Thursday, September 14, 2017

AAS Outreach Workshop

A Workshop for Early-Career Astronomers 
Who Want to Do Better Outreach to Students & the Public

Sunday-Monday, 7-8 January 2018, in conjunction with the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, MD, near Washington, DC.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is sponsoring a skill-building workshop -- and an ongoing community -- to support early-career astronomers in doing effective outreach to schools, families, and the public. Working with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and other outreach organizations, the AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program (now in its sixth year) offers you two days of hands-on training, extensive resources, and pre-tested activities -- plus a like-minded group of peers. If you are a graduate student, postdoc, new faculty, or advanced undergraduate committed to a career in the astronomical sciences, and if you’re interested in spending a small fraction of your time helping laypersons become more scientifically literate, this is an invitation to sharpen your outreach skills and join the growing AAS Astronomy Ambassadors community.

The sixth annual AAS Astronomy Ambassadors workshop will be held on the Sunday and Monday before the start of the 231st AAS meeting, 7-8 January 2018. Participants will spend two active days learning techniques, examining selected materials, and getting to know each other and an existing community of astronomers doing and supporting outreach. There will be sessions appropriate for those who have done outreach already and for those who are just beginners. No experience is required. We especially want to encourage participation by members of groups underrepresented in science.

Workshop costs are being underwritten by the AAS Board of Trustees, so registration (for the workshop only, not for the AAS meeting), materials, and two days’ lunches are free. We can also reimburse you for up to two nights’ lodging if your attendance at the workshop requires you to travel to the meeting venue earlier than you otherwise would.

Applications are due by 19 October 2017, and applicants will be notified of their acceptance into the program before the meeting’s regular registration deadline of 2 November 2017.

For more information about the AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program, see 

For more information about the workshop and a link to the online application, see 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Statement on DACA

Dear fellow astronomers,

   Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on behalf of the POTUS, announced this administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. This program was created in 2012 by the Obama Administration to provide minimal protections for undocumented folks who arrived to this country as children. These protections include the halting of deportation, the ability to acquire a work permit, and eligibility to travel abroad. Currently, nearly 800,000 people are protected by DACA - and an estimated additional one million would also be eligible for the program if the program were to continue [1]. Today’s news are infuriating and heartbreaking, especially for those without documents or with undocumented friends and family members - many of whom are your colleagues or students in your classroom.

    Let us be clear. The rescinding of DACA is the reflection of a much bigger problem. It is amongst the many racist policies that, over the last few centuries, have primarily targeted a large fraction of the descendants of the first inhabitants of this continent (also known as ‘Indigenous-Latinx’), as well as people who were forced out of their lands as a result of colonialism and imperialism. In other words, the primary targets are Black and Brown folks from what some call the ‘Third World’, both from this continent and from other parts of the globe. Such maintenance and control of the flow of migrant workers - i.e., of the very people who, with their labor, drive the economies of the wealthiest nations on the planet - has long been an integral part of a larger system of power that is fueled by racism. As a result, millions of human beings have been denied their rights, and continue to live in fear of deportation and in a state of perpetual exclusion. Moreover, in order to maintain this economic order, it is important for those in power to enforce social and legal constructs like borders, citizenship, and immigration status. And while DACA itself was problematic - because it perpetuated the criminalization of most undocumented migrants, the glorification of having a ‘legal status’, and the attachment of human worth to being economically viable - in practice it provided hundreds of thousands of young people with means to employment, education and the ability to visit their loved ones. Overnight, all of these young people are again at risk for deportation and separation from their families. Those affected cannot plan their own future in the long term, nor cement their roots in their communities because their status is so uncertain, and because, once again, they are being forced to live in fear.

Many astronomers are educators, and thus we have interacted with DACA-protected students and families. Please extend your support to your students and colleagues who might be affected by this recent change in immigration policy. Concrete steps include:

(1) Reach out to your state representatives to support the Dream Act [2], which would offer a concrete path to citizenship for many immigrants. 

(2) Educate yourself and find ways to support compassionate, meaningful immigration reform [3,4]. This includes books, electronic media, and discussion with groups in your community.

(3) Organize meetings in your departments and institutions and brainstorm on ways to best support your students.

(4) Devote class time to discuss this situation. Empower your students, both those who might be directly affected by this decision and others. Be sure to adhere to the Inclusive Astronomy guidelines when you do this, as these difficult conversations can be extremely overwhelming for those affected. 

We, the members of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, reaffirm our unconditional solidarity and support for every astronomer, especially astronomy students of color, affected by the decision to end DACA. You belong in this country, you belong in astronomy, and you can always count on us. 

Immigrant rights are human rights! No human is illegal!

September 5th, 2017

Prof. Jorge Moreno
Dr. Lia Corrales
Dr. Keith Hawkins
Prof. Kathryne Daniel
Prof. Jillian Bellovary
Prof. Adam Burgasser
Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Charee Peters
Prof. John Asher Johnson
Prof. Kim Coble

The above signatories are private citizens exercising their constitutional right to express their personal views. This is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS and should not be construed as such.

Links and resources

Monday, August 14, 2017

Statement on Charlottesville

Dear fellow astronomers,

[Content warning: violence, racism] 

    Two days ago a group of armed white nationalists disrupted the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, with a message filled with racism and hatred. This message was accompanied with deadly acts of violence. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of the media continues to avoid calling this for what it is: white supremacist terrorism. Sadly, the POTUS failed to unambiguously reject these hate groups - many of whom inspire the very base that elected him. These instances confirm to astronomers of color that the executive may not have their safety and interest in mind.

    These acts of violence are used to cause fear amongst people of color in this country, especially Black folks. These acts are not carried out in a vacuum, but rather they are a part of centuries of orchestrated oppression -- a continuation of colonization, slavery, Jim Crow laws, extrajudicial murders by the police and mass incarceration. They are a reflection of a crisis of spirit that this country desperately needs to confront. 

    Within our field these acts hurt members who already feel isolated and excluded, including but not limited to astronomers of color, especially Black students. The mental, physical and emotional toll experienced by them is damaging to their ability to travel freely, to engage in creative scientific work, and above all, to feel truly safe at their home institutions -- especially if those institutions are over-represented by white folks and where a culture of equity and inclusion may not be exercised with intention.  For these reasons, it is critical for astronomy departments around the country and astronomers in leadership positions to do their part to ensure safety and well being.

    As members of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), we unequivocally denounce the acts of violence that took place in Charlottesville. We also resist the historical and systemic reasons that allowed such events to take place. We reject white supremacist narratives that mask hate toward people of color as “freedom of speech.” We urge all astronomers, especially white astronomers, to renew your commitment against racism[1] in our discipline and in your communities. 

    We extend our solidarity to every astronomer of color, especially Black astronomers, during these difficult times. We will continue to do everything we can to protect you and we will fight for you.


Prof. Jorge Moreno
Charee Peters, Ph.D Candidate
Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. Keith Hawkins
Prof. Kate Daniel
Prof. Jillian Bellovary
Prof. Adam Burgasser
Prof. John A. Johnson
Dr. Lia Corrales
Prof. Alyson Brooks
Prof. Kim Coble
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan

The above signatories are private citizens exercising their constitutional right to express their personal views. This is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS and should not be construed as such.

Links and resources
[1] Racism is defined as the combination of racial prejudice plus power that results in differences in life outcomes between racial groups, such that white people are systematically advantaged compared to people of color.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Interview with Myles McKay

Myles McKay is currently a Research and Instrumentation Analyst at Space Telescope Science Institute in the Instrumentation Division.  Dara Norman spoke with him in the summer of 2016 just after he had participated in the March 2016 solar eclipse over Indonesia.  At that time, Myles had just finished his undergraduate work in Physics at South Carolina State University, an Historically Black University in Orangeburg.  They spoke as he was spending the summer at the National Solar Observatory before starting his position at STScI. Dara spoke again with Myles as he prepared to participate in the upcoming solar eclipse across the US that will happen in August this year.

DJN:  You traveled to Indonesia to see the solar eclipse. Tell me what that experience was like.

MM:  From South Carolina, it was a very long trip, something like 24 hours in the air, but it was amazing when I got there:  The culture, the people, the history and being able to walk down to the shoreline to feel the breeze especially since it was crazy humid there!  We got a flight from Jakarta to a small island called Ternate where we’d view the solar eclipse.   We were in the middle of the island with a Mosque down the street that would wake us with the call to prayer at 5 in the morning.   Everyone was extremely nice and there were no bad experiences. 

DJN: So what was the eclipse like?

MM: The eclipse was amazing and I could not take any pictures to do it justice!  I can’t really describe it. I had never seen an eclipse before and to have it be a full solar eclipse was absolutely amazing!  What made it even better was that we were in a populated place, a festival in the village square, and as the eclipse started happening, we were on the hotel balcony and could see everyone getting excited, honking their horns, it was just such a great experience.

DJN: So you were on the balcony of your hotel taking the data?

MM: Yes, so the original plan was that we were suppose to go to a site in a field where other local people would be.  We were the only ones on the island taking data for the Citizen CATE project.  But my advisor and I decided it was going to be a lot more hectic there and we’d have to drag the heavy equipment all the way downstairs and set up and we had already been stuck on the elevator the second day! So we decided that the balcony was actually the perfect place to take the data.  We wouldn’t have to be interrupted by other people, we had a good sightline and we didn’t have to worry about the time for setup.  The balcony worked out perfectly.

DJN:  I talked to Matt Penn [(NSO and leader of the Citizen CATE project)] and he said that your group was one of the few that actually got good data on the eclipse.   So how many were in your group?

MM:  On the island of Ternate, just two of us, my undergraduate advisor at SCSU, Don Walter and I, but there were 4 other groups in the CATE project spread along the path of totality across Indonesia taking data.

DJN:  Did you have any good food while you were there?

MM:  Yes! We had lots of good food, although I was skeptical at first. ‘Breakfast’ food was always what I would consider ’lunch’ food so no eggs and bacon.  Usually there was chicken and little fish on a stick.  The food was very good!

DJN: What are you working on this summer at NSO?  The data from the eclipse?

MM:  We actually have a lot of projects we can work on, but the first step is calibrating the data with darks and flats.  But after that one thing I know we will move on to is a making a tutorial.   This was kind of a test so that we can write instructions for others to use the equipment for the next eclipse. Then, hopefully, we can get a lot of good data that will be easier to reduce.

DJN: Will you be involved in the 2017 solar eclipse across the US?

MM: I am trying to find a way to get back to South Carolina to help my former advisor.  I definitely plan to be there but don’t have the money yet. The plan is to get 60 sites along the path of totality to make a movie of the eclipse, which is something that hasn’t been done before. The professors and academic advisors who went to Indonesia are to be site coordinators for those states where they are located.  Then there will be amateur astronomers and others interested in the eclipse to help. So we’d provide telescopes and all the equipment needed and the detailed solar procedure will make it easier to collect good data.   We will also have training workshops to train the volunteers on assembling the telescope and operating the software.

DJN: Tell me something about yourself and how you decided to get into astronomy.

MM:  I’m from Bronx New York and of course I saw stars, but very few stars growing up.  But then my mom decided to move us to upstate New York and that is when I finally did see some stars, but that was not when I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.   I really got into astronomy when I was in my physics class in high school.  It was because the class got into a big debate because our teacher gave us a test where all the answers were yes and then there was one question that no one was sure about. The question was, is there gravity outside the Earth’s atmosphere?  I thought yeah there has to be… see the moon, duh! But everyone was against me, debating me.  I held my ground though and the teacher eventually pointed out that I was right!  But I didn’t know a lot about it, and I wanted to know more, like what about gravity around the sun, and more about the Universe in general.  That made me think this was something that I might want to do as a career because up until then I had not been really interested in anything.  The teacher actually gave me an award for my academic performance in the class. It was one of the first awards I got in high school and that was one of the high points in my life at the time.  After that point, I really wanted to do astronomy.

When I got into college, granted there were only about 3 astronomers in the physics department but that was more astronomers than I had ever met in my life.   They told me all about their research and my adviser turned me onto all these amazing opportunities, such as internships and research projects.  These experiences made me into the astronomer I am today!

DJN: You’re doing a solar project now, but you told me your real interest is in galaxies and galaxy evolution, so why have you been interested in that?

MM: That interest came from being at the National RadioAstronomy Observatory working with Sabrina Stierwalt and Kartik Sheth in the NAC program.  The goal of the project was to measure the metallicites of gas rich dwarf galaxies to understand why these galaxies have low start formation when they have the “ingredients ” for star formation. When I was doing that project I got to make amazing pictures of the galaxies, for one thing, but I just wanted to know more and more about these galaxies I was working on.   Before that most of my research had been on stellar topics like measuring light curves of variable stars and studying the magnetic activity of ultracool dwarfs, but it didn’t excite me the way working on galaxies did.  Plus within working on galaxies there are so many interesting areas of research, like AGN, or galaxy mergers… there just seemed like endless possibilities. 

DJN: As a person-of-color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career and how have you over come these?

MM: As a African American I was always told that I have to work twice as hard as my white counterparts.  I went to an HBCU and the department was very small. There were very few students and in the upper level classes, I had to take a few classes by myself.  It was tough to get through the classes AND to get as much as I could out of the classes.  This made me question myself, you know, sometimes you wonder if you are as smart as everyone else because you don’t really know what you got out of those classes and how it compares to everyone else. This really affected me when going to conferences because there is a very small percentage of people-of-color in this field and this made me question if I could actually compete in this field with my background and lack of resources.  Those were struggles, but I had the attitude that if someone else can do it, I definitely can do it.  I am very ambitious and my attitude was always, it is cool you know this, but I will probably know more by the end.   I stuck with my studies, took advantage of mentors and opportunities and continued to gain knowledge of the subject.   I also try to always appreciate myself, and the people who are around me.   I don’t spend time looking at what I don’t have.

DJN:  How about your family?  What so they think?

MM:  My older sister’s in Chemistry and I’m in Physics and my family loves it!  I also have two younger brothers and I try to be a good role model for them.

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

MM: Don’t get discouraged! Others may seem smarter, but everyone is smart in there own way so just because you are the one in a few does not make you less knowledgeable than everyone else.  And when you get to an advanced level yourself, give back and mentor the ones who are trying to come up.  Keep the idea of each one, teach one.  Also, find Black astronomers, there are some around.  Join the group!   Finally, be proud of the culture that you come from!

Myles will be at the participating in the CATE project this August 21 during the solar eclipse across the US.   He has been involved in training multiple groups across South Carolina in the use of the equipment to take data on the eclipse.  He’ll be in Orangeburg, SC with his former advisor on the campus of South Carolina State University, telescope and eclipse equipment in hand!

Friday, July 28, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Jonathon Brown

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This is the sixth and final scholar spotlight of 2017.  This week, our TAURUS director, Caitlin Casey, sat down with her mentee in the TAURUS program, Jonathon Brown, a rising junior at MIT majoring in physics, about his journey and interest in astronomy in astrophysics. Jonathon is working with Prof. Casey on understanding the physical nature of candidate galaxy clusters identified by the Planck satellite.

CC: Tell us a bit about yourself.  What’s your story?

JB: Hi, my name is Jonathon and I grew up in Monroe, Michigan, which is between Toledo and Detroit.  I lived in Tennessee for seven years as a kid, but moved back to Michigan when I was seven.  I have two younger sisters who are now 16 and 19.  My family has had a difficult time dealing with the death of my father when I was a junior in high school, but we’re trying to persevere through that.  I’ve been at MIT for two years now studying physics.

CC: What draws you to science and inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy (or physics)?

JB:  I’ve always been interested in astronomy, often looking up at the stars as a kid and wondering how they work and where they come from.  As I progressed through school I realized that I had an affinity for math and science.  It just made sense to me!  I started to ask myself questions about how things work, why they move a certain way, and what the math and science was behind it.  After learning some calculus, everything started to make sense and I found that really eye-opening.  I decided I wanted to know more about how things came to be, so that’s how I chose to study physics.

CC: What are you most proud of?

JB: To be honest, probably getting to MIT.  I know that having a degree from MIT will open up doors I never knew of before; I’ll have quite a few opportunities I wouldn’t have had before, especially as a first-generation college student.  It’s also important for me to be a role model to my sisters, showing them that we can change our lives, and things don’t always have to be the way they might have been in the past. 

CC: What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve faced as an undergraduate?  What have you learned from that challenge?

JB: Hardest thing for me has been coming to terms with how people change, especially in the context of dealing with family tragedy.  My dad’s death has been hard on everyone and it has changed my family’s dynamics in a way that has been difficult to deal with during college.  Juggling my studies with that dynamic has been difficult.  Sometimes my peers will say “let’s try to get through this homework set,” but my mind will be elsewhere.  I feel as though I always have to perform really well, despite dealing with extra pressures in my life that some of the other students don’t have.  It’s a challenge.

CC: Have you learned anything from these challenges that could be helpful to other students in similar positions?

JB: Always take care of yourself first.  It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re worried about something else happening in your life, but ultimately you’re in charge of you.  Eat right, get sleep, and seek out help when you need it.  Don’t let the things you can control slip away.

CC: What mentors, teachers or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?

JB:  My dad was a major role model for me.  He taught me quite a lot and was always very supportive in my learning.  Some of my teachers in high school were also very encouraging and pushed me to be more ambitious with my college plans, shifting focus first from community colleges to state universities, and dream colleges like MIT.  And now I’m there.  At MIT, one mentor of mine, who is a staff researcher, has been helping me figure out what I might like to pursue for research.  I really appreciate his effort to help me navigate my time as an undergraduate. 

CC: Where to next?  Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?

JB:  I’m eager to finish up my undergraduate degree at MIT and pursue graduate school in either astronomy or astrophysics, general physics, or Earth and planetary science.  I’m not sure which yet, though.  Going through an experience like TAURUS has been helpful to get exposure to research.  I’ve realized sometimes I struggle too much independently and I’m reserved about asking for help, but I see now that that’s a natural part about learning how to do research.  I’m learning a lot of python and getting a good idea of what doing astronomy research is like, which I’m eager to pursue in graduate school.

CC: Any advice for students who might like to participate in the TAURUS program in the future?

JB: Definitely apply! You won’t know what research feels like unless you come here.  More generally, I encourage you to reach out to people in the field and let them know what your interests are and seek out lots of advice.

Monday, July 24, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Aldo Sepulveda

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This week’s TAURUS interview is with Aldo Sepulveda, an undergraduate student from the University of Texas San Antonio.  Aldo is working with Dr. Brendan Bowler to determine the orbits and host star masses of directly imaged exoplanets.

BB: Can you talk how you first became interested in physics and astronomy?

AS: I’ve always enjoyed math and science.  As a child, those were always my favorite subjects in school.  During my first semester at UTSA we were required to take AIS (Academic Inquiry and Scholarship) and that’s where I was reconnected with the part of myself that really liked science and math.  My experience in that course inspired me to want to pursue a career in science as a life goal.  Astronomy and physics are simply the areas of science that fascinate me the most.

BB: In your TAURUS application you had mentioned your interest in exoplanets.  Can you talk about how that came about?

AS: Earlier this year Dr. Nancy Levenson from the Space Telescope Science Institute gave a talk at UTSA all about the James Webb Space Telescope and all the cool science it will accomplish.  I talked with her a bit about exoplanets and she told me about all the things JWST could clarify, like models of planetary atmospheres.  So it’s because of that experience that exoplanets in particular were in my head.

BB: Have you experienced any challenges during your education, and if so how have you overcome them?

AS: Being a first generation college student was a challenge (my parents don’t have college degrees) because I didn’t know anyone who had been through college before.  So everything that I know now, especially for a career in academia and graduate school, I had to find out on my own in college.  So that was tough.  However, I think of it as a double-edged sword because it’s also turned into extra motivation; knowing that there’s a lot I still don’t know has made me seek out advice and information about careers in astronomy and graduate school.  For instance, finding out about summer research programs was part of this drive.  So although it was a challenge at first, it ended up giving me extra motivation that’s become very helpful to me.

BB: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to share— for example, something that’s happened along your academic or personal trajectory?

AS: There’s one thing that comes to mind: recently home life got stressful and was interfering with my college work and my well being.  Early last semester I decided to move to an apartment close to UTSA to escape from that.  I’m proud of that decision because it was a necessary act of self care, and my ability to focus on college has substantially improved from that decision. 

BB: Thanks for sharing that.  You arrived early this summer to attend the AAS meeting in Austin.  That was nice because we were able to meet each other before the summer program started.  Can you talk about what motivated this and what you learned from your first astronomy meeting?

AS: I was accepted into TAURUS so I knew that I was going to go to the AAS meeting in the winter to present research.  I looked into the AAS because of that and I noticed there was a summer meeting in Austin one week before this program starts.  It was too lucky and convenient of a date to pass up.  So of course I was going to go!  One particular motivation was that I wanted this meeting to be the first exposure to a scientific conference as opposed to a winter one where I would be presenting research.  

I learned a lot from the meeting.  It was a remarkably wide spectrum of knowledge; it had everything from tips and advice for astronomy careers to the importance of public outreach in science to the fact that solar wind is a result of thermal pressure temporarily winning over gravity.  I learned all kinds of things there.  It was a great experience and I’m glad I went.  I’m looking forward to the winter meeting.  I’ve never been in an environment like that, surrounded by so many people doing astronomy.  It was lovely.  I really felt like that was my first exposure to the world of astronomy.  

BB: I enjoy the AAS meetings too.  The science is great, you always learn something new, and it gives you ideas for your research.  It’s also a great networking opportunity to meet new people and form new collaborations.  Wait until you see the much larger winter meetings!   
Can you talk about what your research or personal goals have been throughout this summer?  What do you continue to hope to achieve for the remaining few weeks of the program?  What would success look like for you in the TAURUS program?

AS: My primary goal was to get my first research experience.  Starting on day one, I already felt like this was a success.  Some of my other goals included learning everything and anything I can, doing a good job on the research project, and boosting my overall confidence— which is a personal goal that was important to me for the summer.  Every week that I’m here I learn so much and gain more experience.  I’m really happy to be here this summer.  

BB: Do you have a better feel for what the research process is like? 
AS: Yes!  That was a big motivation for seeking out these summer programs to begin with.  Certainly with programming experience; I had taken one introductory programming class, but now I feel like I can actually use that and apply it not just to a homework assignment but to an actual task we want to accomplish related to our research goals.  I also feel that my general understanding of the research literature has improved compared to the start of the summer.

BB: What are your future and long-term career goals?  

AS:  After I complete my undergraduate studies, my next goal is to enter a graduate program and earn a Master’s degree and PhD degree in astronomy.  I don’t think I’ve told you that yet!  I was interested in graduate school as soon as I knew that that was part of becoming a scientist and having a career in academia, but it wasn’t until last semester that I felt like I wanted to pursue a PhD in astronomy.  But at this stage I’m leaving my specific career options open.  Right now I feel like I’m learning and training for academia, but I know that that’s not the only option.  Ultimately as long as I find a career related to astronomy in some way, and I can support myself with it, then that’s certainly going to make me happy.

BB: Having been through 5 weeks of research, do you plan to apply to REU programs again next summer?

AS: Heck yeah!  I’ve heard that it’s good to find out early whether you like research to know whether you want to go down that route.  I’m relieved that I’ve been enjoying this and I want to keep at it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Pa Chia Thao

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This is the fourth of six profile pieces about the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Meet Pa Chia Thao, from Mt Holyoke College working with Dr. Andrew Mann, who writes about Pa Chia's passion for and growing experience in astronomy.

This summer, Pa Chia joined us from Mount Holyoke College as a TAURUS scholar. Pa Chia will be working on Spitzer data taken on two young planetary systems, which she will use to study the atmospheres of these planets, and more generally, understand how exoplanet atmospheres change over their lifetimes. I spoke with Pa Chia about her story, background, research interests, and future plans:
Pa Chia’s story begins back with the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and is intricately tied with the recent history of the Hmong. When war spread from Vietnam to neighboring Laos, the U.S. recruited Hmong heavily to fight communism, with the U.S. offering independent and autonomous control of their homeland. When the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the Laotian Government declared Hmong enemies of the state, forcing them to flee. Pa Chia’s parents ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she and her two brothers were born. It was years before her family were allowed entry into the United States.
Not long after her arrival in the U.S., Pa Chia quickly discovered her love of STEM. By sixth grade, she was transferred to an aerospace elementary school, which peaked her interest in astronomy and aerospace specifically. Since then, she has always been curious about how the world works and has strived to become a scientist. Her interest only grew when she began to do research for herself.
In college, Pa Chia got involved in a broad range of astronomical research. She is currently working with Jason Young, examining warm Spitzer data of low-surface brightness galaxies with warm Spitzer data, which will become her senior thesis. She has also been identifying signatures of ram-pressure stripping in blue compact dwarf galaxies in Virgo. Last summer, she took part in an REU at the University of Toledo with Noel Richardson, searching for high-mass members of Galactic open clusters. Although most of her background has been in Galactic and stellar astronomy, Pa Chia has a passion for a wide range of topics and has shown the greatest enthusiasm toward working on exoplanets this summer.
Pa Chia was particularly drawn to the TAURUS program because she felt the program’s mission to improve representation in astronomy is extremely important and that the goals ‘spoke to her, directly’. She also welcomed the opportunity to broaden her research experiences beyond stellar and extragalactic work and to sample a wider range of astronomy before picking a specific path in graduate school. She is eager to leverage her TAURUS research-project to improve her programming skills and is particularly looking forward to the trip to McDonald to gain more observing experience with a larger telescope.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Pa Chia plans to take some time off from academics. She has particularly expressed interest in helping others abroad through the Peace Corps. After this, she plans to apply to graduate school and eventually pursue a career in astronomy. As Pa Chia progresses through these experiences, she hopes to follow in her parents’ fearlessness as they overcame tremendous odds and is continually thankful for the sacrifices that they both made so that she can have the opportunities that her parents never had.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Profile: Alexander Fortenberry

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This week's TAURUS scholar spotlight is all about Alexander Fortenberry, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands who's majoring in both physics and mathematics.  His TAURUS mentor, Dr. Rachael Livermore, sat down with him to learn more about his aspirations, thoughts on TAURUS and research techniques.

Alexander Fortenberry joins us from the US Virgin Islands! He is a NASA MIRO scholar at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he moved from his small hometown in Georgia for college.

During the summer of his sophomore year, he was offered a chance to do research and worked at the university’s observatory. His interest in astronomy piqued, he went on to conduct research in a range of topics including binary stars, Gamma Ray Bursts and high-redshift galaxies. This summer at UT Austin, he’s working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and using the magnifying effect of gravitational lensing to study distant galaxies.

“The most appealing thing about TAURUS for me,” he says, “is how many graduate students and postdocs are involved with the program. I figured it would give me a chance to learn about more than just what I was researching.”

Alexander hopes to go to graduate school and ultimately pursue a career in research. Having begun his research career earlier than most, he is well on his way to doing so, but he acknowledges that choosing which field to devote that career to is a big challenge. Of his goal for the summer, he says, “My main hope is that TAURUS will help me narrow down, if not decide, what field I would like to go into.”

So far, Alexander has found his observational research “extremely fun and great learning experiences,” but it hasn’t all been easy: “the hardest thing is that there isn’t one single way to do things.” However, some things that initially seemed daunting have turned out not to be so bad; the experience of working with an advisor who uses a programming language he’s not used before has taught him that switching from one programming language to another is “surprisingly easy.”

One thing Alexander has learned from his research experience is that he’s “really more keen on the more theoretical aspects of astronomy.” When I ask what draws him most to the subject, he highlights two things: first, “that there is always something new to find. But the most interesting thing to me is that we are not only living in the universe but that we are part of it, and by studying the rest of the observable universe we have the potential to find how we came to be or even other forms of life.”

Outside of work, Alexander enjoys hiking, traveling, and photography. He’s especially interested in astrophotography, and was kind enough to share some examples of his work.

Whatever area of research Alexander ultimately settles on, I am certain he will be a great asset to the field and I look forward to reading his future publications and seeing some stunning photography from his many travels. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Profile: Andrew Cancino

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This is the second of six spotlights on the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Adolfo "Andrew" Cancino is a senior at Missouri State University where he majors in physics.  His advisor in the TAURUS program, talked to him about his experience, background, and aspirations for the future.

When you meet Andrew, the first thing you will probably learn is that he likes to be called Andrew. Shortly after that you may learn that he's lived all over the country—as a self-proclaimed army brat—and in fact he's even travelled all over the world, too. But it's family, not geography, that determines what's the closest thing to home for him, and that's why he landed at Missouri State University, even though he went to high school in California and briefly considered UC Irvine for college.

The road that would eventually bring Andrew to Austin this summer for the TAURUS program probably started in his senior year of high school. He decided to take an AP class for the first time that year (well, actually, four of them), and this was looking to be a bad decision. The worst was AP Physics. But fortunately for our story, he had an awesome teacher that helped him turn the tide by meeting with Andrew during lunch breaks and after school. Not only did she simply get him through it, she sparked Andrew's interest in physics for the first time. 

By the time he arrived at MSU, Andrew was determined to pursue a degree in physics. It still wasn't the subject that came easiest to him, but it was the most interesting, and Andrew had become used to overcoming such challenges through hard work and persistence. In fact, when I asked Andrew to give one piece of advice to a starting physics/astronomy major, he simply said "put in the work." For example, he says he's bad at coding, but he's found that when he has kept trying things pay off. When he had to choose a concentration for his physics major at MSU, he didn't have previous experience in astronomy, but that's what he choose because it sounded the most interesting. So far he's really enjoying it. He successfully applied to the NASA Space Grant Consortium and has also been working for Prof. Peter Plavchan on exoplanets and circumstellar disks. This is what has kept him busy since last summer, when he isn't taking classes or at his regular full time job outside of school.

While Andrew has only been here with us in Austin for two weeks, his experiences here and at MSU have already left him with a greater appreciation of astronomy research endeavors. For one, the idea that there is still so much that we don't know, and that he could be the first person to discover something that hasn't even been imagined yet, is deeply inspiring. But the first thing Andrew actually said that he's come to really value is the incredible network of people that make up the astronomy community. He already felt connected to so many people through his work at MSU, and now at Texas this is growing wider. It's not surprising then that Andrew's favorite part of the TAURUS program are the weekly seminars led by students and postdocs. It's not just that he says he's learning about a dizzying array of topics that are instrumental to astronomy, many of which haven't been covered in his normal classes, but that it's a connection to peers and mentors here at Texas who are choosing to spend their time to share their knowledge and experiences. It's a great source of encouragement.

With nearly seven weeks of the TAURUS program ahead of him, Andrew has big plans. He's really looking forward to the trip to McDonald Observatory. He is also curious about being part of the process of writing a paper, from start to finish, for the first time (as well as having his name immortalized in print, of course). Beyond that, Andrew is hoping to get a thorough background on all things astronomy in Texas, as he's heard the same rumors I have that there is more to astronomy than exoplanets [citation needed]. Above all, Andrew hopes to make lasting connections with people that will buoy him in the years to come, no matter what path he follows.

Monday, June 26, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Adrianna Perez

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

We are thrilled to share with you the first of our 2017 TAURUS Scholar Spotlights!  Adrianna Perez is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she majors in Physics.  Adrianna participated in the Banneker-Aztlán Institute last summer working with Dr. Jill Naiman and Prof. Jorge Moreno and joins us for TAURUS this summer. She was interviewed by her research mentor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

CLH: Can you tell me about yourself? What is your story?

AP: I’m from California, live in Bellflower. Basically my whole life in Bellflower, went to Bellflower high school, graduated from there. Right out of the high school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hill as a first generation college student with already my Physics major declared, although I was still unsure whether that was what I wanted to do. I took Physics in high school, and I did really well in it and I thought it was fun, so I went with that :). I was like, OK, I like Physics, so I feel like that’s a good place to start.

So I went to Dominguez Hills, start taking my Physics classes there, and really started to like it. The problems were harder at first. So I was a little, oh no, what if I can’t do this. But I just kept working at it, got better at it, and really started to like it. And then, just space was cool, so that’s how the Astronomy part came in. But we don’t have an Astronomy department at my school, so I wasn’t really exposed to it. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Moreno came to my school and gave a talk about his galaxy mergers, that I learned about research in Astronomy. And he mentioned the Banneker-Aztlán Institute, and I was really interested. So after his talk, I spoke to him. He encouraged me to apply. So I did that and got accepted, and then went to Harvard, and really liked it. Now I’m positive that I really want to be in Astronomy.

CLH: Can you share a little bit about of your future and career goals?

AP: I think a lot about becoming a professor, but I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. After that, maybe do a postdoc, and after that, get into academia, or try to be a faculty member. I feel like I might go down that path, but I’m still open to the possibilities. You don’t necessarily have to go to academia, there are other options. But I feel like, that is where I will end up.

CLH: So what brings you to the TAURUS program, and how do you think the TAURUS program will help you to reach your career goals?

AP: I was interested in TAURUS because at AAS, Dr. Moreno was telling me that Caitlin was gonna be here and the TAURUS people were going to be here. So we had a joint lunch with them, the Banneker-Aztlán people had lunch with the TAURUS people. I got to speak with the previous scholars and I asked how they liked it, and they were all really happy and excited and tell me all these great things. So I’m like, wow that sounds really good. Especially because I really liked Banneker and I wanted to be in something that’s similar. Because I know some REU can feel more competitive, and lonely. You’re just in the office, working by yourself and nobody wants to help you. So I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I wanted to be in a place that would feel similar to the one I was already in. And the previous scholars spoke very well of it. I met Caitlin there, and spoke with her. She said, sure, go apply! So I applied. I heard the program had a goal of diversity and inclusion and I really liked that. That’s up and coming in Astronomy, people are trying to change that. So I would like to be in part of the program where that is included.

CLH: So how would success in this TAURUS program look like to you?

AP: I hope to make many new friends. And I hope to get somewhat far in the research, and just to be able to answer that question now. And I want to give a good talk at the end! :) I want to have a nice talk with nice pictures, and explain myself well. I used to have a pretty big fear of public speaking. So I want to be able to communicate, and give a presentation without running off the stage. :)

CLH: I heard from Dr. Moreno that you gave an extremely good talk at the final presentation last year. Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. I worked really hard. We had a speech class once every week. But I would go a bit earlier, that way, I will practice before everybody else would come to, just to get comfortable saying it on stage. I can handle speaking in front of a couple people, but when the group gets bigger than five, then it’s like, oh no! 

CLH: Yeah, the community here would definitely help and provide feedback, and you can give an even better talk in the end.

AP: Yeah, I hope to top my previous talk, and that would be a success to me.

CLH: Just to change the gear a bit. How do you learn best (e.g., hands-on experience, reading literature about a topic, verbal explanations, process diagrams, etc.)? What is the most useful kind of assistance your mentor can provide?

AP: I think I learn the best from reading and listening. So I can read something and if I don’t understand it right away and get some kind of verbal clarification, that would be good. Sometimes drawing pictures helps a lot. But I don’t know if I would consider myself a hands-on person. Because I normally don’t like to build, or do things from my hands, I feel uncoordinated. :) So that doesn’t work too much.

Something I like is smaller celebrations. Even if it’s like a small goal, like I read half the paper, or I got a plot to work. These small things are what make me feel good. Yes! It might not be something big or fancy, but it’s progress, and I feel that’s worth celebrating.

CLH: Can you talk about what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

AP: I’ve already briefly mentioned the public speaking one. I feel like it’s my biggest obstacle. Because I can get really shy, nervous, and anxious sometimes, and withdraw into myself, don’t talk to anyone and go out much. When you need any help, you should be able to ask. If you don’t ask, then nothing will happen. That’s the biggest obstacle is to come out and say I need help.

CLH: What are you most proud of?

AP: I am proud that I can make little movies. Something that makes me proud is that I make little bunch of snapshots, and compile them up into a little movie. I think it’s really cool.

CLH: If there are other freshman or sophomore students who are interested in following your path, what advice would you give to them?

AP: I feel like I was lucky that Dr. Moreno came to my school, especially because it is small. But for other places, I feel like you would at least want to look into places you would be interested in doing research. If somebody is interested in going to Harvard or here at UT Austin, then I’d say try to get in contact with somebody here or I would put them in contact, introduce them to somebody. Let them talk about what that student’s research or career goals are. And hopefully, they will get a better idea if that’s what they want to do or not.