Friday, February 19, 2016

Student highlight: Amy Steele

Amy Steele (PhD Candidate, UMPC)
Hon. Mention, 2016 Chambliss Award

Meet Amy Steele. Amy is the recipient of an honorable mention for the 2016 Chambliss Prize, for her work on modeling debris disks resolved at millimeter wavelengths. She is currently a second-year graduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP), working with Dr. Aki Roberge at NASA Goddard. She previously received a BA from Williams College, and an MA in astronomy from Wesleyan University, where she worked with Dr. Meredith Hughes. Her first first-author paper on debris disks is available here. After getting her PhD, Amy hopes to continue pursuing original research in the field of circumstellar disks.

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (jorgemoreno AT if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

Moreno: What was your reaction when you first learned that you received an honorable mention for the 2016 Chambliss Prize?

Amy: I read the email twice, did a little dance, and then started telling people. Yes, I thought, “So close! [to the medal],” but I think making the list is still a great accomplishment, especially as a grad student. I was also thrilled to see the names of so many other young black women!

Moreno: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?

Amy: I am a first-generation American, first of my siblings to get a Bachelors degree, and first in my family to get an advanced degree. My parents are from Grenada and came to states in the 80s. I grew up in Florida, got my Bachelors from Williams, worked in Texas as an astronomy lab supervisor for three years. After that, I obtained an MA in astronomy at Wesleyan, and I am now at the University of Maryland.

Moreno: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Amy: My fifth grade teacher blew my mind by teaching me that the Sun is a star, like the ones I can see at night -- and that I live on a planet speeding around that star, and that there were 8 others in our system (this was the early 90s). The oddness of it sank in and I could not think of anything else. My amazing parents were extremely supportive of my newfound interest and supplied me with books and a telescope for Christmas. I have been stuck since then.

Moreno: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?

Amy: I am a very persistent (borderline stubborn) person, and I like to challenge myself. I find that I can channel this persistence into my work, problem solving, and coding. It sometimes makes for a slow race, but I finish with a deeper understanding of the course. In terms of my current work, I have plans to write a generalized Monte Carlo Markov Chain (MCMC) disk modeling code to handle ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array) continuum datasets. 

Moreno: As a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Amy: We all face challenges of some sort everyday. I will share specific experiences with the hope that someone reading this can see that it is possible to move forward and remain hopeful. 

[Trigger warning]
My education up until college was fairly mixed in terms of ethnicity, though I was usually the only black person in my classes. I felt ostracized by most students and was frequently teased (e.g., being called an “oreo” and on one occasion, a n*gger in class). There was also the constant demand for me to prove my knowledge in general settings, which was initially fun. My view quickly changed, however when I realized that it was not a game.

As an undergrad, I did not know which classes I should take, who I should try to work with, what programs to apply for, etc. I relied on the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship (MMUF) to teach me what getting a PhD entails, though it came too late to help with the timing of astronomy REUs.

Lastly, I have been dealing with micro-aggressions in academia from my peers and people in positions of power for more than a decade. Examples include having professors tell me that I should try an easier major, having a classmate verbally rank my class to my face—placing me at the bottom of that list without knowledge of my grades, and having a professor ask me how I expect anyone to respect me while in my supervisory role.

Getting past these experiences is rarely easy, but it is doable! I choose not to hold on to the negativity. Finding people who care about these issues and are willing to listen and act is also extremely helpful and encouraging. The University of Maryland is doing a great job at promoting awareness.

Moreno: People of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to 1 or 2 factors (specific programs, mentoring etc.) that helped you succeed?

Amy: A number of the programs that I have seen emerge in the past few years did not exist when I was an undergrad. What I found helpful was my Mellon Mays fellowship (MMUF), and more recently, the Masters program at Wesleyan University. I was lucky enough to be advised and mentored by Meredith Hughes. She is a fountain of kindness, knowledge, patience, and support. I have collected other mentors over the years (Olga Beaver, Molly Magavern, and Jay Pasachoff), and am ever grateful for their encouragement. There are others, and I also thank them for their support.

Additionally, I think that a bridge program would have been a great experience and useful had I not gone to Wesleyan.

Moreno: Can you also share 1 or 2 ideas for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Amy: In my experience, the repeat offenders of sexist actions, racist comments, and/or micro-aggressive actions often think they are incapable of such behavior. Additionally, I have noticed that people, who express thoughts such as those mentioned above, are frequently oblivious to how those thoughts are interpreted by the affected party.  Such comments/actions tend to affect people disproportionately due to their personal, and usually unknown experiences.

Increasing the awareness and mindfulness of everyone in the field will hopefully lead to a more supportive and collaborative environment.

Moreno: What advice would you give to other young women of color interested in following your path?

Amy: (1) Getting a PhD is not a race and there is no one set, or correct way to go about it. (2) Believe in and promote yourself! (3) Take time to be happy (I have recently taken up bouldering, and love to knit and dance). (4) Ask for help when you need it.

Moreno: Any final words?

Amy: Thank you for reading a bit of my story. Take care and be happy!

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. He is also a member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

No comments:

Post a Comment