Monday, April 4, 2016

Faculty Highlight: Dr. Louise Edwards

Dr. Louise Edwards
 Now: Astronomy Lecture at Yale
Next: Assistant Professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Dr. Louise Edwards grew up in Victoria, BC and completed an undergraduate degree in Physics and Astronomy (with a Minor in Math) from the University of Victoria. She spent 2 years in Halifax at Saint Mary's for an MSc and 4 years in Quebec City at Laval for a PhD. She was a postdoc at Caltech/IPAC from 2008-2011 and faculty at Mount Allison University (Canada) and has been on the faculty at Yale for the past 4 years as a lecturer. Dr. Edwards uses telescopes in Arizona, Chile and California to study the largest galaxy is the local universe, and studies these systems with undergraduates in her research group at Yale. She is excited to start as an Assistant Professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispowhere she plans to continue working with undergraduate students through teaching and research. She looked through her first telescope on her back porch with her dad at age ~12.

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

Moreno: What was your reaction when you first learned that you had been offered a faculty position at Cal Poly?

Edwards:  I was very excited! During my interview it felt like a really good match. I was glad to be in a position to apply for a job that seemed to be looking for exactly the skills and interests I'd developed over the years.

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

Edwards:  I grew up in Canada and completed an undergraduate degree in Physics and Astronomy (with a Minor in Math) from the University of Victoria. I chose Physics because it allows one to ask answerable questions about the universe. Also, I wanted to know if terms like 'photon torpedoes' I heard in science fiction made any sense at all. I went to Graduate school in Astronomy, as my undergraduate program allowed me to work as an astronomer's assistant for a summer. I worked at the beautiful Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria with Dr. John Hutchings. After graduate school, I spent 3 years in Pasadena as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech/IPAC and then started teaching and running my own research program, mostly with undergraduates.  I have been at Yale for the past 4 years as a lecturer, and will be starting as an Assistant Professor at  Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall!

Moreno: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Edwards: I remember seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time. That you could see its rings really blew me away! I enjoyed working with data at the DAO and have always enjoyed Math and Science. I didn't grow up knowing that 'Astronomer' was a really job – I sort of just enjoyed learning about Physics and fell into the career.

Moreno: In your opinion, what qualities makes your work so unique and compelling?

Edwards: I study massive nearby galaxies that live in large clusters. These galaxies have been found to have special properties – extra young stars, extra material to make new generations of stars – that are a function of the environment they live in. I like the fact that to understand them is to understand not only the galaxy, but also its surrounding enviornment. My work invovles using imaging thoughout the electromagnetic spectrum as well as gathering spectra to determine the chemical composition of the galaxies.

Moreno: As a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Edwards:  I try to focus on doing the absolute best I can in my teaching and in my research. These are things I can control.  Little things happen all the time: people often ask me about my hair rather than my science, or call me the name of a different young woman of color. Usually, I try to ignore it. I find it helpful to meet regularly with like minded individuals (be it friends, of persons of color groups on campus.) Little examples like those above seem small, however, can add up to being a significant reduction in how serious women of color are taken in science in general. So, I choose to put my effort into creating positive change for the community of underrepresented minorities at large. Thus, I spend a lot of my time mentoring and engaging with the student of color community. I serve on committees I believe are working to remove prejudice on campus, I give talks and my time whenever asked – particularly if by communities who are traditionally undeserved. I try to stay aware of my own biases, and keep up to date with the research on how to reduce these in my classroom (eg. blind grading).

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

Edwards: If you love it do it! Find a mentor. This can be anyone in a senior position who has your back, and who you feel comfortable talking to.  If that is difficult, then find a group of peers you can talk to comfortably about your day. There are also online programs you can sign up for, if no one in your school fits for you  - eg. MentorNet. Lots of campuses have groups for students of color to meet, and if yours does not have one, you could look into starting one yourself. There are many different paths to being an astronomer. I was personally interested in teaching early on, so started with a postdoc that was half teaching-half research, and taught a course on the side during my pure-science postdoc, and then spent an incredibly enjoyable year as a visiting professor and 4 years as a lecturer before landing a tenure track job. There is on one right way!

MorenoAny final words?

Edwards: Reach out! Look for mentors in professors, peers or other people you trust.

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

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