepted my current position before any postdoc offers came back.  (In industry, you are given only 1-2 weeks to accept or decline an offer!)  At the time, my advisor was out of the country, so I Skyped with him, which was less than ideal.  Before we talked, I wrote down exactly why I was making the decision I was, so that I could articulate it to him.  It was a difficult conversation for me, because I felt very guilty, and I could see that he was somewhat sad about my decision.  However, he accepted it remarkably well, and it did not affect our relationship when he returned to the country or since (we still get together once or twice a year).

During this process, I made two critical errors in judgment.  The first was an assumption that I understood the motivation for my advisor’s reaction, which was not corrected until this week, when I sent a draft of this interview to my advisor.  In fact, his reaction was not, as I had assumed, due to a belief that the ultimate goal for all students is to become acclaimed professors themselves.  Instead, he reminded me that one of his personal goals (which we often discuss) is to increase the percentage of female leaders in academic research, which he views as a crucial issue in which progress is much slower than it really ought to be.  So the lesson learned for me here was that an advisor’s reaction to the “bad” news that a student is “leaving” may – and likely does – have more complex roots than just disappointment at not creating the next generation of super-star professor in every student.

My second error in judgment was a miscalculation of how efficiently news travels in academia.  I broke the news to my advisor in very late December, right before the holidays.  I intended to complete the hiring process in my new position and then withdraw my application for all other positions, including the postdocs I'd applied for.  Since the holidays were right around the corner, I decided to relax over vacation and wait until the new year to withdraw my applications.  As it turned out, to my surprise, decisions started rolling in over vacation, so I ended up having to instantly turn down offers before I managed to (quickly) withdraw my application from consideration at other positions.  I was very embarrassed about this - and a bit afraid of my advisor's reaction if he knew that I had turned down attractive postdoc offers - so I didn’t discuss this with him.  With 20/20 hindsight, I realize that of course he would eventually hear about it through other channels, so I wish I had been brave enough to break that news to him myself.  To my advisor's credit, he graciously waited until over a year had passed before he even let on that he knew.

10) Any advice for how students should talk to their advisor about leaving?

You know, I think it really depends a lot on the particulars of the advisor-student relationship.  Learning from my experience, I would suggest only three things that should be common to all student-advisor combinations: (1) Take my sister's advice.  It's your life, and you should do what makes you happy, even if that means making difficult and unpopular decisions.  (2) Be honest with your advisor every step of the way, including the parts that are harder to discuss.  In most
cases, your advisor will probably be even more understanding and supportive than you expect, even if they wish you would stay in academia.  Knowing that you are looking outside academia will probably not influence the letters they write for any research-based positions, but this is something to be verified with a few people who know your advisor personally.  (3) Start early.  Very few people react well to sudden, extreme news, so let your advisor be a part of your decision process.  Discuss impressions of different career paths, concerns with an academic career path, etc.  Bear in mind that your advisor will represent one perspective, and learn from that perspective as well as others.

11) Any other, general advice for a student teetering on the edge of leaving academia?

Sometimes it's hard, inside academia, to see a way out and to even know what might be available, whether it's interesting, and whether you qualify.  I think these mental obstacles are challenging for a lot of people to overcome, but there are so many more resources than you think:

  1. Go to a AAS meeting.  Sign up for every career workshop you can find; these usually cost $10-50 extra each, but they're worth it.  Visit the exhibitor booths during the evening poster sessions, when they are most likely to be fully staffed, and talk with the people at the booth.  Get their cards and send them an email early the following week to schedule informational interviews.  Spend time in the non-science sessions (career panels, all of the town halls, any EPO talks, etc), and talk to the speakers afterwards.  Get their cards / contact information and follow-up.  Pay attention to whether the session has a sponsor, write it down, and look up the company that night in your room.

  2. Use your resources.  AAS, AAAS, APS, etc all have career resources on their websites, often including potential contacts.  Use the alumni networks at both your undergrad and graduate institutes.  Sign up for career emails from the career center at your university (even if you're a grad or postdoc), and go to events, talks, career fairs.  Go to the career center.

  3. Talk to people!  Both inside and outside of academia.  There is only so much you will ever find out on the internet or as a passive listener.  So approach people, get their contact information, and follow up.  This is the only way to really learn about what they do and figure out whether or not it's right for you.  Incidentally, when it is time to apply for jobs, you will also want to use these contacts to increase your chances of getting offers.

In fact, I would recommend these actions for all students, whether or not they are thinking of leaving academia.  Career paths are important life decisions and should be made deliberately.  Spend some time during grad school really learning about the various career options inside and outside of academia, and then decide what's right for you.  I once heard that everyone should spend 80% of their time doing the very best they can do in their current job, 10% of their time telling everyone what a good job they're doing, and 10% of their time on career development.  I have found that to be superb advice.

And, for your readers interested in more concrete, “how to” advice, I would refer them first to a little writeup I put on the Berkeley grad student wiki several years ago as a good starting point.

One final thing.  These days, more than ever, you are defined by your network.  Never, ever burn bridges!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 2)

This is Part 2 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin (You can find Part 1 here). Kristen is a former classmate of mine from UC Berkeley (go BADGrads!) and she is also my grand-mentee from the UC Berkeley Astronomy peer mentoring program. Kristen went to work at Northrop Grumman upon receiving her doctorate and she now lives in SoCal. I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences on the astronomy "industry" (non-academic) path. My questions and Kristen's insightful answers are given below. Stay tuned for Part 3!

5) It seems to me that astronomers are highly employable because we work on big, open-ended problems, often within teams.  Is this true?

Yes, this is absolutely true.  During a PhD, a grad student acquires so many skills that the average worker doesn’t have.  I want to take the skills you mentioned and go into a little more detail (in more industry-centric language).  As you mentioned, we learn how to take complex problems, dissect them into individual tasks, develop a plan to address each task, and then execute each task.  We do this on multiple problems simultaneously and manage our time accordingly to get all tasks done by firm deadlines (e.g. proposal due dates, grant deadlines, thesis completion, etc).  We manage our resources (time, grants, people on our team) to accomplish these tasks within our allocations.   

We do all this in the context of international collaborations of varying sizes, in both lead (first-author) and supporting (co-author) roles.  The international aspect of research makes it really unique, I think. Even if all of your collaborators are at the same institute, probably at least one of them was born outside your country of residence.  So every astronomer has the experience of recognizing cultural differences and language barriers and adjusting their collaboration style accordingly.  

How to Make a Good Poster Presentation

Prof. Wright over at AstroWright has tips for making an award-winning poster presentation. Here's an excerpt from his comprehensive overview:

  • A poster is a graphical representation of your abstract. People usually only spend 3-5 minutes on a poster, unless they are particularly interested (then they will likely talk to you for more details). So the goal of a poster is to make it easy to scan over quickly and leave one or two take-away points for readers to remember, or to open up a dialogue for those who are interested. Your poster is a visual aid for your oral pitch.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 1)

This is Part 1 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin. Kristen is a former classmate of mine from UC Berkeley (go BADGrads!) and she is also my grand-mentee from the UC Berkeley Astronomy peer mentoring program: I mentored Julie Comerford, and Julie mentored Kristen. Kristen went to work at Northrop Grumman upon receiving her doctorate and she now lives in SoCal. I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences on the astronomy "industry" (non-academic) path. My questions and Kristen's insightful answers are given below. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!

0) Tell me about your job! What does your day-to-day look like?  How is it different now than when you started, and what was that evolution like?

I work at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in the civil space new mission area.  My official title is Systems Engineer, which means that my job is to design systems that work together effectively to meet the mission objectives – in this case, to return the desired science.  In practice, this means that my job is split into two parts.  The science part involves lots of interaction with the research community (in my case, astrophysics and planetary science) to understand science needs for upcoming missions and to make sure that the community is aware of state-of-the-art industry capabilities that might enable future science.  The engineering part involves working closely with engineers at Northrop Grumman to design the actual mission; this includes orbital mechanics, simulation of science operations, spacecraft engineering, and instrument engineering.  On the side, I also do some technical tasks in support of missions in the development, construction, and operational phases here at Northrop Grumman, including JWST.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A handy "industry" job search guide

I plan to write more on non-academic job opportunities in the future. For now, I'll point to this handy guide assembled by Teresa Crane at Bestcollegesonline.com. In it you'll find information about establishing an online presence, developing job search strategies, advice for writing your resume, interviewing and handling your offer(s).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Rise of Mental Health Issues at Universities

Via Slate, here's a 20 minute podcast about mental health issues for college students. Issues covered include:

  • 50% of college students suffer from some sort of mental health issue
  • Most mental health disorders develope during the ages 18-25, right when students are leaving home and facing a barrage of new stresses
  • The story of a college student who suffered from anxiety and her story of suffering and then help through therapy and medication
  • The stigmatization of seeking help and living with a diagnosis
  • The difficulties faced by students in seeking help
  • The difficulties faced by universities in providing mental health services for students
  • Professional tips and advice for dealing with these sorts of issues on a college campus

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The day the argument against gay marriage died...again

This time it's a candidate for the Australian Prime Ministership who destroys the sad, tired "christian" argument against gay marriage. Also notable, in the video below you see a politician making an intelligent, informed statement about a position they really believe in. Weird, right? We should get some of that in the U.S.

My favorite part: bible ping pong, where the politician smashes it back at the pastor by quoting Paul from Ephesians on the topic of slavery, which Paul was down with given the social norms of the time (where "the time" was, ohhh, 2000 years ago).

Essential products

Every once and a while you encounter a product so revolutionary, so forward-thinking that your head feels like it's going to explode. It transcends want and immediately becomes a need. I just encountered such a product while researching iPad stands.

Behold, the CTA Pedestal Stand for iPad:

At long last I can watch YouTube hands-free while on the hopper. And when I'm done, bam! Toilet paper right there in front of me. No more balancing my iPad precariously on the side of the sink while I fumble around for the TP. 

In 3-4 working days my life will be forever changed!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Featuring another update personal astro site part 3

Phil Muirhead, experimental astronomer extraordinaire, taking a selfie with a camera-phone and the Minerva Telescope 1 optics. 
I featured Phil Muirhead's simple-yet-effective website in my original post on Personal Astro Sites. However, he got inspired by what I wrote and by his new position at B.U., so he updated his web presence. Updating your site is generally a good idea, of course:
Great blog post on websites. So, I finally gave up on html. I made this using Sandvox (it's their stock "galaxy" template): 
I asked Phil how he liked Sandvox, and he replied "It was in fact pretty easy to use. It makes it really easy to publish changes...90 bucks, only for Mac, but you can do everything I did with the free trial version." As for the cool embedded ADS publication listing, "[Sandvox] has a feature where you can embed another webpage.  I just embedded the URL I get when I search for all refereed and SPIE publications where I am an author." 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What astronomical really means

As a quick, more quantitative followup to my previous picture-based post...

Imagine the size of the entire Earth. The distance from LA to New York is about 1/6 of the circumference of the Earth. The radius of the earth is $1/2\pi$ the circumference, which is about 1/6. So LA --> NYC is a good estimate for the "size" or radius of the Earth, or about 3000 miles according to my most recent frequent-flier statement ($R_{Earth} = 7000$ km). 

Now consider the size of a single atom in your body. Your body is mostly water, which makes it mostly hydrogen. Hydrogen is made up of an electron orbiting a proton at a distance of roughly a "Bohr radius," which is about 50 picometers ($5 \times 10^{-11}$ meters).

This means that the Earth is $7\times10^{3} / 5 \times 10^{-11} \approx 10^{17}$ times bigger than an atom in your body. The Earth is


times bigger than an atom in your body. That's huge in comparison, as you might imagine.

Well, if we compare the size of the entire Universe to the size of the Earth, we come up with a number that is roughly 100 times bigger. The Earth in comparison to the size of the Universe is smaller than a single atom compared to the entire World.

So the next time you say something like "astronomically bigger," this is kinda what you mean :)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thoughts on Reverse Discrimination

Check out my post on the subject over at Women In Astronomy. A snippet:
If you were running a marathon in which all people born in March were forced to start 10 minutes behind the other runners, it wouldn’t make sense to complain that you, as someone born in January, were somehow discriminated against because the March-birthday runner was granted a time correction. “I didn’t get a time correction! I had to run the full race and have my final time submitted with no correction. This is reverse discrimination on the basis of birth date!”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hold on! Correction on "Young Black Scientist Makes History"

Correction to A Young Black Scientist Making History! - Fabienne Bastien is the first Black female astronomer to publish a first-author Nature article. I stated that she was the first Black astronomer.

I wrote my article about Fabienne Bastien after participating in an email thread with Keivan Stassun on a related topic. He mentioned that Fabienne was the first Black female astronomer to publish in Nature. I missed that key qualifier, which was totally my mistake. I should have A) carefully reread Keivan's email before rushing to post and B) done my own literature search.

Having done both now, here are some other notable examples of Black Astronomers publishing first-author papers in Nature:

Walker, A. D. M.; Greenwald, R. A.; Stuart, W. F.; Green, C. A. 1978Natur.273..646W
Basri, Gibor 2001Natur.411..145B
Basri, Gibor 2004Natur.430...24B
Marchis et al. 2005Natur.436..822M
Marchis et al. 2006Natur.439..565M

I apologize for this oversight, particularly to Franck, Gibor and the late Art Walker. I promise to blog more responsibly in the future. I make no excuse for my error, but I don't think it takes away from the greater points of my post. Thanks to Kyle for questioning my accuracy in the comments area!


This is kinda what a hydrogen atom looks like. Well, not really. The electron actually occupies a quantum probability cloud. But you get the idea. It is small.
In comparison to an atom, the Earth is positively HUGE. There are roughly $10^{50}$ atoms in the Earth. You probably understand this comparison.
The Earth orbits the Sun along with several other planets. Here's a view of the Earth from Saturn. The Earth is that tiny blue dot in the distance. 
The Sun is one of about 200 billion stars in our Galaxy.
Our galaxy is one of about 100 billion galaxies in the universe.
The Universe is about $10^{19}$ times bigger than the Earth. This number is 100 times larger than the Earth-atom comparison. All of my worries and problems are on the Earth, which is nothing compared to the Universe.

Yet my telescope proposal deadline still seems HUGELY IMPORTANT!

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Young Black Scientist Making History!

See correction here (posted 10:45AM EDT Sept, 3)

In the most recent volume of Nature---a high-impact, highly selective general-science journal---there is the usual collection of cutting-edge research articles. There's an article about an ancient ice shell on Saturn's moon Titan. There's another about the genetic sequencing of yeast.

Planetary science and genetics are interesting, but one article in particular really stood out to this astronomer. Its title is An observational correlation between stellar brightness variations and surface gravity (Bastien, Stassun, Basri & Pepper 2013, Nature 500, pp. 427-430). The novel and impactful scientific result is an empirical link between the bulk photometric variability of stars to their surface gravity, a key stellar property previously only measurable from high-resolution spectroscopy or extremely difficult asteroseismic observations. Bastien and collaborators coin the term "flicker" to describe the root-mean-square variability of stellar brightness on 8-hour time scales. Stars with low surface gravity are bigger and "fluffier" and when convective bubbles in their interiors rise and hit their atmospheres, they oscillate with large amplitudes (large flicker). Thus, flicker and surface gravity are related (see figure below). If you can measure a star's flicker, you can measure it's surface gravity.

This finding has some important implications for my own research, and it's yet another groundbreaking result to come out of the NASA Kepler Mission. For an excellent review of the science, check out Chris Faesi's Astrobites article, or the associated Nature News & Views article by Christensen-Dalsgaard (behind a paywall).
"Money plot" from Bastien et al. showing the (anti-)correlation between stellar variability on 8-hour time scales (x-axis) and stellar surface gravity (y-axis). This is enormously valuable for measuring stellar properties. [note that I modified the plot annotations for non-astronomers.]
However, the Bastien et al. paper is huge for another reason. The lead author, Fabienne Bastien, is the first Black female astronomer to ever publish a first-author Nature article (Bolded word added per my correction on my previous claim that she was the first Black astronomer to do this. At least three Black men have done so.). This fact highlights a couple things, one somewhat negative and one positive. On the negative side, why the hell is this record being set in 2013 and not 1985?! It's a commentary on the sad state of diversity (or the lack thereof) in astronomy. As I've written before, it's my goal to see to it that we, as a community, quickly tuck these sorts of records away post haste and move into a future in which there are more than 0.5 Black astro Ph.D.s per year and more than 11 total black astronomy professors in a community of thousands.

Fabienne Bastien, a stellar
Black stellar astrophysicist!
On the positive side, we are making progress on this front. Fabienne is a student in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, run by Prof. Keivan Stassun, and there are more outstanding young astronomers who will be following in Fabienne's footsteps in the near future. The program is a partnership between the HBCU Fisk University and Vanderbilt in which students start by pursuing their Masters degrees at Fisk and then work on their Ph.D. at Vanderbilt. Fabienne will be on the job market this Fall applying for postdoctoral positions, and based on her impressive publication record and standing within the stellar astro community I predict that she'll be lighting up the Rumor Mill next Spring. For those of you in the Boston area, Fabienne will be giving an SSP Seminar talk at the CfA Monday Sept. 16 at 4pm, and visiting Harvard that week.

Also encouraging is that Harvard astronomy admitted a black student into their graduate program this year---the first in ~30 years---and I am looking forward to mentoring him while he's here. Keep an eye on the Harvard astro program as I, and others, work to build a more diverse community and usher in a long awaited sea change in this field. It's my feeling that game-changers like Fabienne and Gibor Basri (her coauthor) are born each year in the Black community. We astronomers do a disservice to our science by not seeking them out, training them and welcoming them into our discipline. It behooves us all to increase inclusion so as to hasten our understanding of the Universe (more minds, more progress) and give back to the greater society, at whose pleasure we serve and study (Black folks fund the NSF and NASA, too).

Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey with Cream of the Planet

The mathematic, asiatic, black magic, rap captains stay active free captives
Baby what's happening?
Listen, life is fantastic
Beautiful and tragic
Plain, classic
Long as I'm alive I'mma never stop rapping