Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Student Highlight: Betsy Hernandez

Betsy is a first generation Dominican-American who has had a non-traditional career trajectory. Betsy has loved science and math since childhood, but she and her parents were unaware of the vast careers in STEM, and so she initially pursued a path in medicine at the City College of New York of the City University of New York (CUNY). Once there, she learned about research and other nonmedical careers in science. She later transferred to Hunter College CUNY and obtained a bachelor's in Physics and Mathematics. While at Hunter College, Betsy began her astronomy research through the AstroCom NYC Fellowship, which is affiliated with CUNY schools and the American Museum of Natural History. Her other astronomy research experiences were through GRAD MAP at the University of Maryland in College Park and through the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) at Space Telescope Science Institute where her research focused on galaxies. During her year as a Helen Fellow she has mentored youth, and performed a theoretical research project analyzing galaxies and black holes. Afterwards, she will continue with her education through the two-year Princeton Post Baccalaureate program. Betsy then hopes go on to graduate school and ultimately become a professor. Additional interests include assisting in astronomy outreach events like stargazing, and non-STEM work like cake decorating and Latin dancing, specifically, dancing to merengue, bachata, salsa, and cha-cha.

What’s an average day like for you?
 My days vary throughout the week, so I try to focus on one task per day. I attempt to schedule meetings, talks, and internship on the same days to allow me to exclusively work on my research or lesson plan on other days. For example, I will prioritize developing my lesson plan for internship for the week on Mondays. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have my education weekly meeting, astronomy colloquium, and internship. Wednesdays and Fridays, I prioritize research and astronomy related work. Time management was very difficult in the beginning because I tried to do a bit of everything each day and often felt like I did not get much accomplished. After switching to my current schedule, I feel I get more work done.

In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?
As a Helen Fellow, you get a taste of what it's like to be a professor in that your responsibilities are primarily teaching and research. Juggling everything can be the hardest part because it's easy to prioritize teaching over research. I mentor six high school girls with different sets of skills on a research project for about four hours a week. They often forget material we cover, so developing a lesson plan that challenges everyone without leaving anyone behind can be difficult.
On the research side, I worked closely with my mentors to develop my project, and as a result I was able to take ownership of my work early on rather than feeling like I was working on someone else’s project. I currently work on a computational research project simulating the motions of stellar mass black holes in active galactic nucleus disks using a hydrodynamic grid code, the Pencil Code. I have been examining how active galactic nucleus disks, which are composed of gas, can drive changes in the orbital radius of stellar mass black holes. The project goal is to determine if binary black hole mergers can occur in the center of active galaxies in order to explain the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory observations of these binary mergers. I love this project because it incorporates black holes, which I love, and finding answers to current scientific questions.

You recently gave a talk in Spanish about gravitational waves at Columbia’s Astronomy Outreach event.  What made you want to give such a talk?  How did it go?
There are multiple reasons why I wanted to give an astronomy talk in Spanish. My mom doesn't speak English and growing up I had friends whose parents did not speak English either. Our parents also were unaware of STEM fields beyond medicine and engineering. I wanted to share my passion with my mom and give her insight into what I do, as well as inform those whose primary language is Spanish about additional STEM fields. One of my career goals is to increase the number of people of color in STEM through accessibility and inclusion.
I gave a talk on black holes because I find these objects fascinating. I wanted to share with others what we know, what we don’t yet understand, and ongoing research. As a kid I used to think that everything was discovered, and I know others who thought the same. I wanted to show the public that there is much that scientists are examining because there is much we yet don’t understand.
I was told that my talk was very good. Sadly, attendance was a bit poor. Some of the reasons for this may have been because the talk was around finals week, which means many of the students were not around. The talk fell during 5 de Mayo weekend, and many Spanish speakers I knew had prior engagements. Finally, we still have not figured out what are the best outlets to announce this event beyond Facebook and word of mouth.

Please tell us about yourself.  What’s your story?
I'm a first-generation Dominican American. I loved science and math as a child. My parents encouraged me to become a physician, because they believed high-income jobs were limited to lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Consequently, my sight was set on becoming a pediatrician after graduating high school.
As a pre-med student at City College of New York (CCNY) of the City University of New York (CUNY), I was first exposed to research opportunities and careers through the Earth and Atmospheric Science Department. During this time, I obtained an REU with NASA Goddard Institute of SpaceStudies. From this experience, I learned that our contributions to science are important even if our findings fall short of our desired outcome, that research is nothing like school work, and that we do not always find a solution at the end of a research project. In 2010, I decided to switch paths and began to pursue a degree in physics at Hunter College CUNY, after both discovering my desire to become a physician stemmed mostly from my parents, and realizing that I was a very curious person who loved deciphering how things work.
Since becoming an AstroCom NYC fellow in the spring of 2014, my path to a physics career has become much clearer and my resolve has strengthened. I developed the drive to obtain a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, through the experiences as an AstroCom NYC fellow and other diversity programs, specifically Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Graduate Resource for Advancing Diversity with Maryland Astronomy and Physics (GRAD-MAP), National Astronomy Consortium (NAC), and Helen Fellowship. Each of these programs has introduced me to a variety of projects that have helped me hone in on the area of astronomy that I would like to focus on and introduced me to many members of the astronomy community, so much so that now when I attend conferences I always see people who I have met elsewhere.

Who inspired you as you were pursuing your career, and how?
After switching paths, I was lucky to be encouraged to apply to AstroCom NYC by Kelle Cruz. The program was vital to my success in Astronomy. Kelle became my career mentor and encouraged me to attend conferences and apply to programs that would further my career. My research mentor Ari Maller tried to incorporate my interests into our project and inform me of talks and conferences that would interest me. Working with Suvi Gezari confirmed my desire to work on Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). Seeing a plenary given by Philip Hopkins at the 229th AAS conference gave me the language to explain what I wanted to do long-term. I spoke to him afterwards and he gave me advice on how to get started working on simulations. Working Mordecai-Mark Mac Low and Wladimir Lyra has confirmed my desire to work on simulations and made my desire to work on AGN even more. Though I can’t say that anyone inspired me throughout my career, there are many people who have supported, encouraged, and given me the tools needed to pursue my interests.

What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?
I experienced hardships within my first year of undergraduate study, which included health issues and financial strife that forced me to procure a retail job. Consequently, working and health complications led to some bad grades, class withdrawals, and long gaps in my years of study. Balancing my health, schoolwork, research, and other responsibilities, like helping my elderly mother have been exceedingly challenging. In order to stay on course, I have implemented techniques to prevent my challenges from impeding my academic performance; these include informing my mentors of personal factors that could affect my academic/research work and creating a schedule that allows room for alterations in case an emergency arises.

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?
There are many programs with the goal to diversify astronomy that have helped me succeed. The first is AstroCom NYC in 2014, which has been the program that has had the biggest impact. Through the program I had a research mentor, Ari Maller, and a professional mentor, Kelle Cruz, assigned to me until I graduated. I could also seek help be it research, professional development, and other from the other faculty in the program, these include Saavik Ford, Barry McKernan, Dennis Robbins, Tim Paglione, Charles Liu, Matt O’Dowd, Quinn Minor, Emily Rice, and Jillian Bellovary. I also received a laptop, tuition assistance, a metrocard, and funding to attend conferences during my fellowship. In 2015, I received the yearlong stipend from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) to fund my research. I became a Graduate Resource for Advancing Diversity with Maryland Astronomy and Physics (GRAD-MAP) scholar and attend the winter workshop in 2015 and summer research opportunity in 2016 with Tingting Liu and Suvi Gezari. Through the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC), I completed a research project at Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in 2017 with Ivelina Momcheva. Finally, the Helen Fellowship has allowed me to work with Mordecai-Mark Mac Low at AMNH on a research project that I am very passionate about. I have gained teaching experience and funding to purchase materials and attend conferences that will further my career.

Can you share any ideas you have about making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?
I think it’s important to have people from different backgrounds in committees that serve the community, because people of various groups have an understanding of the needs unique to their groups. Also, visibility is important to inspire aspiring astronomers. For example, some people have told me that I’m a role model because I’m a woman, a person of color, and I have a nontraditional career path in STEM. As a nontraditional Latina, I can speak on behalf of components that helped me and I that have struggled with, which a caucasian man who had no gaps in his education cannot. Even though people outside a group can be aware of challenges facing that group, there will be components that they do not know or could not understand. For example, I consider colorblindness when creating my presentations, but I cannot formulate all the important components for someone with visual impairment to follow a presentation as would Wanda Diaz Merced, who is a blind astronomer. I would say that continuing programs that promote diversity, outreach to inform various groups how they can be part of the community, ask what they need to succeed in the community, and place those interested in visible roles will change and grow the community so that it is more equitable and inclusive.

What advice would you give to young women of color interested in following your path?
Be sure to pursue what you love and not what others expect, and this includes your parents. You’ll face a number of challenges that will require stubbornness and passion to get you through. Ask senior people in your field of interest what skills you need to develop to succeed and what can you expect. For example, I was interested in becoming a theoretical cosmologist, so I would ask those in the field what were the programming languages beyond Python that would be useful to learn. As a result, I was not surprised learning that I needed to use Fortran in my computational project. Avoid toxic people, whether they are family or important in the field you are interested in. Surround yourself with supporting people who encourage you and listen to their advice. I was given really great professional advice from a professor. He said if you can imagine waking up on a cold Tuesday morning at 5am, happy to go work, then you have found your career. I’m a night person, so I say I know that I am meant to be an astronomer because I look forward to work, and I’m happy staying up late working on my project.

Any final words?
Take advantage of opportunities, whether they are fellowships, research projects, conferences, etc. Finally, try participating in a variety of research projects before settling on one that will require years of investment such as a thesis project. While one project made me interested in using observational data, another showed me I was more interested in using processed data such as that in surveys rather than using raw data. Other projects confirmed my interest in black holes and simulations.
There are different mentoring styles, and it’s important to figure out your mentoring needs. Some people require micromanaging mentors that check on them daily, while others prefer mentors that are less hands on. Some people require mentors which they have a personal connection with, such that they can share with them aspects of their personal lives, while others desire strictly a professional relationship with their mentor. Understanding your own mentoring needs and discussing that with potential mentors can be important for achieving success.
Be kind to yourself. The nature of research is that we don’t know the answer, so don’t feel bad that things are not moving along as you would like. Also do activities that feed your soul. I dance as a hobby. Dancing revives me and makes me really happy, as a result I look forward to working and can focus better.