Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Student Highlight: Katy Rodriguez Wimberly

Katy Rodriguez Wimberly . Master's student at CSU Long Beach
Recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
 Next Fall: Ph.D Candidate at UC Irvine 

Katy Rodriguez Wimberly is a Master's student Currently at the  California State University, Long Beach and will be taking a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to University of California, Irvine in Fall 2016 to study galaxy evolution. She earned her BS Physics from Cal State Long Beach Where She Became an inaugural UC CSU-  Cal-Bridge Scholar.

Katy is the first in her family to Pursue a graduate degree and is a Southern California Native. Additionally, she loves astronomy outreach and conducts With underrepresented minorities, focusing on K-12 Primarily Special Needs students (including children on the Autism Spectrum and Those With Down's Syndrome).

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

Jorge:  What was your first reaction When You Learned That You won the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship?

Katy:  I dropped my phone straight up because i was so excited and screaming! It was almost surreal and still is. I first Learned I was Awarded the NSF GRF from my mentor, Dr. Mike Cooper , whos. It did not really quite in September in Until I read the email from the NSF. I cried. This was my second time and i went into Applying it only wanting to get better reviews than last year - I never even Considered whos being Awarded the fellowship! There was definitely happening lots of celebration dessert afterward.

Jorge:  Please tell me more about yourself. What's your story?

Katy:   Well, I am a non-traditional, Latin ethnicities mixed-graduate student and the first in my very large family to Pursue a graduate degree. Also, I have a pretty unique family situation - each of my five sisters are full at Least 18 years older than me. It's a little off-kilter but perfect. Our unique family dynamic has provided me with a well-rounded outlook, but on the other hand, the generational gap between my parents and me hindered my academic growth. My parents' view on women in STEM was very indicative of Their generation. As a result, my interest in STEM Wents Often undeveloped and discouraged. So, in an effort to be destructively obedient, i went in the exact opposite direction by devoting myself to the arts. 

After telling my parents I was going to study at a community college theater, They urged us strongly me to join the US Army Reserves to Provide myself a backup plan, financial stability and tuition assistance. I did so Immediately after high school. I served for 12 years all while learning and growing tremendously but, also, unknowingly got caught up in some fairly destructive habits. I am so grateful That I Realized how unhappy I was and then a Summoned the strength and courage to change almost everything about my life to really and truly start following my dreams. After a decade of smoking, I quit cold turkey, Began working out rigorously, and became a vegetarian. Sobriety was hardest to Achieve but I have now completely sober for over Been three years! Through These accomplishments, I Learned to believe in myself, to never give up, and to whos seek help. The confidence and motivation I developed in becoming a healthy, happy, goal-oriented person help me surmount Have any obstacles in my way.

Jorge:  What inspired you to Pursue a career in astronomy?

Katy: Honestly, I wanted to be Because like Captain Janewayfrom Star Trek Voyager. Having always loved space Past, When I started getting into sci-fi TV shows and Realized research was real job real people do, standing in the middle of my living room folding clothes, I Declared That I would one day be an astronomer! It Took That it was me learning a feasible career and a few good years of desperation from the desire of wanting to do something great with my life to be inspired on This path. In high school I wanted to Pursue math but was steered away from it Because my parents did not believe I would be reliable to get a job after college with a math degree. I am so grateful my ex-boyfriend That was a big nerd!

Jorge:  In your opinion, what qualities Makes your work so unique and compelling?

Katy: The research I've Begun and Will Continue with Dr. Mike Cooper at UC Irvine  Approaches the study of satellite quenching - ie, how star formation in galaxies satellite is stifled - by constraining the timescale That quenching OCCURS. My research employs Consuelo , a large dark-matter-only cosmological simulation, coupled With semi-empirical technics. Our goal is to make predictions for large surveys - Especially Those targeting Local redshifts beyond the universe, : such as  GOGREEN , Which Reaches as high redshifts z = 1.5!

I really enjoy the Ability / opportunity to combine theory and observation techniques in esta research and use simulations. It's an exciting hybrid of big data and large surveys. From my few short years in astronomy, I've noticed That there definitely Seems to be a trend towards data science techniques, interfacing theory and observation and large sky surveys. I'm ridiculously excited to be part of esta growing trend!

Jorge: As a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you Overcome These challenges?

Katy:  Honestly, I think the majority of my challenges and obstacles are mostly self-inflicted and stemmed from low self-esteem, fear and ignorance. , Although, the lack of Latina astronomers to model myself after being the first professionally and in my family to Pursue a PhD did not help. Connecting with other astronomers fighting for equity and inclusion has - been a huge help to learn about prep These issues, gain inspiration to fight them and be confident in my uniqueness. Prior to That, I just kind of resolved myself to being different, but to love my situation, always look for the silver lining and always, always preserver.

Currently a challenge I'm facing, Which is definitely unique to underrepresented minorities, is almost Constantly questioning Whether someone's negative actions are just a result of poor Their personality or of racism and / or sexism. It's a fine line and I do not want to start believing everyone is out to get me. Again, my support network Keeps saving the day. My husband is Also a mixed-ethnicities, underrepresented minority in His field (animation). He has-been instrumental in my figuring out how to define and act Appropriately That line.

Jorge:  People of color, women of Especially color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to 1 or 2 factors (specific programs, mentoring etc.) That Helped you succeed? Can you share 1 or 2 Present Ideas for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Katy: This is the Easiest question to answer: Cal-Bridge and the Physics Department at Cal State Long Beach are two of the largest external factors in my success. In a way, I'm privileged to Have grown up in diverse community in Such a SoCal, earn my bachelor's here and now continue on to graduate studies. I've almost Been sheltered from a lot of the struggle. The department at Long Beach is pretty diverse and inclusive and the professors are so supportive and truly Care About Their students. The network of mentors and peers I've built through Cal-Bridge is everything.

I feel like everyone who's It Takes Passionate about equity and inclusion to be loud and fearless about it. May we not be the majority yet but if we keep building networks, pushing for and teaching others how to mentor underrepresented minorities, we'll definitely get there. When it comes to rights issues, I'm always inspired by creative activism - Beyoncé's Formation is just amazing and I love everything the band Ozomatli does for farm-worker's rights and immigration.

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

Katy: Fight against the fear - like, every type of fear: being different, of failing, of embarrassment, of the future. If you're anything like me, you're fantastic at dreaming up the absolute worst case scenarios. Do not let it hinder you. Ability to Use That prepared for the worst but always stay hopeful and try hard anyway. Since your worst scenario probably will not happen, everything will be prepared for Easier than you!

Also, build a support network! It is scary to be any kind of underrepresented minority, Especially Because We Have so few true / great role model options. Use social media to your advantage to find your role models and supporting peers. We're out there! It really is way more empowering than you imagined to connect to other underrepresented minority astronomers. Everyone That I have connected through With Cal-Bridge and great mentors like Dr. Jorge Moreno has - been so welcoming and supportive. (Thanks for being awesome Dr. Lia Corrales and Nicole Cabrera !)   It's a confidence boost I did not even realize I needed!

Jorge  end Any words?

Katy: Yes. I can not begin to thank all my mentors enough. It Took me a while to feel confident enough to really engage With any professor I Admired and, as I wrote Earlier, Cal-Bridge and Cal State Long Beach Physics Department really broke me out of my shell. So, I am incredibly grateful for Drs. Mike Cooper , Prashanth Jaikumar , Jorge Moreno , Alexander Rudolph , Matt Povich , Tammy Smeckerdhane , James Bullock Jiyeong Gu , Galen Pickett , Chuhee Kwon and Andreas Bill . Their advice and support, many others Among, has - been literally life changing.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Student Highlight: Xzavier Flowers

Xzavier Flowers, undergraduate Astronomy and Astrophysics major at
Florida Institute of Technology and Founder and CEO of Future Astronomers.
Xzavier Flowers is a first-year undergraduate and Astronomy and Astrophysics major at Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) and a member of the National Society of Black Physicists. He has a passion for astronomy and has already demonstrated strong leadership in his community, as Vice President of his local Society of Physics Students chapter and Founding Member and Vice President of Triangle Fraternity at FIT.  In 2016, Xzavier started his own company, Future Astronomers, to "motivate and support minorities and those underrepresented in Astronomy and STEM fields." This summer, he will be conducting his first summer research experience at Princeton University's Undergraduate Summer Research Program.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being accepted to the Princeton Undergraduate Summer Research Program! How did it feel when you got word you'd be doing Astronomy research at one of the top institutions in the country?

Flowers: It felt absolutely amazing when I found out that I was accepted into the Princeton Undergraduate Summer Research Program! I was anxious about getting in or not ever since I sent in my application. A few days after the deadline I couldn't take it anymore and sent an email asking if any decisions have been made yet and Prof. Michael Strauss (the one who brought this program up to me) told me I was accepted. I couldn't stop smiling for 5 minutes. It's just so surreal that I got into this program in my first year.

Burgasser: Please tell me about yourself; what is your story?

: My name is Xzavier Flowers. I am an 18 year old African American male. I was born in Florida and moved to Louisiana where I spent most of my life living with my Mom, Dad, and older brother until the end of my Freshman year in high school. I moved to Texas with my Mom and Step-dad and finished high school in Texas (Sophomore year to Senior year). During my senior year I applied for Florida Institute of Technology where I was accepted into the Astronomy and Astrophysics department and this is where I currently am now.

Burgasser: Who or what inspired you to pursue a major - and future career - in astronomy?

It's kind of funny how my interest in astronomy started. For starters, I've always been interested in the sky and wondered what was out there. Since I was little I had this overwhelming feeling that there is other life out there and that we will meet them; I actually think I'll have an encounter with them in my lifetime (now that I am older I wonder if it's even best that we contact alien life the way we are now but I digress). So it was my sophomore year at Lancaster High School (the school I moved to in Texas) and my biology teacher told the class that there was a NASA Space Design Competition that our school was competing in for the first time and was asking people to sign up if they were interested. This was before I wanted to be an astronomer but I thought, "Hey, it's NASA why not?" and signed up. Only about 10-13 people were picked and I fortunately was one of them. That NASA experience to me is kind of the first real push for me heading down this astronomy path. During the competition I met awesome people who I am still friends with to date and it was so cool to get to work on a project with complete strangers and to have 24 hours to create a working proposal. The project was to design a space station that orbited either Earth or the Moon (I forget) in 2033 and it had to be structurally sound, living and cost efficient, appropriately designed, etc. And it was just a lot of fun to work on. After I came back from that I had a real interest in STEM, and I learned about myself that I wanted to do something along those lines, and I saw my grades start to go up and each year they got better and better until my senior year where I made straight A's for the first time in my life. I was one of two of the only people in my class to have straight A's that year. 

Shortly after I came back from the NASA trip, my sophomore year, I was talking to my step dad about Ancient Aliens every night because we both are big believers in aliens. One day I was watching the show and I saw someone come on, his name was Hakeem Oluseyi and he was an African American male on the show so that really caught my interest. It said Astrophysicist at Florida Institute of Technology and I was was like "What is astrophysics and what is Florida Institute of Technology?". I quickly did research on both of these things and unexpectedly found my destiny. I fell in love with space and realized that if I could do one thing for the rest of my life that made me happy no matter about salary or job availability, it would be to learn and study space. This is what finally lead me to pursue astronomy. Seeing that Dr. Oluseyi taught at Florida Institute of Technology made me look into the school and decide that I loved it and wanted to attend there. It was perfect to me: It was in Florida where I always said I wanted to return one day, it had an amazing Space Science program which is what I was passionate about, it was close to NASA, and it was next to the beach; what more could I ask for?

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How did you overcome them?

Flowers: I have never really thought of myself as "naturally gifted" in areas, whether it be sports or school. I have always had to work hard for my success. Coming into college I was intimidated and terrified that I was not good enough. I didn't think I deserved to be here and I wondered if they made a mistake in letting me in. I often thought to myself, "There's no way you're smart enough to be here. Look how smart everyone else is; can you even handle the level of work you're going to be getting here?". Thinking you're not good enough is definitely something hard to overcome, especially when you think you were not properly prepared from high school. I have to admit that it was hard my first semester academically. I was not doing as well as I wanted to do around midterms and I remember calling my parents and crying because I felt like a failure. They just reminded me that I'm a fighter and this isn't a new situation for me, that I am often backed against a wall and I always give it my all and overcome my problems with my determination and hard work. They were right. During midterms I had a D and a C and the rest As and Bs. I finished that semester with all As and Bs and a 3.5 GPA. This happened because I started seeking help in the things I was struggling with; it was initially hard to admit that I needed help. This happened in the form of having my friends teach me, going to office hours (highly recommended), looking over the textbook, and taking sample quizzes online for extra practice.  

A clear answer to this question is that I feel that thinking I wasn't good enough and not putting in the necessary effort to succeed were initial problems that I faced. I overcame these with the boost of encouragement I got from my parents and peers that I could do it and realizing that I could myself, and then making the effort to succeed and give it my all.

Burgasser: I was really excited when I learned you'd started your own company, Future Astronomers. Tell us a little about that.

Flowers: Future Astronomers is a company I started, with the help of my parents, about 2 months ago (started in February). The intent of this company is to inspire the younger generation who show interest in having careers in STEM. What I would like to do is go around and speak to elementary, middle school, and high school students, also other undergraduates. Some of the things I want to do is offer advice and tips that I have found to work for me, share my story and experiences thus far on my path, keep  their passion fueled and ignited so that they have the will to keep going, and also just be there for them as an outlet and/or mentor if they choose to see me as that. Someone once described what I was doing as being a role model for others and I don't see a problem with that. I feel that it is important for people to have a constant reminder that they can achieve their dreams, no matter what their race/ethnicity or background is. Future Astronomers focuses on minorities and underrepresented people (such as women) because I feel that there is a strong need for people in these categories in Astronomy and Science/Engineering fields.

Xzavier showing off a Future Astronomers T-shirt (available for purchase!)

Burgasser: As a Future Astronomer yourself, what astronomical research do you find most exciting? 

Flowers: Without a doubt my favorite area in astronomy is Extra-solar Planets, a.k.a. Exoplanets. This has been my most passionate area ever since I realized what an astronomer was. I think, in fact I am sure, that it ties back to my strong belief in alien life. Like I said, I feel that one day I will meet alien life and what better way than to find the planet that harbors this extraterrestrial life. At least that is how it started. Now I'm interested in exoplanets for more reasons. I love the fact that we have advanced so far in civilization that we can now detect other planets outside of our solar system. The idea of that is amazing and sounds far-fetched but it's entirely true. One day I believe we'll have the technology and knowledge to intensely study these planets and see what their conditions are truly like. This is great to me because we have a chance to learn more about the formation of planets and more about ourselves and Earth. Why are we different? Why haven't we detected life already? Are there other planets identical to Earth that have lifeforms on it? Is someone studying us right now? Questions like these can be answered with astronomy and I absolutely love that.

Burgasser: What do you see as the future of astronomy?

Flowers: As far as advancements, I see astronomy continuing to make great strides in discoveries and uncovering new things in the upcoming years. I see a time where there is more diversity and fairness in the field. I see people of all different types of nationalities, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and religious and political beliefs, coming together and contributing to astronomy. I hope we get to a point where no one is discouraged from astronomy because it is such a wonderful topic that anyone can contribute make great advancements from their own way of approaching problems and seeing things.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Flowers: In order to make astronomy more equitable and inclusive, people are going to have to start seeing the bigger picture and truly understanding why they're doing what they are doing. To me, and I think for others, astronomy is a way to go beyond ourselves and really make impacts on a larger scale, something bigger than ourselves. With astronomy, people are all asking the same questions no matter who you are. We all want to know why things are the way they are and how'd it get like that and what will happen in the future. Those who leave certain groups of people out of this overall mission of astronomy because of their personal judgments and discrimination, have failed in implementing the unity astronomy brings to society.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to high school and undergraduate students of color interested in following your path?

Flowers: The advice I'd give to high school and undergraduates is to follow your dreams! Astronomy needs you! There are some many different pathways to become a successful astronomer that I don't see a reason that someone can't do it. Yes, it will be extremely hard and sometimes you'll want to quit, but when you start to feel like it is too much that's when you seek the comfort of others going through, or who have been through, what you're experiencing. This can be from other students in your class/major, professors, colleagues met through conferences, or anyone else you've met in the field. Most times then not people will be glad to help you because they needed help at one point in their journey. Also, remember why it is you picked this career choice in the first place. Remember what made you fall in love with astronomy and remind yourself of that every now and then.

Another big thing I'd say is to practice the fine art of networking. It is perhaps the most important skill you can learn as an astronomer, or just in life generally. Networking has lead me to connecting to an array of wonderful people that I can call on for advice or information at anytime. Don't be afraid to "cold-email random astronomers" as Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz puts it! It is a great way to meet people and to get yourself out there in the community.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Flowers: I'd like to note that there is no way I'd be where I am by myself. There are so many people to thank that you could probably write a whole different article of me just thanking the people who have supported me. Most importantly I have to thank God for blessing me with my life and my friends and family. I appreciate everything my parents do for me and all of the sacrifices they make for me so that I can chase my dreams. I'd also like to take the time and thank some of the many people who have adopted a mentor role over me and have helped me along my journey such as: Jim Christensen (work at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and does outreach programs with elementary children), Prof. C. Renee James (Sam Houston State University), Prof. John Johnson (Harvard), Prof. Sylvester Gates (University of Maryland), Prof. Darin Ragozzine (Florida Institute of Technology), and many many more. 

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).