Wednesday, July 27, 2016

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Elizabeth Gutiérrez

Elizabeth Gutiérrez
2016 TAURUS Scholar

Cross-posted with permission of Prof. Caitlin Casey, Director of the TAURUS REU Program at the University of Texas, Austin. If you wish to cross-post a similar piece featuring a student of color, please contact Jorge Moreno: jmorenosoto AT gmail DOT com

This is the fourth of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars.  This week we focus on Elizabeth Gutiérrez, who is working with Dr. Ivan Ramirez on stars' orbits in the Milky Way as part of the TAURUS program. Elizabeth will continue her undergraduate at University of Texas at Austin with a passion for astronomy. Here Dr. Ramirez talks about his experience working with and getting to know Elizabeth this summer.

Stars are born in clusters, families of tens of thousands of stars formed at the same time from a common gas cloud. At relatively young age, stars leave the gravitational bounds of their parent clusters and become part of the Milky Way galaxy. Reuniting stellar families is a monumental task for modern astronomy, but one which is critical for understanding how galaxies evolve. Elizabeth Gutiérrez is working on dynamical models of stars’ orbits in the Milky Way, along with information on chemical composition and stellar age, to bring us closer to achieving the ultimate goal of identifying groups of field stars with common origin.

Elizabeth grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her parents emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico in the mid-1980’s in what can be described as a classic American Dream story. Spanish was the main language spoken in Elizabeth’s house; Sunday’s Mass, the rodeo, opening up presents on Noche Buena, and eating rosca de reyes on Three Kings Day are some of the things she remembers experiencing as a child raised in a traditional Mexican-American home. She identifies herself as a Chicana instead of Mexican-American.

At the age of twelve, Elizabeth took a science course that sparked her interest in astronomy. Visiting the Adler Planetarium and watching the original Cosmos series at fifteen reinforced this interest. She remembers visiting the Hubble Space Telescope website and being further inspired by images of the distant universe. Finding beauty in the chaos of nature is nothing short of poetic, she says. In fact, Elizabeth enjoys writing poems inspired by the cosmos. In 2014, she won a prize for a poem she submitted to the AstroPoetry contest on the Astronomers Without Borders blog. In high school, she worked with her female physics and astronomy teacher, Marcella Linahan, who involved her students in research on young stellar objects. Marcella was an important role model for Elizabeth who further inspired her to pursue a career in astronomy. 

The early days of school were tough for Elizabeth, who had trouble reading and writing in English. During the Fall of 2014, she began her collegiate education at predominantly white university and quickly began to feel out of place in her classrooms where she would typically be the only student of color. She also felt unprepared in her coursework compared to her classmates and has experienced a hostile environment for people of color within her institution. She confesses to be still working on overcoming these challenges, but she is understanding that with hard work and perseverance she can successfully achieve her goals. She has also come to realize that she does not need to compromise her ethnic identity in order to become a successful scientist. 

Professional astronomy today is suffering from issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism. Elizabeth is fully aware of these problems and adds to the list the lack of awareness and stigma associated with mental illness, anxiety, and depression, particularly when triggered by the academic environment, which she experiences herself. Nevertheless, she feels optimistic about the changes that are already taking place to improve these situations, many of which originate from the more important roles that younger scientists in the field are assuming. The recent rise in popularity of online platforms that one can use for support in these matters, such as the Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy group on Facebook, is encouraging to her, as is the fact that an increasing number of professional astronomers are speaking up openly about these issues on social media. She believes that accessibility to role models and mentors, both at the academic and personal levels, is key to the success for aspiring astronomers. Therefore, the more the better.

Both professionally and personally, perseverance is key for Elizabeth. She believes that success can only come after failure. Thus, her advice to young students of color interested in science or astronomy as a career is that they should never doubt in their abilities and understand that failing is part of the process. Also, for her it is very important to honor the sacrifices of your parents. “¡Echale ganas!” her father often tells her, and she lives by that motto.1

Elizabeth is interested in exploring multi-wavelength astronomy in the future, potentially investigating star and planet formation, areas in which she already has significant research experience. 

1 “¡Echale ganas!” is an untranslatable expression of encouragement which could be interpreted as “go for it!”.

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College. He is the Chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Thursday, July 21, 2016

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Jennifer Medina

Jennifer Medina
2016 TAURUS Scholar
Cross-posted with permission of Prof. Caitlin Casey, Director of the TAURUS REU Program at the University of Texas, Austin. If you wish to cross-post a similar piece featuring a student of color, please contact Jorge Moreno: jmorenosoto AT gmail DOT com.

This is the third of five blog post focused on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Jennifer Medina, who is working with Dr. Andrew Mann on exoplanet research in the TAURUS program.  Jennifer is a physics major (and astronomy major) at Florida International University. Dr. Mann talks here about Jennifer's research focus and career aspirations.

This summer, Jennifer joined us as a TAURUS scholar to help characterize some of the the youngest planets and the stars they orbit. She'll be working to understand the relationship between the orientation of the stellar spin and that of the planetary orbit in infant stars, something that can help us understand how planets change over their lifetimes.

I sat down and spoke with Jennifer about her research interests, path, and future plans.

Jennifer became interested in astronomy and more generally about her path up to now. She grew up in Miami, Florida, and first became interested in astronomy at the age of 13 after taking an Earth-Space science course. Her passion for astronomy and physics only grew with time. By age 16, through further exposure in classes and her own exploration, she had her mind set on studying physics wherever she ended up in college. She later joined Florida International University, where she currently majors in Physics with a minor in astronomy.

Jennifer quickly got involved in research, working on transiting planets at Florida International with Professor Van Hamme. Early in her undergraduate career, she felt that she wasn’t fitting in the mold of an astronomer, making her feel alienated from the rest of the students. After spending some time doing research she felt more confident that her efforts were producing results, and became less worried about fitting into the stereotype of a scientist. She grew to love the free-form of research. The chance to follow her own route to solve a problem and the lack of a concrete path made it very different from classwork, but also extremely appealing. Her results from modeling the orbits of transiting planets is something she has become especially proud of, and is glad to have the chance to continue on a related topic. She advises anyone doing research to be willing to experiment with anything, since it’s often unclear from where the solution will come. A motto that has come in handy often both during her earlier work and for her ongoing TAURUS project.
The TAURUS program was particularly appealing to Jennifer. Florida International has only a few astronomers, so the opportunity to work with a wider range of researchers was particularly attractive. Although she has some past experience with research, in our 9-week program, she hopes to get a better feel for the graduate school experience, and get a more solid idea of what specifically she wants to work on. Furthermore, she welcomes the opportunity to expand her skills with Python and knowledge of exoplanets more generally.

Jennifer plans to attend graduate school in 2017. She hopes to continue with research on exoplanets and their host stars. While right now her goals are to follow an academic path: graduate school to postdoc, to research position or professorships, she welcomes any path forward that keeps her doing research.

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College. He is the chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Monday, July 11, 2016

Cross-post of WGAD Statement: Black Lives Matter

Cross-posted with permission of Nick Murphy, on behalf of the members of the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD).

See also this recent unofficial statement signed by members of the CSMA, this other unofficial statement of solidarity signed by members of peer "diversity" committees (CSWA, SGMA and WGAD), and this other one from members of APS COM and AAPT COD. None of these statements have been officially endorsed by their corresponding professional societies. 


Dear AAS Council and Executive Committee,

As members of the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability, we implore you to release an AAS Council Resolution that Black lives do matter, in language as strong and unambiguous as possible. The AAS sets the standard for professional behavior within our field and aspires to broaden participation in astronomy by people from underrepresented groups. As such, we believe that failing to publicly denounce recent racist events that strongly affect Black scientists constitutes an abdication of the Society’s responsibility to actively create a supportive community for its members of color.

For the sake of our generation and for the upcoming talent that we are losing, the AAS must unify with its internal committees to stand in support of people of color. The disregard of the humanity of Black people is a national calamity that affects astronomers on a daily basis.  By stating our support, we are refusing to dismiss the suffering of our Black brothers and sisters as if it were unrelated to us.  We must take action so that the astronomical community knows that we care about and will work to ensure the happiness and safety of our Black colleagues and students, and all others who are touched by our scientific endeavors.

The AAS has a history of supporting marginalized groups through issuing responses to ongoing crises. For example, after the revelation of pervasive sexism and sexual harassment within the community, the AAS executive committee approved a statement condemning these actions and affirming the right of every astronomer to a work environment free of harassment and sexism. ( This statement was released during a time when it became apparent that sexism was directly impacting the lives of members of the astronomical community. It is imperative that the Council recognize that the continual (and recent) events involving the deaths of Black people also directly impact the lives of members of the astronomical community.

Therefore, WGAD acknowledges the particular challenges faced by people, including many astronomers, who are members of more than one marginalized group. We understand that among the astronomers with disabilities that our working group serves are Black scientists who face additional daily challenges imposed on them by the continual violence directed at their community. We affirm their right to be the focus of our attention at this critical moment, and we reiterate our commitment to keeping their needs at the forefront of our efforts to make astronomy accessible to all.

We, as a professional society, need to show that we mean what we say at our public outreach events--that we seek to inspire all to become astronomers and that we support all who become astronomers because they are what make our field and this organization great. If we truly wish to create a field that is made stronger by its bonds and networks in the world, then the physical and emotional well-being of the members of our community is the fundamental and necessary starting point.

By refusing to acknowledge that Black lives matter specifically, the AAS implicitly treats the most elementary statement of human worth as controversial or unworthy of response. Whether intentional or not, this omission sends a clear signal that the acute suffering of non-white astronomers simply does not carry enough weight to overcome the inertia of institutional racism. A professional community that cannot make the most basic stand against systemic racism is a community which views a diverse talent pool as a goal but not a priority. It is therefore vital that the AAS demonstrate its commitment by releasing a resolution affirming the value of the Black lives it represents.

We, the undersigned members of WGAD, urge the AAS to continue its efforts on behalf of civil rights by issuing a strong response to the ongoing violence against people of color in the United States.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sterling Castile Statement: Black Lives Matter

Cross-posted with permission of Angela Little, on behalf of the undersigned (members of the APS COM and AAPT COD). 

See also this recent unofficial statement signed by members of the CSMA, and this other unofficial statement of solidarity signed by members of peer "diversity" committees (CSWA, SGMA and WGAD). 
These statements have not been officially endorsed by their corresponding professional societies. 

Dear Members of the Physics Community,

We, the undersigned, members of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Minorities (APS COM) and the American Association of Physics Teachers Committee on Diversity (AAPT COD) stand with Black physicists and all members of the Black community in the U.S. as we are faced with the recent killings, within 36 hours, of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police. Although Sterling and Castile are referenced here and are the impetus for this statement, we note that their names add to a long list of police injustice against Black people as well as other people of color.

Last night, during a protest in Dallas affirming the value of Black lives, snipers unaffiliated with the protest killed 5 officers, and wounded 7 officers and 2 civilians, further highlighting the violence and tragedy that systemic racism can bring about.

These events affect the physics community. Safety, justice, and equality underlie our ability to succeed at all endeavors, including physics. Systemic racism exists. Systemic racism exists in physics. And we all must work tirelessly to challenge the structures that allow it to exist. 

The APS COM and AAPT COD are dedicated to building a community where people of color can learn and practice physics free from racial harassment, bias, and fear. We are alarmingly far from this goal and we call on the entire physics community to join us in making this endeavor a reality. One way to move toward this goal is to engage in self-education and anti-racism training to build understanding in the ways that power structures combine with bias and racism to differentially impact physicists of color1. This understanding is critical to our ability to affect change. We must create a climate that encourages and supports people of color in their pursuit of physics and physics careers.  

The undersigned affirm our commitment that Black lives matter and that racial justice matters, in our society and in the physics community.

Nadya Mason, Chair, APS COM
Edmundo Garcia, APS COM
Angela Little, APS COM
Marie Lopez del Puerto, APS COM
Jesús Pando, APS COM 
William Ratcliff, APS COM
Luis G. Rosa, APS COM
Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, Chair, AAPT COD
Ximena C. Cid, AAPT COD
Abigail R. Daane, AAPT COD
Deepak Iyer, AAPT COD
Mamadou Keita, AAPT COD
Geoff Potvin, AAPT COD
Mel Sabella, AAPT COD
Monica Plisch, APS Director of Education and Diversity
Asmaa Khatib, APS Bridge Program Coordinator
Arlene Modeste Knowles, APS liaison to COM
Kathryne Sparks Woodle, APS Education & Diversity Programs Manager

1Please reach out to APS COM and APS COD for strategies and resources on working toward equity in our field. and are the respective websites.

This statement is an unofficial statement by members of the American Physical Society Committee on Minorities and the American Association of Physics Teachers Committee on Diversity. These are our personal views and the statement has not been officially endorsed by the APS, APS COM, AAPT, or AAPT COD formally.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Black Lives Matter

Dear fellow astronomers,

The recent extrajudicial killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by the police have shocked, disturbed, and frightened many of us today. We express our unequivocal repulsion to these acts, which are just one manifestation of the underlying systemic racism in our country. These events affect our community directly. Many Black astronomers in this country, especially those in junior positions, are suffering at this moment. We encourage all of you to be mindful as you reach out to our fellow Black astronomers, and be present with them during these difficult times. The undersigned reaffirm our commitment to ensure the inclusion, support, and safety of every Black person in astronomy. 

Black Lives Matter!

Prof. Jorge Moreno
Prof. Kim Coble
Prof. Alyson Brooks
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Dr. Jillian Bellovary
Dr. Lia Corrales
Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. John Asher Johnson
Charee Peters
Prof. Adam Burgasser

The above signatories are members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). This statement reflects our own personal views, and is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS.

In your efforts to create a more inclusive community, we encourage you to visit the resources below. Suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Derek Holman

Derek Holman
2016 TAURUS Scholar
Cross-posted with permission of Prof. Caitlin Casey, Director of the TAURUS REU Program at the University of Texas, Austin. If you wish to cross-post a similar piece featuring a student of color, please contact Jorge Moreno: jmorenosoto AT gmail DOT com.

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Derek Holman

This is the second of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Derek Holman, who is a student in our TAURUS summer program at UT Austin working on some of the Universe's first galaxies. Derek is an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (the other UT!) where he is a dual major in Mechanical Engineering and Physics.  His advisor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung interviewed Derek for the TAURUS blog. 

CLH: Tell me about yourself. What’s your story?

DH: I was born in Indiana and then moved to Tennessee. I’ve always been interested in things, especially Astronomy. I got a telescope when I was really young, and always try to keep up with that. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of science.

CLH: Do you think your telescope inspired your interest in Astronomy?

DH: Yes, definitely. Even without a telescope, obviously the stars are really beautiful and that allured me initially. And after having the telescope, seeing Jupiter and the Moon for the first time, that kind of latched me on.

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

DH: Of course it’s really shifting ground right now as far as the distant future. I just want to continue my education. My two majors, mechanical engineering and physics, are not exactly the same but both are things I want to follow. I’d say graduate school maybe for Astronomy or Astrophysics. Eventually I want to do research as well as maybe industry jobs. Definitely more school, also some work, and eventually research.

CLH: Can you talk a little bit about your two majors and what do you like about them?

DH: I did mechanical engineering for a couple reasons. I’ve always been taking things apart as a kid and I’ve always been interested in how things work. I really, really like the fact that mechanical engineering is preparing me to take bigger things apart and learning more about how these things work. Physics I added more recently, because I know I’d like to continue my education and get into graduate school. I want to apply them both together as much as possible.

CLH: Why do you want to do TAURUS now, and how would that help you reach your career goals?

DH: I saw TAURUS as exactly what I want. You learn things in school, but it helps a lot to actually see what professionals do and what your job would be like. So, it gives an opportunity to explore and confirm if this is what I want to do, and will help refine my goals in the future.

CLH: In that respect, what would success in TAURUS program look like to you?

DH: Mainly getting experiences but also learning a lot more. In school, especially undergrad, I’m not getting specific knowledge, I’m getting vague [idea], this is how you do this. I feel like, success for me would be a step closer of being specialized in something that I care about. Of course finishing the research would be the goal too but it’s more about learning.

CLH: Do you have any previous research or lab work experience? What do you like and dislike about those experiences?

DH: I don’t have research experiences but I’ve done some lab work. I’ve always been almost better at more hands-on stuff than the book material per se. I like it a lot. Like in the E&M lab, building circuits and building things like that.

CLH: Anything you don’t like about them?

DH:  Hmm… not really. Of course I don’t have too much experience. But if there’s something that’s difficult sometimes it’ll be answering things I don’t know. Because if I just don’t know I don’t know. I have to find it out, be more resourceful and figure out how to get the answers.

CLH: 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?

DH: I think the fact that this is fairly one-on-one is pretty helpful. Whenever someone is telling me “you” something but not just the whole classroom, I’m much more likely to retain and learn from it. More hands-on and also seeing figures, especially someone who made it to describe it, that’d be helpful.

CLH: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your school and career? How have you overcome these challenges?

DH: I went to a magnet academic middle school and on to academic high school and they really challenged me. But that’s what I need, I need to be challenged. But beyond that, I was challenged by the fact that the college is expensive, it’s very expensive, so I’ve been working through most of it, trying to keep full-time classes and two majors. I think that I’ve been extremely driven by my passion. So this step toward physics, but not just mechanical engineering, has definitely made me more passionate. I do much better whenever I’m passionate about something.

CLH: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of?

DH: Being driven by what I’m passionate about. Definitely this. Also just what I do in college. I work in an observatory, just volunteer work. I really enjoy teaching people who are curious about Astronomy. I’m very proud of that because you can see the look on their face whenever you tell them something, and they think it’s interesting. I like that. In college, I’m proud of college. Nowadays it’s more expected to go to college than the previous generations. But I’m a first generation college student. Being the first one who goes to college in my family, I’m pretty proud of that.

CLH: Can you give some more information about the volunteer work at the observatory?

DH:  It’s put on by my campus physics department, most people who volunteer are physics students. We’ve got a planetarium and also a telescope. Every Sunday night in the fall and spring we have an outreach event and everybody is welcome to come. It’s free. We spend about an hour at the planetarium, and depending on the number of people who come, we also have a lecture. Once it gets dark, we take them out and show things in the telescope. There’s a lot of light pollution in the area, but it’s amazing to see the look on people’s faces who haven’t seen anything through a telescope before, and they see the colors of Jupiter.

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College. He is the chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).