Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Student Highlight: Ivanna Escala

Ivanna Escala, graduate student at Caltech
Award recipient at the 2015 CAMP Symposium
Ivanna Escala is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Caltech, working on galactic chemical evolution in the Local Group. A first-generation US citizen of Costa Rican and Argentinian descent, and the first in her family to attend college, Ivanna earned her Bachelor's of Science in Physics from UC San Diego in 2015, graduating at the top of her class, and was awarded the Physical Sciences Dean’s Undergraduate Award for Excellence. She was active in her Undergraduate Women in Physics group, contributing to UCSD's winning proposal to host one of this year's APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. She has also led workshops for her peers on applying to graduate school and Python programming, and enjoys community outreach.

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.

Burgasser: How did it feel to get into one of the top graduate programs in Astronomy?

Escala: It felt surreal. I never considered myself to be part of the group of people that could get into a top program. When I was accepted into Caltech, I didn’t even realize what was happening. They were comparatively late to respond, so I already thought that I had been rejected without notice, which wasn’t too hard to convince myself of since I thought I had thrown a hundred dollars out the window by applying at all. The astronomy option representative requested a meeting over Skype with me, and I prepared for it as if it was an interview – so when I was told that I was accepted, I was quite pleasantly surprised!

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

Escala: I’m a half Costa Rican, half Argentinian first-generation American. When my mother knew that I was on the way, she decided to move to the United States in hope that I would have a better life here. I’m very grateful for the difficult decision that she made, because otherwise I do not think that I would be where I am today. When my family immigrated to the U.S., we ended up in New Jersey, where I spent most of my life. I went to high school in San Diego, then got my Bachelors in physics from UCSD. I feel as if somehow I stumbled into university on accident, since I never really thought about it during high school and had no idea what I was doing when I finally decided I should apply. I am the first in my family to go to college, and it seems that I will be the first to get a PhD as well!

Burgasser: What inspired you to pursue a career in astrophysics?

Escala: I’ve loved astrophysics since I was a child. I used to watch documentaries on the Discovery channel about space and have my mother take me to the library, where I would check out nonfiction books about the universe.  Once I even got my uncle to take me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where I went to the planetarium, got to see cool meteors, and ate a cookie that looked like Jupiter! In high school, my physics teacher, who encouraged me to take AP Physics, had a big influence on my life. Although I had always been skilled at mathematics, it wasn’t until then that I realized I could do physics. Given my childhood, it only seemed natural to declare as a physics with specialization in astrophysics major when entering university! I couldn’t think of anything more worth studying than the universe itself.

Burgasser: What makes working in Astronomy unique and compelling?

Escala: One of my favorite things about working in astrophysics is the independence. The sense of ownership over a project – of learning all the relevant background, diving into the problem, writing your own code to perform the analysis, presenting your work to the scientific community -- contributes to a great sense of accomplishment. I can honestly say that I learn something new everyday. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that by sitting at my computer all day, I’m working toward contributing to humanity’s knowledge of the universe. What could be more awesome?

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Escala: The challenges that I’ve faced boil down to a lack of guidance and support, low self-esteem as a scientist, and a little bit of outright sexism. All are likely a consequence of my background, so the three things seem to go hand-in-hand. I had no guidance from my family, who could not provide it due to a similar lack of experience. Going to college was never something that was emphasized or talked about – my parents never saved to fund my education. I found out everything I needed to know about applying to university (and somewhat similarly for grad school) from the internet. When I was accepted into UCSD, a classmate of mine expressed surprise, saying that it was only probably because I was a Hispanic female. I remember thinking that person was probably right.

It was difficult; I often felt lost and out of my depth, and doubted if I belonged in physics. I struggled with the fact that I was feminine in a male-dominated field. But it gives me comfort to know that I am entirely self-motivated, and ultimately I know that I got myself where I am today and I deserve to be here. I know that I can succeed, because I can always count on myself and I got here on my own merits.

Even today, I sometimes find it difficult to identify with other graduate students at Caltech, due to our differing backgrounds. It’s hard not to compare yourself to someone who has been groomed for academia since middle school or who has a family filled with doctors, engineers, and scientists. But it’s important to remember that everyone is born into different circumstances, and there really is no legitimate comparison between you and someone else. I just always try to do the best that I can, and not seek validation as a scientist through others.

Burgasser: As you have personally observed, people of color - especially women of color - are severely under-represented and face social barriers in our field. Can you point to one or two factors (specific programs, individual mentors, etc.) that have helped you succeed? 

Escala: Mentorship has been extremely important in my life. I am very fortunate to have had supportive and kind research advisors as an undergraduate. I can say with certainty that I would not be where I am today without them. In particular, my research advisor at UCSD helped me prove to myself that I could become a successful scientist. He encouraged me to apply to Caltech, even though I honestly thought that I didn’t have a chance. Look at where I am now! I hope that one day I will be able to do the same for someone else as a mentor.

Burgasser: I'm sure you are aware of the sexual harassment by faculty at many of our top Astronomy programs, including Caltech; how are you approaching these issues as a promising young woman in science?

Escala: I’m definitely aware of the Title IX issues within astronomy. Unfortunately, I’m certain that these issues have a long history, and are only now beginning to be appropriately addressed. I think one of the best ways to approach this issue as a woman is to not let it be discouraging – pursue your career in astronomy just as vigorously, if not even more so, because having a larger female presence within the field is something that will help resolve this issue. It is important to work to maintain a supportive graduate student community within your program, so that anyone who is subjected to harassment does not feel isolated. A tight-knit graduate community has a strong voice that can be heard by the faculty and the administration, and thus we have power to bring attention to these issues and call for change.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Escala: I think that raising awareness and having a line of communication open between students and faculty is essential to making the field more inclusive. Often times, others do not know that a problem even exists, either because of a lack of communication, or because they are incapable of seeing the problem in the first place. Programs that emphasize the advancement of groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM by providing them with a supportive network and access to information/opportunities, such as the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP), are an excellent way to combat the bias that has been entrenched in our society. As people from diverse backgrounds occupy more and more high-ranking positions in the field, racism/sexism will likely become less of an issue.

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

Escala: Do not give up. Know that you are not alone, even if you may feel that way within your department. I would bet that other women of color have felt almost exactly the same things that you have—it has nothing to do with any fault of your own. Your success is not just your own. The path before you may be difficult, but by walking it you remove some of those difficulties for the women that will follow you.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Escala: Thank you for taking the time to read this! I hope that this has been helpful.

1 comment:

  1. This is extremely inspiring! Keep up the fantastic work, you intelligent goddess of science!!