Saturday, December 8, 2018

Applications open for Advancing Theoretical Astrophysics Summer School

Advancing Theoretical Astrophysics Summer School

July 15-26, 2019 at University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Application due January 15, 2019
For more information, see

“Advancing Theoretical Astrophysics” is a two week long, international summer school intended to build and strengthen essential skills in physics and computation for a career in theoretical astrophysics. The summer school prioritizes a supportive, collaborative, and diverse learning environment.

The target groups for this school are graduate students pursuing a degree in astrophysics, with a BSc degree in physics or astrophysics (note that we will consider well-motivated exceptions on a case-by-case basis, such as early-stage postdocs wishing to change research area). One of our primary goals is to encourage young researchers who have an interest in pursuing theory, but have had only limited experience or access to resources, to make the leap. Attendees of the school will learn and employ a variety of computational methods, so a basic comfort level with linux and coding/scripting is expected.

The school will be a mix of short topical lectures and interactive problem solving, using methods that can be applied to a wide range of topics. Students will work collaboratively on several types of canonical problems (with guidance from teachers and more advanced students), gaining hands-on experience with cutting-edge techniques employed in modern theoretical astrophysics. Examples include setting up and solving non-linear differential equations, running numerical simulations of (magneto)hydrodynamic equations, and utilizing order-of-magnitude techniques to develop intuition for a physical problem. We will also provide training in essential complementary skills such as data visualisation, public speaking, proposal writing, and networking.

We welcome applications from everyone, but we especially encourage applicants from under-represented groups and countries with access to less resources for theoretical astrophysics. We hope to not only provide students with the tools to succeed in theoretical astrophysics, but to advance the science itself by opening the conversation to a diverse range of viewpoints, creating new pathways and approaches to solving the most difficult and interesting problems in the universe.

Confirmed Lecturers/Mentors/Facilitators: 
Camille Avestruz (University of Chicago/University of Michigan), Nicole Cabrera Salazar (Movement Consulting), Chiara Ceccobello (Chalmers University of Technology), Jane Dai (University of Hong Kong), Jason Dexter (CU Boulder), Sebastian Heinz (U Wisconsin, Madison),  Daniela Huppenkothen (University of Washington, Seattle), Andrew King (University of Leicester), Nicole Lloyd-Ronning (Los Alamos National Laboratory/University of New Mexico), Sera Markoff (University of Amsterdam), Gibwa Musoke (University of Amsterdam), Samaya Nissanke (University of Amsterdam), Smadar Naoz (University of California, Los Angeles), Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz (University of California, Santa Cruz/DARK Copenhagen), Irene Tamborra (Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen), Alexander Tchekhovskoy (Northwestern University)

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Analis Lawrence

The fifth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer focuses on Analis Lawrence, who recently graduated from Florida International University with a major in Physics and minors in Astronomy and Mathematics.  She will be attending the University of Florida as a graduate student in the Physics Department in the fall of 2018.  This summer Analis is working with Prof. Brendan Bowler on the Galactic kinematics of exoplanet host stars using Gaia, as part of the TAURUS research program at The University of Texas at Austin. He sat down with Analis recently for this interview.

BB: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy or science in general?  What draws you to science in the first place?

AL: A general passion for learning inspired me to pursue a career in astrophysics. But I have been most enchanted by reading and hearing about Albert Einstein’s work and his thought experiments on gravity, space, and time. I’ve been interested in science since a young age but not physics and astronomy until later in my academic career when I started going to schools that were STEM-focused.  Exposure to physics for me came once I took a high school physics course, and later in college, when I got involved with the astronomy club at the Florida International University.  I also became interested in astronomy through documentaries. 

BB: Please tell me more about yourself. What do you do for fun?

AL: For fun, I enjoy endurance running, playing and watching tennis, and painting when I have the time. My normal routine is a six-mile run in the mornings, which I do a few times each week.  I also enjoy spending time with my friends and my loved ones.

BB: In your opinion, what qualities makes astronomy so unique and compelling?

AL: What makes astrophysics so compelling to me is our insignificant size in the universe, yet how much space and time there is to explore.  It’s easy to forget until you look up. I like that astronomy ponders big questions that are truly amazing, from the origins of the universe to the nature of black holes to the question “Are we alone?”  What I find most appealing is space-time physics and cosmology from a theoretical perspective, which is the direction I aim to pursue in graduate school.  I’m looking forward to exploring the theoretical astrophysics groups at UF.

BB: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to share— for example, something that’s happened along your academic or personal trajectory?

AL: I am most grateful for two REU’s at the University of Chicago. During the summer of 2016, I calibrated a photomultiplier tube for a liquid Xenon detector for their dark matter group with advisors Luca Grandi and Richard Saldanha. And the summer after, with Hsiao-Wen Chen, I carried out a statistical modeling study on highly ionized oxygen in star-forming galaxy halos. I then compared my model to observations of low-redshift galaxies from Hubble.

BB: What mentors, teachers, or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?

AL: All of my teachers, coaches, parents, and family have been inspiring in my life.   My most influential mentors have been in college, especially the particle physics and astrophysics professors at FIU.  My mentor at FIU was Dr. Boeglin who studies nuclear physics. And Dr. Webb’s astronomy lectures and star parties first got me interested in the field as early as freshman year.

Documentaries and books by theoretical physicist Brian Greene have been especially captivating, and I have loved listening to his World Science Festival discussions with scientists and philosophers.  I appreciate the way he’s able to simplify complex concepts for the public.  All of these helped inspire me to change my major. 

My high school physics teacher Mr. Smith also jumpstarted my interest in physics. He gave me an appreciation for critical thinking and brought much energy and enthusiasm to learning physics.

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

AL: Attending schools in an underprivileged area has made me a hard worker and has taught me to try to think outside of the box, or to better realize that there is no box. Other schools tended to have more, enhanced resources for learning, and students there may have been introduced to physics earlier in their careers.  But I was fortunate to attend schools with great STEM programs and teachers who exposed me to new opportunities and an interdisciplinary education.  

BB: You’ll be heading to the University of Florida for graduate school next month— congratulations!  What are you most looking forward to at UF?

AL: I am mostly looking forward to meeting the faculty in the astrophysics theory group and the possibility to explore the different research opportunities, including LIGO.  I’m also looking forward to TA-ing and meeting my fellow grad students.

BB: What advice would you give to high school and undergraduate students of color interested in following your path?

AL: Keep your curiosity alive and be yourself.  Always work hard.

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

AL: I hope to become a professor. My interests are in space-time, black holes, and cosmology. Somewhere along the line, I want to help fix the minority and gender gap in physics education and careers.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Gerlinder Difo Cheri

The fourth TAURUS scholar spotlight of the summer focuses on Gerlinder Difo Cheri, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands. Gerlinder is working with Andrew Vanderburg this summer, searching for evidence of planetary destruction around the burned out remnants of stars like our Sun.

Gerlinder Difo Cheri joins us at the University of Texas at Austin from more than two thousand miles away in the US Virgin Islands. Coming to UT Austin poses both challenges and opportunities by virtue of the university’s sheer size: the number of students at UT Austin (about 51,000) is a bit more than half the total population of the US Virgin Islands (100,000). This summer, Gerlinder is making the most of the opportunities and resources in pursuit of his goals and ambitions.

Gerlinder grew up on a steady diet of science- and technology-related media. He recalls being inspired at an early age by scientists he saw on television, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, who “just went out and solved things.” Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy seemed natural to him. “How can you not be interested in astronomy?” he asks. These science and engineering role models drove him to enroll at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and begin studying computer science.

Once he arrived, Gerlinder found the professors at UVI to be valuable role models as well. Before enrolling there, his role models were scientists and engineers (fictional or otherwise) he saw on television, ranging from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Tony Stark. But when he arrived at UVI, for the first time he met people who lived on his island and were pursuing his passion. Gerlinder found it indispensable to ask his professors about the challenges and struggles they faced.

Despite Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy, he was unable to dive in to the subject when he first enrolled at the UVI because the school did not offer any astronomy courses at that time. So when UVI offered their first astronomy class ever, Gerlinder immediately signed up. From there, Gerlinder took a leap and applied to be a TAURUS scholar at UT, which brought him here.

“The future of astronomy is beautiful and expansive,” Gerlinder says. He sees and values how astronomy can capture the public imagination, like how his imagination was captured as a child learning about science and technology from communicators on television. He recognizes, however, that initiative is required to overcome barriers. When asked what advice he might give to a younger student in a similar position to himself, Gerlinder says “You have to actively search for what you want to do, and don’t just wait for it to fall into your lap." If you take the first step, you might just find yourself studying the stars.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Oscar Cantua

The third TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer is about Oscar Cantua, who is a physics major at the University of Texas San Antonio, just 100 miles down the road from UT Austin.  Oscar is working with Dr. Jorge Zavala this summer on the characterization of some of the Universe's most luminous and dusty galaxies.

Oscar Cantua joins TAURUS from a familiar institution that is also a part of the UT System: the University of Texas at San Antonio. Despite being less than 100 miles from his hometown and in the same educational system, Oscar says that this summer's research experience represents a new world of opportunities to pursue his future career in astronomy.

Oscar’s interest in astronomy goes back to his childhood, when he first moved to the US from Mexico and used to read a lot of books to learn English. He realized that science books, and particularly astronomy-related storiesm were the most interesting to him. Some years later, astronomy went from being a hobby to a potential professional career after he spent a summer working at the NASA Johnson Space Center (yes, NASA!) as part of the Texas High School Aerospace Program. Now at UT San Antonio, Oscar is a physics major with a minor in astronomy. 

Oscar is part of the UT San Antonio's Top Scholar program, which combines a comprehensive four-year merit-based scholarship with personalized experiences in academics, leadership and community service. Thanks to this opportunity, he was able to get involved in scientific research early in his college career, analyzing data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the nature of binary systems in nearby galaxies, under the supervision of Prof. Eric Schlegel. This summer, Oscar is jumping wavelengths from the very short and energetic part of the spectrum to the longest-wavelength observations achieved with the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, in order to identify and study the most distant dusty star-forming galaxies in the Universe.

Looking back on the past, Oscar realized that it has not been easy to reach this point in his professional life.  He is a first-generation college student, living far away from his family, and having to work while studying. Now he is closer to his dream of going to graduate school, not only with passion and enthusiasm for astrophysics but also with abundant knowledge and experience. 

Oscar's advice to young people, particularly to those belonging to underrepresented groups like him, is simply "never stop chasing your dreams.”

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP)

Applications from URM students encouraged.

We are pleased to announce that the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program is now accepting applications for new students at

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP) is a supplement to graduate education in astronomy, intended to teach astronomy students essential skills for dealing with big data. You don't need to know anything about data science to apply, you just need to be excited to learn! 

The DSFP consists of three, one-week schools per year over a two year period. On top of teaching our students the skills they need for modern survey astronomy, we also aim to create a collaborative, supportive learning environment, and work to empower our students to teach the skills they learn to others. We strive to create an inclusive program, and particularly encourage applications from students from traditionally underrepresented groups in astronomy. 

Please visit to learn more!

Lucianne Walkowicz, Director
Adam Miller, Program Director

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Gabriella Sanchez

This week's TAURUS Scholar Spotlight focuses in Gabriella Sanchez, a rising senior at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.  Gabriella's research focuses on gas outflows in nearby galaxies.  She recently sat down with her research mentor at UT, Dr. Justin Spilker, to discuss her path to TAURUS and what's in store for her future.

JS: Who are you/where are you from?

GS: I’m Gabriella Sanchez. 21 years old. I was born and raised on Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated island. I am the 5th of seven children. And will be the second to graduate from college next year. I’m majoring in astrophysics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

JS: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy or science?
GS: Honestly, I thought it would be pretty cool. I was always interested in NASA and outer space. To me, astrophysics seemed like a challenge and the most interesting major of my choices. I wanted to pursue a career that made me think critically and that I would always be fascinated by. In addition, I specifically chose astrophysics because I was interested in astronomy, but I wanted to learn/use a lot of math (I like math) and physics concepts.

JS: What aspects of your life do you think led you to do astronomy?
GS: As a child, I was always curious. I think I thought about space a lot and always had the need to know what else is out there in the universe. My favorite movie at one point in elementary was Armageddon. I thought it was absolutely amazing! Of course, now that I’m more informed I see that it’s full of inaccuracies, but still… it’s a great movie! And perhaps the little kid in me dreamed of being an astronaut or discovering new objects in space.

JS: What are you most proud of so far in your life / career?
GS: I’m most proud of a lot of things that I’ve experienced so far this year. First, I’m proud of where I am mentally. I feel I grew so much as a person and an adult. I’m proud I finally took initiative in applying to REUs and got accepted into 3 out of 5. I’m proud I’ve made it even this far in my college education, and glad at how much I was able to push myself. Lastly, I’m incredibly proud of myself for accepting this TAURUS internship and finally braving the experience of leaving home and being on my own for the first time. It’s been one of the greatest experiences in my life so far!

JS: Wow, hopefully this summer doesn't disappoint! What mentors, teachers, or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?
GS: My biggest role models have definitely been my parents. They both didn’t have the opportunity to get a college education, didn’t come from “well-to-do” families. For so many years, they have struggled and sacrificed a lot, raising seven kids, but they always reminded us to work hard and to never do anything less than our best. Seeing them work so hard, and continue to do so, to provide for their family, and being able to give myself the opportunity for a better future and career has been my greatest motivation in life.

JS: Where to next? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?

GS: In five years or so I see myself with better experience in the research field and working with other astronomers. I hope to be working on my masters/PhD. I don’t have an exact plan to follow. I’d like to take my time and experience different fields of work. I’d also like to start a family sooner rather than later in my life. At the moment, I’m looking towards having a career outside academia but staying within the astronomy community.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

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.

Friday, June 29, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Steve Anusie

Steve Anusie, Howard University, TAURUS Scholar, Summer 2018

The first TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the year focuses on Steve Anusie, a rising senior at Howard University majoring in Electrical Engineering.  Steve has strong interests in astrophysics as well, and is using his summer experience in TAURUS to explore possible astronomy-related careers.  His research mentor, Dr. Cynthia Froning, writes about his path to-date.

Steve Anusie is an electrical engineering major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Steve has just completed his first year (as a junior) at Howard after transferring from Morgan University in Baltimore, MD. The youngest of six sons and a Baltimore native, Steve traces his interest in astronomy to a single moment when, while delivering pizzas, he saw a bright light in the sky and almost swerved off the road trying to look at it. This was followed by a night of online investigation during which he identified the object as Venus and then was consumed with investigating other planets and the stars. Steve has always been interested in science and nature. What draws him in particular to astronomy is its scope: the excitement of knowing that we will never be done studying and trying to understand the universe. 

When asked about previous mentors or inspirations, Steve mentioned his Astrophysics teacher at Howard, Dr. Alfred, who introduced Steve to his research work and collaborations at Goddard Space Flight Center. Steve particularly appreciates Dr. Alfred’s approachability, his kindness, and how he demonstrates the pursuit of a well-rounded life. Steve majored in EE at the urging of his mother and is now glad that he has taken this path, because he enjoys the intellectual challenges and the opportunity to pursue hands-on application of his STEM skills. He considers mastering mathematics and C++ as his greatest challenges to date, but appreciates how they are teaching him to be persistent in learning new information. Of his achievements, he is most proud of being accepted into the TAURUS program, as well as how his career are gelling after his transfer to Howard.

Steve's goals for the TAURUS program include learning about how research is done and what it would be like to pursue a graduate program in astronomy. He is also interested in instrumentation and the possibility of applying his engineering skills to astronomical work. His plans for this summer are to gather the experience necessary to set his targets for the remainder of his undergraduate career. He appreciates that his engineering major and astronomy interests give him the ability to pursue a broad range of professional options and plans to use the TAURUS program to decide where to direct his focus going ahead. 

This summer, Steve is working with Dr. Cynthia Froning. He will be constructing light curves of flares in cool stars with the goal of identifying tracers of stellar activity and understand how flares affect the habitability of exoplanets around low-mass stars. Steve is also talking to different instrument builders in the Department and McDonald Observatory, touring labs and facilities, and learning about astronomical instrumentation careers as part of his summer research experience.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Student Highlight: Ashley Walker

Ashley Walker in the Hörst Lab at Johns Hopkins University

Ashley L. Walker is a native of Chicago, IL. She is a candidate for a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry in her senior year at Chicago State University (CSU) and a recipient of the Chi Sci scholarship. She has worked on galaxy surveys with the Undergraduate ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA) survey team, astrochemical scavenger hunts, and Hydrogen Cyanide in Protoplanetary Disks at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. She is interested in astrochemistry with a focus on early stages of planet formation. Currently, Ashley is conducting an internship at Johns Hopkins University with Dr. Sarah Hörst as her advisor. Her projects focus on Venus as well as Saturn’s moon, Titan. Recently, she was selected for and gave a talk at Science Speaks Chicago at the Adler Planetarium. Networking is one of Ashley’s strongest skills along with mentoring, activism, and leadership. She hopes to inspire a new generation of scientists, encouraging teenagers, adults, and Black women to continue their education regardless of their background and other obstacles in life. 

1) You were recently selected as a speaker for Science Speaks Chicago. Congratulations! What did you present?

Ashley: Thank you. I was extremely excited to talk to the younger generations about a future in science. My talk focused on how I got started in astronomy, some of my challenges and experiences, and my research at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which focused on modeling ice chemistry in early planet-forming disks. 

2) Please tell us more about yourself. What’s your story?

Ashley: Which story? Hmmm….I’m a very interesting person. Growing up, I knew that Black scientists existed but I just didn’t meet any of them. I consider the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago my home. I live there and grew up around there. My grandparents’ home is still there. We’ve been in the neighborhood for over 50 years. We don’t see people that look like me become chemists, astronomers, or physicists. I want the people in my neighborhood to be exposed to what people of color (POC) scientists really look like and NOT the TV version. I first learned about astronomy at the age of 5, when my uncle bought me a telescope. It was red. As generic as it sounds, it was pretty cool. My aunts took my cousins and me to the Adler planetarium when I was about 9 or 10. I had ALWAYS wanted to go back. If you would’ve told me 12 years ago, that in future I’d be a scientist, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

I’m a non-traditional student. After transferring into CSU from a junior college, I was curious about the astronomy research that was being offered at the time. Dr. Kim Coble, my mentor, encouraged me to pursue astronomy research as a chemistry major and as a career. 

Currently, I’m doing an internship with Dr. Sarah Hörst. The group’s dynamic is so amazing. I fit right in. My main project is about Saturn’s moon, Titan. In the Hörst lab, we recreate planetary atmospheres, whether it’s early Earth, moons, or exoplanets. My job is to understand the effect of the prebiotic chemistry on Titan. 

Ashley with fellow Undergraduate ALFALFA Team students at the Greenbank Telescope

3) What kinds of self-care do you practice? What are the things that bring you joy and make you feel alive?

Ashley: I roller skate, draw, play flag football on a team in Chicago, aerial acrobatics and different types of dance from hip-hop to interpretative dance for my self-care practice. They all bring me joy along with my mom and my cats Pepper, Precious, and Smokey. 

4) What inspired you to pursue a career in astrochemistry?

Ashley: My mentor, Dr. Kim Coble, inspired me to pursue a career in astrochemistry. I was her first research student majoring in chemistry and the last research student she advised at CSU. Dr. Coble is amazing! She believed in me during the darkest time in my life and continues to do so. 

When I had was working with the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team, I saw that they had a special talk with a speaker for astrochemistry and my eyes lit up. I asked a lot of questions. While I was searching for career options in astrochemistry, I read about Emmett Chappelle. He’s the first black astrochemist I had ever heard of and he’s still living today at 92 years old! I want to increase the number of the African Diaspora in astronomy and the subfield of astrochemistry.

Lastly, I’m inspired by my mother. When I was younger, she knew that this is something that I loved doing. My mom is making sure that I can do it. She is currently enrolled in school and will become a lawyer a couple years from now. She’s my shero!

5) What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?

Ashley: I’ve faced the loss of loved ones, racism, discouraging/abusive mentorship, and sexism. My father passed away from lung cancer at the beginning of my third semester (Fall 2016). A few months later I discovered that I was mistakenly declared deceased by the Social Security Administration. I was unable to attend classes in the Spring because of this unfortunate event. I set up a GoFundMe page and with the help of well-known scientists, I was able to re-enroll in school. The issue didn’t get resolved until a few months later. 

However, none of this has stopped me from trying to pursue my goal of being an astrochemist. I’ve overcome all of this through hope, standing up for myself, and self-care. I’ve given myself confidence and helped other people who are going through similar issues. Sometimes, life can get tough and we need something that’ll uplift us. I hope to be an inspiration to them. My mom played a HUGE role in my self-care and the reason I’ve gotten this far. She makes sure that I’ll be okay. My friends have also been a great support system for me! One of them is Elizabeth Gutierrez, whom I met a little bit before we attended the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. She has been one of my most supportive and influential peers. She has incredible strength, wisdom, and brilliance. 

Ashley with her "astro siblings" at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute

6) What are some of your pie-in-the-sky career dreams?

Ashley: I want to work for either NASA Goddard Flight Center or NASA Ames in their astrochemistry lab. I want to co-host a podcast with my friends Elizabeth Gutierrez and KeShawn Ivory. Also, we will have our own planetarium for POC which highlights their contributions to astronomy where KeShawn will be the director, Elizabeth will be the Equity & Inclusion coordinator, and I will be entertainment and planetarium events coordinator along with being the dome theater narrator while speaking in AAVE (Ebonics) for all of the movies. 

Eventually, I want to become a commentator or a narrator on a science show because I’m funny and energetic. I also want to be a Christmas lecturer at the Royal Society like my favorite scientist, Michael Faraday. My facial expressions and some..okay all of the things that I say make people laugh. I want people to have fun while learning cool science. Later on down the line, I want to become a professor at Chicago State University and start a formal astronomy program. 

7) Black women are severely marginalized in our field. If astronomy were an ideal community for Black women, what would that look like for you?

Ashley: An ideal community for me would be having more women of the African diaspora in positions of power. We would be appreciated more, our ideas would be heard, and not stolen or used against us. Our schools would have more young girls and women of African descent in physics and astronomy classes. The workspace would be would be comfortable for us, we would have more support groups, and better pay for Black women. There would be more opportunities for Black women to thrive and survive. Self-care would be mandatory for Black women when things are stressful so that they could decompress and release any negative energy before working or attending classes. 

8) If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself about your career in astrochemistry?

Ashley: I would say follow your first instincts and ask more questions. Don’t settle, limit yourself for certain criteria, or even have self-doubt because of someone else that is clueless about your choice of career. If your first mind says do it, be like Nike (Just do it). 

9) Any final words?

Ashley: My support team is awesome. I thank my mom, Dr. Kim Coble, and Dr. Kristy Mardis (my current research advisor) all the time. I kind of feel like I was tagged teamed in order to go down this route. My family, friends, people at Banneker & Aztlán Institute, UAT, and other mentors such as Drs. Lucianne Walkowicz, Nia Imara, Sarah Hörst, and sooo many more people have supported me and beyond what I could ask for. 

I want more Black/African descent girls and women to be confident in the skin that they’re in. Continue pursuing your goals, standing up for what is right, being confident in the work that you do, ALWAYS know that your happiness comes first, and self-care is THE BEST care!

The Hörst Phazer Lab Group 2018-2019

Friday, May 11, 2018

Statement Against the Policing of Black and Indigenous Students

[Content Warning: Racism, Anti-Blackness, Police Intimidation, Violence]

Dear fellow astronomers,

We bring to your attention a string of recent incidents involving Black and Indigenous students being racially profiled on university campuses in the United States. We urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the safety of Black and Indigenous astronomers, and especially students, within your institutions.

On April 30th, the mother of two prospective white students called the police to report two Indigenous students on a campus tour of Colorado State University. She described them as “definitely not being part of this tour;” as individuals who really “stand out;” “their clothing had weird symbolism and wording on it;” “I think they’re Hispanic;” and that her husband said that “another dad...also on this tour, also believes they don’t belong...their behavior is very suspicious.” This racist action was upheld and validated by the police officer who answered the 911 call, saying “the fact that more than one person noticed the strange behavior” after the caller alluded to the possibility that she might be "paranoid", aligning with the idea that white people’s discomfort merits police intervention. Officers were dispatched and the Indigenous students were asked to prove they belonged to the tour; one of them was patted down for weapons. The student later explained that he likes to keep his hands in his pockets because he is shy. We share links to the police report, and a statement from the university containing the original 911 call and body cam footage.

Similarly, on May 7th, a Black woman graduate student at Yale took a nap at the Hall of Graduate Studies common room to rest after writing a paper. Soon after, a white student, whose identity has been disclosed by the media, scolded the student using the phrase “You're not supposed to be sleeping here. I'm going to call the police” and took pictures of her without permission before calling the police. A friend of the Black woman student recorded this incident and the interaction with the police, which can be found here. We share a statement by the Black Graduate Network at Yale. At the time of writing, the university has not issued an official statement on their website.

These two incidents are coupled with many other racist calls to the police primarily against Black individuals at establishments like Starbucks, AirBnB, Grand View Golf Course, Nordstrom, Barneys, Walmart, Waffle House, and even public parks -- many of which have resulted in emotional and physical violence against these individuals. These are only a few examples of many incidents against people of color - especially Black folks - in this country, which often go unreported or without media attention. Make no mistake, these incidents do not happen in a vacuum, but are the continuation of centuries of systemic racism and over-policing of communities of color, and the over-surveillance of Black and Indigenous bodies in predominantly-white spaces. 

As summer arrives, new Black and Indigenous students prepare themselves to move to new settings, either to join graduate or REU programs. The signatories urge you to step up your commitment to their safety. A few recommendations for white colleagues include:
  • Recognize that it is your duty to ensure that Black and Indigenous members of your scientific communities feel safe, protected and included - and take immediate action to protect them.
  • Have conversations in your departments and research groups about the implications of white folks calling the police on people of color, which may result in their incarceration and violent (often lethal) action against them.
  • Have conversations with your white students and colleagues about situations that can endanger Black and Indigenous students, such as the use of alcohol and drugs at parties, jokes surrounding the use of these substances in the context of racist and anti-Black narratives, etc. - because, if police officers are dispatched, Black and Indigenous students will be treated differently from their white peers.
  • Call upon existing campus resources - such as a multicultural center, counseling services, or an office of “diversity” and inclusion - to facilitate these conversations.
  • Invest time and funding to provide workshops on implicit bias, racism and anti-Blackness, by qualified facilitators on campus and beyond.
  • Be aware of the implications of requiring Black and Indigenous students to stay in the office after hours, and of any activities that may result in these students having to stay or move around campus after hours.
  • Find resources for Black and Indigenous students so they can equip themselves with tools to help them stay safe. Be sure you consult with experts versed in anti-racism and anti-Blackness to guarantee that such training avoids causing harm to these students.
  • Make sure your Black and Indigenous students have direct access to people on campus with authority that they trust, and to attorneys paid by the university, who can help them on a very short notice in situations involving police officers.
  • Educate yourself about the root of the problem -- colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous people, the enslavement of Black folks -- and their connection to mass incarceration, police brutality, and over-policing of Black and Brown people in communities of color and in predominantly white spaces today.
  • Work towards earning the trust of your Black and Indigenous students and colleagues through concrete actions, not just words.
  • Hold your institutions accountable when policies in place are insufficient, and when calls for the protection of Black and Indigenous members are dismissed.

We add resources below and welcome input from the community to improve the above recommendations and to supply additional links to resources (below). Thank you.


Profe Jorge Moreno
Dr. Keith Hawkins
Professor Jillian Bellovary
Prof John Johnson
Dra. Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Dr. Lia Corrales
Charee Peters
Prof. Kathryne J. Daniel
Prof. Adam Burgasser
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Dr. Jacqueline Faherty
Prof. Kim Coble

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.


Fighting Scientists with Science (essays on Medium) (Prof. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein)