Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meet Your New CSMA Members: Keith Hawkins

Keith Hawkins
Columbia University

Keith Hawkins, a native of Canton, Ohio, is currently a Simon’s Junior Research Fellow at Columbia University in New York City, NY. He recently accepted a position as an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin to begin in September of 2018. He is an observational astronomer with a focus on Galactic Archaeology, which aims to piece together the structure, formation, assembly, and evolution of our Milky Way Galaxy using fossil stars in the night sky. He is an expert in stellar chemistry through high- and low-resolution spectroscopy and uses the Milky Way as a laboratory to understand galaxy formation more generally.

He earned his B.S. in Astrophysics with minors in African Studies and Mathematics from Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College, which is the only degree-granting program in the US modeled after the Oxford-Cambridge system of tutorial education, as a Templeton and Goldwater scholar in 2013. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in less than three years from the University of Cambridge, as a British Marshall Scholar, in 2016.  

John Johnson: Congratulation on being named a Marshall Scholar! What was it like and what was your reaction when you first learned that you won?
Keith: In 2013, after many years of hard work through my undergraduate degree, I was lucky enough to be named a British Marshall scholar. This is a nationally competitive award where only up to 40 people in the entire United States are given the opportunity by the British government to study for a Masters or PhD degree in the UK in the spirit of the Marshall Plan to foster and strengthen the ties between the American and British peoples. When I found out I won, I immediately called my mentor and advisor at the Honors Tutorial College and shouted ‘We did it!” We were both so stunned by the news that we couldn’t believe it. She was ecstatic for me, and I was grateful to her for all of her help and encouragement. During my time as a Marshall scholar I was given amazing opportunities to meet influential people from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer (a former Marshall Scholar) to the Prince of Wales.  It was one of the best experiences of my life.

John: You will soon begin an appointment as a Professor of Astronomy: What are your plans?
Keith: As a professor it is my aim to do cutting-edge science in the boundary between the fields of Stellar and Galactic Astronomy, teach the next generation of scientists, and inspire more underrepresented minorities to enter and stay in our field. My research group at UT Austin will focus on questions centered on the Milky Way’s formation, assembly, and evolution using its stars as my laboratory. As an observational astronomer, I am lucky to be at UT Austin, where I will have access to the many wonderful telescopes, ranging from 1-10meters, at McDonald Observatories to carry out my work with my students and postdocs. 
While my group will be very active in research, I will train each member to become an effective communicator of astronomy and encourage them to speak regularly to a growing and diverse public through outreach at the city, state, and national levels. It is my hope that every member of my group will leave with the ability to talk about astronomy with the experts and with someone that they have just met on a flight, a bus, or in the grocery store. As an African-American astronomer, I will spend the bulk of my career encouraging and supporting other minority students to join and continue in STEM fields.

John: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?
Keith: My work has been focused on developing a better understanding of the structure of the Milky Way through large spectroscopic (like SDSS-APOGEE) and astrometric surveys (like ESA’s Gaia Mission). This ‘big data’ approach to stellar spectroscopy and Galactic science is relatively new and a very exciting field to be a part of. It has enabled me to make significant scientific contributions to questions about how to decompose the Milky Way’s components, how the Milky Way’s inner halo may have formed, and the use of helium burning red clump stars as standard candles. I have also made significant technical contributions such as making detailed improvements to the data products (specifically the chemical abundances) being derived from large spectroscopic surveys.  I often work in these cross-field boundaries (Galactic, Stellar, and data sciences) that enable me to apply concepts used regularly in one field to another.

John: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story and who or what inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?
Keith: You know how they say: “it all begins with a crush…?” Well, they are right. For me astronomy and more generally science was never something I was interested in. In fact, I really wanted to be a firefighter. Then along came fifth grade, when I sat across from a girl that I had a crush on. She happened to like images of outer space. So to woo her (as much as a fifth grader can woo), I would talk to her about the images of space we saw. We would talk during class, much to the annoyance of my teachers. That year of school was particularly fun not because of the content of what we learned in class, but simply because I could sit near a particular person and speak to her about space. Unlike many middle schoolers, I woke up each morning excited to go to school. Sadly, the following year she moved away. In the midst of young heartbreak, I reminded myself of her by checking out the same encyclopedias of astronomy that we looked at together. By the time high school came around, astronomy was its own self-sustaining passion and I craved to learn more. 

In high school I was lucky enough to partake in a science research program with my twin brother at a local university. This program enabled me to complete several astronomy research projects that I entered into science fairs at the district, state, national, and international levels. One of those projects gave me the opportunity to do a summer of research at Ohio University (OU) with Prof. Markus Boettcher who not only believed in me but also encouraged me to continue with astronomy research when I became an  undergraduate at OU. In my last year of high school, my twin brother and I won the top two places at the Ohio Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and became the only two representatives of the state of Ohio at the national conference. These experiences helped me enormously when I entered college in 2009. 

With the help of OU Honors Tutorial College and close mentors, I successfully completed 3 summer research programs (an NSF REU at NOAO, the Caltech MURF program at Caltech, and an NSF REU at University of Hawai’i). Each of these provided me with the skills that would ultimately allow me to complete my PhD as a Marshall scholar at Cambridge  University in under 3 years.

John: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?
Keith: I have found that one of the obstacles that I have faced, like many others, is Imposter Syndrome. Even today, I still face this. For me, it is the constant voice in the back of my head thinking that everyone will find out that I am not as good of an astronomer as they once thought and that I will lose the respect of my colleagues.  I have also struggled with the heavy weight that sometimes befalls minority students. I felt that I could never have a misstep during my undergraduate career because everyone was watching. When you're the first African-American to do something, sometimes there is a heavy weight to bear.  I have tried to overcome these through leaning on mentors, finding a healthy work-life balance, cycling, and focusing on inspiring the next generations of astronomers of color. 

Jorge: People of color are severely underrepresented in our field.  Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors, etc.) that helped you succeed?
Keith: The first line of my Ph.D. acknowledgment section reads: “There is an African proverb that says ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ I think this also holds for a doctoral student; ‘it takes a village to raise a Ph.D.’ ”  

This statement rings true for me today as it did then. Finding a group of close mentors that I could trust is, in my opinion, what allowed me to succeed. For me those mentors were a handful of people that were of different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. They acted as a sounding board for my ideas, advised me on career trajectory, and calmed me down when I dealt with the day-to-day micro/macro-aggressions in astronomy. It was also great to be in a program that connected me with other diverse students. Specific examples of the programs include: the TAURUS program at UT Austin, the Banneker and Aztlán Institute at Harvard, and the MURF program at Caltech. All of these programs have, in addition to research opportunities for undergraduate students, professional development, and a social justice aspect which make them unique compared to traditional research experiences.

John:  What advice would you give to other people with a similar background to yours who might be interested in following your path?
Keith: You will look up in your physics, mathematics, and astronomy classes and probably find that your are the only person of color in the room. You may also find that when you get a prestigious award or a faculty position that people will say: “You only got that because your black.” Do not let these things discourage you! There is a rapidly growing community of diverse astronomers that will support you. Believe in yourself and your abilities. 

Also find several strong mentors that you trust. Walking through astronomy as a person of color can be a very lonely experience, but finding mentors and peers of color can be very helpful in getting through the thick of it. Most of all, have fun! Astronomy, and the career path you choose should be fun. Otherwise why do it?

Finally, I will mention that while hard work and solid research are the backbone to getting a job in astronomy, there is an element of luck. Networking with others can help with that. Make sure you promote your science and engage with other astronomers, because they may one day hire you.  

John:  Any final words?

KeithI cannot thank enough the people (family, mentors, friends, colleagues) who have supported me over the years! This may sound cliche but it is honest and sincere, because without them I would in a very different place. 

John Johnson is a Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a member of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

AAS Teaching Workshop

In conjunction with the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, January 8-12, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Teaching for Equity

Monday, 8 January | 10:30 am – 3:30 pm
Organizer: Kim Coble, San Francisco State University
Complimentary with meeting registration
Even if you have already registered for the meeting, you can still sign up! Just go to the registration page and add this FREE workshop.
This workshop is aimed at instructors who are working toward or looking to create learning environments that are inclusive, supportive, and rigorous, where diverse perspectives are represented, and students and faculty can thrive. Topics addressed are drawn from the Inclusive Astronomy recommendations for teaching and include: (1) identifying the strengths, weaknesses, needs, and resources our students bring to the classroom, including cultural capital; (2) techniques for understanding and influencing classroom climate and dynamics; and (3) creating an affirming and accessible physical space. We will learn from each other’s teaching experiences as well as literature, and discuss structural and pedagogical practices that can help us advance toward these goals. The teaching practices presented will be research-informed and research-validated, with evidence of equitable outcomes for all intersections of student identities in terms of psychosocial shifts and academic success. Resources provided will include examples of: syllabus evaluation tools, classroom codes of conduct and “ground rules,” literature on social justice pedagogy, and formative and summative assessment tools. By the end of the workshop, participants will identify concrete changes they can make in their courses or departments and create an implementation and assessment plan.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

PhD Defense: Dr. Christopher S. Moore

Dr. Christopher S. Moore, CU Boulder

We at Astronomy in Color are pleased to congratulate Dr. Christopher S. Moore for successfully defending his PhD dissertation titled

"Atomic Layer Deposition Reflective Coatings for future Astronomical Space Telescopes and the Solar Corona viewed through the MinXSS (Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer) CubeSats"

on November 9th, 2017, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Kevin France and Prof. Tom Woods at the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Dr. Moore was also awarded the Rodger Doxsey Dissertation Travel Prize, which will allow him to present his work at the 2018 American Astronomical Society Meeting.

We wish Dr. Moore our best wishes as he embarks on his next appointment as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics!


On the original version, we mentioned that Dr. Moore was the first Black student to earn a PhD from APS. This information is incorrect. Here's the list of Black students who have earned PhDs from that department.
  • 2017 - Christopher S. Moore
  • 2001 - Kevin M. McLin
  • 2001 - Shawn Brooks
  • 1979 - Gibor Basri
We apologize for this mistake.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Student Highlight: Louis Keyamo Johnson

Louis Keyamo Johnson
Post-Baccalaureate Student at Princeton University

Louis Keyamo Johnson is currently a Post-Baccalaureate at the Astronomy Department at Princeton University. He received his Bachelor's degree from University of the Pacific with a double major in Physics and Applied Mathematics. Leading to his current position at Princeton he has conducted several research projects covering various subfields such as cosmology, stellar science, and galaxy evolution. Even though his astronomy career is just starting, he has very high ambitions of becoming a well-established researcher. He has already tried to embark on this journey by networking and collaborating with various Astronomers in the community to help him make that dream a reality. Outside of Astronomy, Louis has strong passions for mentoring, community outreach, activism, music, and learning new things about the world around him. 

Jorge: Congratulations on your offer to attend Princeton's Post-baccalaureate Program. What was your reaction when you first learned that you had been selected?

Louis: Thank you, Jorge. My initial reaction was excitement. I was very happy to have the opportunity to join the Princeton community and further my advancement in the field. I reflected on how I felt being denied from all the schools I applied to for undergrad. I remembered the goal I then set for myself to earn acceptance into any program I wanted to attend for grad school. Seeing that hard work pay off and manifest in reality was a surreal moment. 

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

Louis: Hmmm, that's a really complex question… I see myself as constantly growing, changing, adapting. I would like to rephrase that question to what’s my story thus far. My story begins as a five year old boy thinking about concepts of forever, asking my mom so many questions all of the time. Listening to my father tell me his views of the world always lead me to think of more questions to ask. I have always been a curious person and maybe one day that may come back to bite me, but for now it has helped me discover so many elements about the world around me and myself too. My story is still not yet defined because I am still in the process of trying to figure out my story. In short, I see myself as a Naruto or Goku/Gohan, someone newly coming into my full potential. 

Jorge: You have substantial research experience for someone your age. Can you share a few highlights from each of your experiences at the various REU programs you have attended?

Louis: Thank you, thank you. My first official research project was in Trieste, Italy. Being in Italy, and having to overcome language barriers, I quickly learned that communication is the key to success. My advisor was hands off which forced me to work independently and use resources outside of her. My second research project was at Harvard as a SAO REU summer intern. At Harvard, I learned the value and importance of having an inclusive environment when being a productive researcher. I also gained more coding skills and was able to learn python. My next research project at Harvard again, but as a member of the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. From this experience, I learned about multidimensional excellence from each member core or affiliate, in the program. I also learned how to make my research relatable to everyone through use of analogies.   

Jorge: What do you mean by ‘multidimensional excellence’? Can you please elaborate?

Louis: Multidimensional excellence is a concept I learned from Prof. John Johnson that states that intelligence is not based on one single attribute, such as a test scores, grades, research project, etc. Instead, intelligence is based on the compilation of each attribute an individual has. Some people may be better at test taking, some may be better at research, but the truth is that each person’s axis of excellence doesn’t make either of them better than the other. We are all intelligent! We just have to find our various axes of intelligence.

Jorge: In addition to your substantial research dossier, you have given talks at places like MIT, Harvard and Princeton! Before even finishing college? What was that like?

Louis: I felt extremely honored and humbled to be able to speak to senior researchers and tenured professors on my findings and research experiences at schools with such a high reputation. Many thanks go to several amazing professors and scientists like Dr. Lia Corrales, Prof. Jenny Greene, the directors of the Harvard SAO program, and of course the Banneker and Aztlán Institute, for giving me the opportunity to grow as a scientist by inviting me to each of those institutions. Giving those talks in front of those large audiences helped me to strengthen my confidence as a scientist. I gained the ability to use scientific language to describe my research projects to other scientist and forced me to learn how to communicate thoroughly and effectively. 

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

Louis: My ability to make connections by using analogies and making the material relatable to me and others, my confidence, my diligence, and my honesty.  I think the last three require further explanation. The saying goes “ignorance is bliss,” and as I get older I understand why. For example, let's say we are at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting and there is a well-renowned scientist nearby. My confidence allows me to see them as an approachable person while someone else may be hesitant or afraid to speak to them. I will be able to overcome any mental barriers and go have a conversation with them. My confidence, paired together with my diligence allows me to get what I strive for without fear because I do not have an anticipated outcome in my head. My honesty helps me to be true with myself to become a genuine person. I am not pretending to be courageous or “cool,” I am just confident and diligent enough to achieve my goals by any means, even if those means may seem impossible or unrealistic to others people's realities.

Jorge: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Louis: If you would have asked me this question a few years ago, my ignorance/ego would have prompted me to answer with “No one inspired me, I inspired myself.” It would have been guided by my lack of exposure at the time to what it meant to be “successful.” At the time, my inspiration for pursuing astronomy was that I saw astronomy as my way out of the harsh realities of growing up in Vallejo, CA. Today, with the help of the Banneker and Aztlán Institute, I see Astronomy as something that is natural to my people and our culture. Benjamin Banneker, one of the first Astronomers in America, comes from West Africa where astronomy was not only used to understand the cosmos, but used as a way of life. If you extend past West Africa and pinpoint anywhere on the map where a pyramid can be found, you’ll find it aligns with  a star system in the sky. If you study indigenous cultures such as the Dogon civilization, you’ll find that they knew about Sirius A and B, approximately 400 years prior to American astronomers development of a telescope sensitive enough to detect that Sirius was a multi-star system. So answering your question, my inspiration goes further and deeper than mere curiosity, but is ancestral and possibly embedded in my genetics.

Jorge: I am sure your unique path will lead to a very unique and interesting career! What are you plans after this position?

Louis: Take over the world… ahaha, just kidding! But I would like to change the world. My direct goals after my position as post-baccalaureate are to pursue my PhD. I am really trying to put myself in a position to be able to conduct my own research. Through my experience as a researcher and inherently being curious, I am constantly thinking about problems, questions, etc. Through that process, I have been able to come up with ideas on how to solve or answer these questions, but since I am not a professional I do not have the resources to pursue these endeavors. At this point the only way I know how to do this is to go get my PhD. Once I obtain my PhD, I would like to pursue a “Cultural Astronomy” research project, a term I came across by reading a book called African Cultural Astronomy by Jarita Holbrook, Johnson Urama, and R. Thebe Medupe[1]. Changing the world will come after.

Jorge: Allow me to ask a bit more about your path so far. What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?

Louis: On this path I have faced a lot of external obstacles: racism, microaggressions, and financial hardships to name a few. But the biggest obstacle I’ve faced was finding the confidence to believe in myself. By believing in myself and only focusing on those who believe in me, I now have the ability to eliminate all those other obstacles. In the moments where I am able to feel confident and supported, all external things become background noise and I’m able to focus on my immediate goals. I imagine it's like basketball players when they’re shooting free throws; the crowd is cheering, the pressure to succeed is at an all time high, but the players must block out the background noise and
center themselves to focus on the goal at hand. Similar to the basketball player shooting the free throw who can’t win without teammates. I also have a very strong support network composed of family, friends, professors, and colleagues who are constantly inspiring and encouraging me along the way. This growing network is essential to my progress. I know there will always be hardship moving forward, but Newton's third law states “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” so if my actions are to be great there are going to be an equal magnitude of forces opposing my greatness,. With my support network being me, and the strength I have to believe in myself, I cannot lose.   

Jorge: I am glad you to mentioned systemic racism and its financial impact on our communities. We both know just how severely underrepresented Black people are in our field. I thank you for all your hard work! Now that you are at a more advanced position in your career, what ideas do you have to make astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Louis: Wow, that’s another complex question. A question that my friends and I have spent quite some time trying to answer. An idea that we’ve come up to make all STEM fields more equitable and inclusive, is to change the structure of education. Learning that science started with the greeks and ended with Einstein tells a one-dimensional, ½ truth. “Science” was happening simultaneously all over the world, so focusing on one particular culture, and normalizing their findings, doesn’t define all of “science”. If the structure of education redevelops, adds more cultural components/perspectives, and teaches about the sciences found in all cultures, I think it will have two major effects: (1) it will increase representation of minoritized people who may or may not identify with the new cultures that will be introduced to the field, and (2) it will advance the field in a never before seen way that extends beyond white Euro-centric cultural perspective.

Jorge: What advice would you give to other people with a similar background to your who might be interested in following your path?

Louis: This path is not easy, this path is not always fun, but this path can be rewarding.  If you want something, go for it. Go for it knowing that you will be tested every step of the way, but knowing also that you are not alone. Find others who are like minded and join/create a family. Stay true to yourself, to those who you love, and the one above (or the universe, depending on what you believe). 

Jorge: Now I would like to focus on an occasion where I was fortunate to witness, first hand, you sharing your wisdom with many of us. At the 2017 Winter AAS Meeting you read a speech after our Town Hall on Racism. Would you be willing to share it with us?

Louis: I would be willing to share the speech, however it was more of a freestyle than a speech. Before I went on stage, I wrote down a few keywords that I wanted to express to the community. The main point I wanted to convey was that we shouldn’t compete against one another, but complete one another. The main difference between compete and complete is the “l,”  I have defined that “l” as love. Having love to fuel our field and fuel one another creates a more productive and healthy environment. I also mentioned that, as a child, we are taught about the subtractive coloring model and in that model when all colors are removed, black is what remains. So, based on that understanding, I changed the notion of black holes to black whole as an analogy for the astronomy community. The light is a representation of white supremacy[2] and I believe that if we can all come together, and all of us accrete into the black whole, we can make a potential well so deep that not even light or white supremacy could exist. 

Jorge:  I recognize that an interview does not suffice to capture a full person. Do you have any final words for the reader?

Louis: Yes, I would like to shout out my Banneker Aztlán Institute family, my home institution UOP, my mentors in the astronomy community, my family and loved ones, and thank you for giving me this opportunity and all your support of my career so far. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College, and is currently the Chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy.

[1] African Cultural Astronomy: Current Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy research in Africa. Holbrook, Jarita, Medupe, R. Thebe, Urama, Johnson O. Springer Nature. ISBN 978-1-4020-6639-9

[2] white supremacy refers to a global system of power structures that privileges white people (E.g., hooks, bell (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-1663-5).