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.

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