Thursday, September 29, 2016

Faculty Highlight: Aomawa Shields

Dr. Aomawa Shields is an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Irvine, UCLA, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  She studies the possible climates and potential habitability of extrasolar planets orbiting low-mass stars. She did her undergraduate work in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, has an MFA in Acting from UCLA, and completed her PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology at the University of Washington in 2014. Aomawa is a 2015 TED Fellow, and her TED talk “How We’ll Find Life on Other Planets” has over 1.4 million views. As of June 30, Aomawa is now a tenure-track faculty member in the department of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine (on leave until July 1, 2017). Aomawa is Founder and Director of Rising Stargirls, an organization that engages middle-school girls from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences in astronomy and astrobiology learning using theater, writing, and visual art.

Jillian Bellovary*I keep hearing about this planet Kepler-62f.  What's so special about it?

Aomawa ShieldsKepler-62f is one of the smallest potentially habitable planets found so far. It’s only 40% larger than the Earth, and it orbits a K-dwarf star (a little smaller and cooler than the Sun) at a distance such that it lies in its host star’s habitable zone – the region around a star where a planet could be warm enough to keep water in liquid form on its surface. I became interested in this planet in graduate school when one of my professors and mentors, Eric Agol, who had recently discovered Kepler-62f asked if I wanted to work on it. Um, YES! That answer took me about a millisecond.
 Jillian: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?

Aomawa:   Finding an exoplanet is such an exciting moment for scientists and for the public. Especially when that planet is found orbiting in its star’s habitable zone. But it’s really only the first step on the road to determining whether a planet might be habitable like the Earth. Just because a planet could have liquid water on its surface doesn’t mean that it does. There are many factors besides orbital distance that control a planet’s climate, and whether it could support life. That’s where my work comes in. There are a ton of factors and processes that are currently unconstrained, and for which observations are still limited regarding the smaller planets that have been found and will continue to be found. Those factors – composition of the planet’s atmosphere, the eccentricity and obliquity of its orbit, the planet’s rotation rate – all of these and much more will affect climate, seasonality, and atmospheric circulation. An atmosphere in particular is one of the most important requirements for a stable climate. Without our atmosphere, the Earth would be completely frozen. Given that we won’t have infinite telescope time to follow up on every single potentially habitable planet to look for signs of life, we’ll need to generate a prioritized target list of the planets that are deemed “most likely to be habitable” over the widest possible range of conditions and factors. My work and those of others in my subfield of Exoplanet Climatology, using theoretical computer models to explore the parameter space of these factors and processes and their impact on climate and surface habitability, will help generate that list.

Jillian: Please tell us about yourself.  What's your story?

Aomawa:   Goodness, how much space do I get? I have two great loves, other than my husband: Astronomy and Acting. I’m originally from Berkeley, CA, but I’ve also lived in La Jolla, CA, Victoria, BC in Canada, Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, Amherst, MA, and other places for school. I went to Phillips Exeter Academy, and am really proud of that. That was the first place I learned that I could do anything—act in a play, proctor an observatory, play in a chamber orchestra—and that was just fine. I wanted to go to MIT since I was 12 and decided I was going to be an astronaut and an astronomer. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for one year of a PhD program in astrophysics, then left and got an MFA in Acting from UCLA, because I couldn’t stop thinking about movies while everyone else was working on problem sets. I was an actor for a long time, and had a lot of jobs. I had a long-term temp job pulling staples out if paper music publishing contracts so they could be scanned. That was a humbling job. But it paid the bills. I also acted in a movie that went to Sundance and was on the Top Ten films list Ebert and Roeper put together in 2005. And I anchored the pilot episode of a science TV show for PBS called Wired Science. I was a Helpdesk Operator and then a scheduler for the Spitzer Space Telescope. I realized I wanted what all the astronomers whose programs I was modifying and scheduling on the spacecraft had—a Ph.D. I went to Italy with my husband one winter after New Year’s, and stood in front of Galileo’s tomb at Santa Croce Church in Florence. And I said to something somewhere who might be listening, “Ok. I’m willing. I’ll apply to astronomy grad schools again, damnit.” I love our mother-and-daughter cats Mama and Mimi, the beach, vacations with my husband, vinyasa yoga, personal retreats, dancing, The Walking Dead, Jamaican meat patties, and Odwalla vanilla soy protein shakes, among other delicious foods. Lobster, shrimp, and scallops make up my trifecta of holy seafood. Especially butter-poached lobster rolls, like the ones from Legal Seafoods. God. I took an art journal class while I was in grad school, and loved it. It’s really what I’ve been doing all my life, only I never called it that. Ok, I’ll stop there. A little mystery is good.

Jillian: What are your plans as a professor?

Aomawa:   My priority is to continue to do cutting-edge research assessing the impact on climate and habitability of factors that haven’t been explored and are important to the discussion, and publishing the results of that work. We’ve got some good candidates for habitable worlds now, and we’ll be finding more in the coming years, and they will be closer to us, which is great. My research group will examine these planets, simulating their potential climates using a hierarchy of different types of models. But my group isn’t only going to do research. Everyone in the group will be there because they are also interested in developing new, innovative ways to communicate science to a broad and diverse range of audiences. Folks will share research progress, give practice research talks AND practice public talks. Everyone working with me will become an excellent communicator—through their speaking and their writing—of the significance and impact of their science.  And they will have the opportunity to use these skills in support of my educational organization Rising Stargirls, which will continue to grow. I also look forward to teaching courses in astrobiology, exoplanets, and science communication at UC Irvine.

Jillian: Congratulations on being named a TED Fellow!  What's it like?

Aomawa:   It’s pretty phenomenal. Suddenly I became part of a global network of people from all around the world who are trying, through science, art, cooking, physical therapy—you name it—to change the world for the better. Giving a TED talk was a dream come true for me. But being part of the TED community didn’t stop at the TED conference in 2015. There is an entire team of people who work to get our names out in the world on a regular basis, and to find opportunities for us to widen the impact of our work. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Jillian: Who inspired you as you were pursuing your career, and how? 

Aomawa:  Growing up I loved Mae Jemison and Sally Ride. I was particularly fascinated when I learned that Sally Ride majored in Physics and English at Stanford. That stood out to me, even before I knew I was a “hyphen career” scientist-artist. Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact, and in the book before that, was also inspiring. I wanted to search for life on another planet like she did, and be chosen to travel through the wormholes to other star systems the way that she did. I also loved Carl Sagan—how brilliant he was, and creative both scientifically and in his writing for wider audiences.  And yet he was such a gentle storyteller, and accepting of different views. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Claudia Alexander, and Shirley Ann Jackson were also inspirations. And Deidre Hunter at Lowell Observatory, who I had the honor of working with on projects related to star formation in irregular galaxies in college as part of my Bachelor’s thesis. She is such an amazing researcher, and she was able to explain how to use data analysis packages like DAOPhot and IRAF on different regions of certain galaxies to me in such a patient way, which was very important as a freshman doing my first real research projects. I loved her office, and she was always warm and generous. When I wrote to her feeling discouraged about classes during my first year in an astronomy PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she told me that classes were just what you had to get through so you could get to the important stuff—the research! Later, when I came back to the field and was at the University of Washington in my second astronomy PhD program, I remembered this advice. She was absolutely right. And in between, when I was totally out of astronomy and would periodically go to New Mexico to do writing retreats with my writing teacher Natalie Goldberg (another person who has inspired me), I would stay at Deidre and her husband Phil’s place in Flagstaff, half-way between Los Angeles and Taos, NM. She made me cinnamon ice cream. She’s the absolute best.  

Jillian: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?

Aomawa:   I’ve written a lot about my experiences with Impostor Syndrome. Being an African-American female in a field dominated by white men, being a scientist who was also trained as an actor, and being an older returning student (I returned to grad school in astronomy 11 years after I left the first PhD program), I was completely set up to feel that I had to prove myself, and was terrified of failing and confirming stereotypes that existed about my race and my sex when it came to the physical sciences. My brain was so full of fear and self-doubt, it is a wonder that I was able to absorb anything related to astronomy during those early years back in grad school! But I did. No matter what I was afraid would happen regarding my academic performance, rarely did those fears actually materialize. The evidence was in stark contrast to what my head was telling me. Slowly, I began to train myself to pay attention to the evidence. I also actively pursued and surrounded myself with people who supported me and my growth, who encouraged me to see my unique background as a strength, rather than an Achilles heel. And since I love art journaling, I had all of these books of quotes and magazine images and stuff I made and carried around with me and would pull out in the middle of the quad at school and remind myself of all of the people who have shown up in the world over time despite all of the obstacles—internal and external—in their lives. I went to an orientation for women returning to school after a significant time away, and a woman there told us to buy ourselves a graduation card and sign it “Dr. ______, and keep it in our backpacks in school. I did that. Now that graduation card sits next to my computer in my office. And it’s totally realized.  

Jillian: People of color, especially women of color, are severely underrepresented in our field.  Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors, etc.) that helped you succeed?

Aomawa:   I had a large village the second time around that helped me succeed. Among them was a process group for graduate women of color that met on UW’s campus during my first two years in grad school. It was run by Dr. Michael Kane—an African-American man—and he made a space for us to just talk about what we were going through, both in school and in our personal lives. It was a place where I could be vulnerable and safe expressing what I was feeling. Also, Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success (MS PHD’S) in Earth System Science ( was amazing. That’s where I met Professor Akua Asa-Awuku, who was one of my mentors. She was the person who told me to think of my theater background as my superpower. It changed everything for me. I would email her when I was upset about something that happened during grad school, or when my impostor thoughts had been triggered yet again in some way, and she would totally talk me down off my “I’m going back to Hollywood!” ledge. I also saw a therapist in grad school, and stepped up meeting with her during my dissertation year. She was great, because she would remind me that entertaining certain negative thoughts was a choice. And I could make different choices, like choosing to listen to other parts of my brain, including parts that were wiser and more positive. I had a TON of mentors in grad school. I recently gave a talk where I had a slide full of pictures of all of the people I could remember that have helped me with one thing or another from grad school until now. These are people who had the fellowship or grant I wanted who offered their advice, read my proposals and gave feedback, answered some email question I had about career stuff, sat down with me for an hour or 15 minutes and answered my questions or comforted me in some way, or shared something particularly valuable during a colloquium visit. You were on my slide, Jillian. As a 1st year grad student, you—a 6th year—took time out of what I now understand was chaos trying to finish up, to ask me how I was and tell me my journal club talk wasn’t that bad, etc. I remember our office hugs with Amy Kimball. It meant the world. I kept thinking of more people as I was getting ready to give that talk, and I literally couldn’t fit any more on that slide. Seeing all of the faces covering other faces covering more faces was a powerful moment for me. It reminds me of how grateful I am to have had so many people supporting me and helping me succeed. I also am especially fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband who is my biggest cheerleader and fan. That fact alone means that no matter what happens with my career, I can come home and be with someone who loves me. That makes all the difference in the world, and was particularly crucial to my success in graduate school.  Having extremely supportive parents and siblings also was crucial. My mom and dad expressed often how proud they were of me and of what I was working to achieve, both when I was a struggling actor and when I was working towards my Ph.D. And I was fortunate to have a mother who had gone through a Ph.D. program herself, while raising me and my brother. Having family that understood the gravity and intensity of what I was going through, whether they could relate to it or not, was important.

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

Aomawa:   What seems crucial to me is working towards inclusivity at every stage of the pipeline, from grade school, through college, through grad school, and into the Professoriate. It isn’t just about recruitment. It’s also about retention. So what I’m working to do with my organization Rising Stargirls is to get girls in middle school, which is the age when girls start to get quiet and raise their hands less often, to embrace who they are as individuals who are interested in the universe. I want to get them to see that they can bring who they are as whole people to what they’re learning. They don’t have to become someone else when they walk into a physics or astronomy classroom. They can be themselves!  And my hope is that if they own that—who they are, along with what they’re learning—they will be able to believe that they are someone who can be a scientist. Other people are helping students of color who have chosen science as a major in college stay with it. Mentoring is essential for retention. And resources like those that helped me were essential to my success in grad school. Faculty of color also need these resources, which include writing accountability groups, faculty of color support organizations, faculty mentors and sponsors, therapists, and other safe spaces for faculty to let off steam about being the only or one of only a few faculty of color in their departments.

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

Aomawa:   Science is a team sport. Start assembling your team. Mine doesn’t even fit on a single slide anymore! But it was once only me. And that didn’t go very well. I’ve done it the wrong way, and I’ve done things very differently since then, and have seen much better results. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) is one of the best things around to support faculty, as well as postdocs and grad students. I’ve been involved with them for well over a year now, and I’m a convert. They’ve totally changed the way I work, and helped me to align my time and priorities with how I’m going to be evaluated to get to the next level. I say, “No” or, “Not now” a lot more, thanks to them. “No” is something that women of color will have to get very comfortable saying often as they progress in academia, as a survival mechanism. I make my health and well-being my top priority. I’ve seen first-hand the results when I don’t. So I make sure to get enough sleep first. Then at work, I try to stay true to my top work priorities—research and writing—before I address anyone else’s “pressing” issues. I write every day, Monday through Friday, 30-90 minutes a day. And I ask for help. A lot. If someone can’t help me or won’t, I wish them well and go ask someone else. I try not to take it personally. Everyone has their own stuff going on. I just keep asking until I get what I need. Last week I asked a former grad school officemate and classmate to help me get my code to work. She has a Masters in Computer Science in addition to her PhD in Astronomy, so she has expertise that I don’t. It would have become inefficient for me to continue to bang my head against the wall trying to get the code to work myself. The impostor, “I should know how to do this” feelings still came up a bit, but they didn’t last long. Instead, I chose to focus on the end result—my code works now! Expecting me to have expertise in every single aspect of being a scientist is unrealistic. That’s why we have colleagues, collaborators, co-authors, advisors, and mentors. Team Sport. 

Jillian: Any final words?

Aomawa:   There is No One Way to Be a Scientist. If you love it, keep working at it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not so good at something now. How hard are you willing to work to get good at it? That’s all that matters. Just keep showing up. Try your best not to judge yourself. Just show up, and put in the work. Be exactly who you are, doing the work. And make time for regular massages, or whatever brings you relaxation. Find your happy place, and visit often. 

* Jillian Bellovary is an assistant professor at Queensborough Community College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History.  She is also a member of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).