Graduate student and astronomy writer


On the road to a PhD: My AAS DTalk

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.


(Written during the AAS229 meeting in Grapevine, TX)

The annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is *the* conference to be at. There are many other conferences during the year, most of which are focused on smaller subfields or specialties in astronomy, and there’s even a summer AAS meeting. But the winter meeting is bigger, more well attended, more timely, and more important for a grad student than the other ones. Your collaborators are here. Your peers are here. Your potential future employers are here. And one of the milestones in your astronomy career can only happen at a AAS meeting: giving your public dissertation talk (DTalk).

Oral presentations at AAS meetings are a sprint and a gauntlet: you get a single, 10 minute time slot that they recommend you split into a 5 minute talk, 3 minutes for questions, and 2 minutes for transition to the next person. 5 minutes to explain everything you’ve been working on to a group of hypercritical scientists who are only partially paying attention to you (I’m actually writing this post as I’m sitting in someone else’s talk, not paying as much attention as I should).

But, when you’re within a year of finishing your dissertation (before or after you defend) you can give a *20* minute talk. Once in your career you get the chance to tell the rest of the (U.S.) astronomical community what you’ve spent your graduate career working on, and the DTalk is their way of acknowledging that you’ve arrived. You get one shot, and mine was on Jan. 5th, 2017.

This series of tweets sums things up:

There was sort of a sense of surrealism that I’d finally “made it,” that it was my turn to give the all-important dissertation talk. I felt similarly when I had to apply to give the talk, and there was a checkbox that said “Do you confirm that you are within one year of attaining your PhD?” My brain went “oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh I’m graduating soon…” The sense of “Have I really done enough to graduate? Are they really letting me graduate? I *can’t* have done enough for this.” A serious case of imposter syndrome, that they would actually give *me* a PhD for the work that I’ve done… #omgthesis seemed to sum it up.

That…didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I’ve always had an issue taking credit for the things I’ve done, and I think that it’s only gotten worse over time. I downplay my academic accomplishments, a holdover from “little sibling syndrome” and “try not to brag about being smart in school.” Attempting to make the switch from “we did this work” to “I did this work” was very difficult, and I don’t think I did it well for the DTalk. Maybe it’ll go better for my actual defense…

Yeah, that didn’t help with the nerves. The big room, where all the plenary talks are, large enough to hold the entire meeting. It wasn’t anywhere near full for mine, but when I was trying to get over my nerves and the sense that I shouldn’t be there, being in the largest and most grandiose room possible didn’t help. About the only thing that was good about that room was the huge timer in front of the stage counting down my time. I could have done without that unconscious pressure.

It’s true. I was nervous, and I’m not one that usually gets nervous talking in front of people. I’ve been on a stage since I was 10 years old, performing in school plays and musicals and then later, giving science talks to the general public and participating in radio and web science shows. I know how to speak about science, and I know the work I did, but somehow I don’t think that came across. Though others have said that the talk went well, I was not particularly happy with my own performance. *I* knew that I stumbled and stuttered and flailed a bit, even if it didn’t seem that way to an audience (one of the key rules in theater is that the audience won’t know you messed up if you don’t tell them…I’m usually good at that).

My overall impression of my talk was not the best. I knew that half the things I said I didn’t want to say, and half the things I wanted to say, I didn’t. That doesn’t usually happen to me, which makes me not like how my talk went. I spent the entire 10 minutes of the talk after mine reminding myself that it’s done, I can’t change it, I have to accept what happened and move on because stressing and overanalyzing my performance isn’t going to make it better. I think I might have convinced myself.

Do I feel different? Sort of. Though my advisor and my thesis committee agree that I can graduate in a few months, now the rest of the astronomy community knows it, too. I’m now subject to, “So, you’re on the market now, right?” “Where are you looking for postdocs?” (and doesn’t *that* open up a new can of worms?) “When is your defense date?” (not scheduled yet!) It highlights all of the things that are on my to-do list before I can *actually* graduate. And perhaps the expectations and pressure are all in my mind. It wouldn’t be the first time. 

It feels like the DTalk was the starting line for the race to defense. Certainly the past 5 years of grad school, and the 4 years of undergrad, and even the 4 years of high school before that were all training grounds for this race. I’ve trained and I’ve practiced, and I’ve done the smaller races leading up to this one. I know I *can* do it. Now I just have to actually follow through.

Multimedia Astronomy Communication – Poster Page

This is the page for my poster on  Multimedia Astronomy Communications, presented at AAS229 in Grapevine, TX



Click here to download the poster on Multimedia Astronomy Communications

I’ve already had some fantastic interactions at my poster on astro communication. Here are a few of the things that I’ve talked about:

What is the next step? Where do you go from here?

Well, aside from defending and (hopefully) completing my PhD, I would really love to see some sort of course on communicating astronomy integrated into graduate programs. Communication is integrally linked to astronomy research and an astronomy career. As such, graduate programs and graduate advisors should help their students develop those skills just like they help develop research skills. A course, workshop, or seminar on good communication practices (research papers, grant applications, research presentations, etc) would go a long way towards improving communication within our field.

What does it mean to tell a Simple, Concrete, and Credible story?

Simple, Concrete, and Credible are what I call “must haves” when telling your science story. This means that the main message of your story should be straightforward, unambiguous, and believable. This doesn’t mean that your results have to be definite and unambiguous; nevernevernever misrepresent your science. But, you 100% should ensure that you explain your result in an unambiguous way.

What is the biggest hurdle you had to overcome while working on this?

Granted, this one was asked by one of the poster judges, but it’s a good question nonetheless. The single BIGGEST issue here is that little to no research currently exists on communicating astronomy in an effective way. And I mean, astronomy specifically. There is some research (by some awesome people) on teaching astronomy, but while teaching is a specific form of communication, there are many other types that astronomers deal with that haven’t been addressed.

That being said, there is a lot of research that has been done in other fields, like engineering and medicine. Not to mention all of the communication theory research that has been done in the actual field of communications. The AstroComms poster lists some of the available resources that I hunted down. There are a lot more. The biggest hurdle I faced (and continue to face) is finding the appropriate reference material, figuring out which parts could translate to astronomy, and working out the best way to apply the work to astronomy-specific problems.



This page will soon be updated with comments, notes, and suggestions I received at AAS229. Stay tuned for more information!


UBMS: Week 1

This blog post is a reflection on my first week as a mentor in the UBMS program, the second post in a series that will span the next few weeks. You can read my first blog post in this series that describes the UBMS program and my role within it here.

Last Tuesday was the first day of our program. We had a shortened class period with them since they had other introductory things they needed to complete for the larger UBMS program. We have two students in our astronomy program, a sophomore and a senior, both of whom seemed very excited to be learning about exoplanets. Student A (the senior) has been in the UBMS program twice before this, and worked on projects about cosmic rays and atmospheric emission. My co-mentor and I think that Student A’s background will serve her well this summer.

Student B (the sophomore) is a first-timer in UBMS, but has a great excitement for exoplanets. Student B seems to have done a lot of background reading about exoplanets, and came in with good prior knowledge about the specifics of the research project, but lacking some fundamental background knowledge about astronomy and physics. Making sure that the two students are on the same page all summer will be a challenge, given their different educational levels and previous experience.

One learning activity that I am very excited to introduce to the students is the idea of concept mapping. When you create a concept map, you identify the key topics, ideas, or skills that you have learned (nodes) and specify the connections between each of them. When done right, a concept map is an excellent tool for synthesizing information, gaining a view of the scope of a course, and identifying how seemingly disparate topics fit together. This is something I have never seen done in a physics or astronomy course, where oftentimes topics are presented piecemeal and the “larger picture” is often presented at the end as a “ta da!” moment.

At the end of each of our lessons, Michael and I are having the students create a small concept map for the concepts and skills they learned that day. That is the smaller scale review. Between lessons, Michael and I add their smaller concept maps to the larger, master concept map that we are iteratively building throughout the entire course. At the start of each following lesson, we present to them how what they learned last week has been integrated into a larger concept map. They get a visual representation of how their knowledge base is growing, and of how everything that they’ve learned is connected together towards a larger goal. Not only that, but they get the assurance that everything they will learn is relevant to the course goal, and not just side tangents that interest us.

We started on Tuesday with introductions for myself and Michael, as well as our two “faculty” (read: postdoc) mentors. We introduced the topic of the course, general expectations, and the like. We introduced the research question and had the students brainstorm what they would need to know to answer this. Having them come up with the course overview reflected the same process that Michael and I went through designing the course, and was a way for them to break down the big task in front of them into manageable pieces. The students appeared to value this exercise, as it gave them a picture of what the next few weeks would be like, and seemed to lessen the intimidation factor learning something new can bring.

When we mentioned to the students that we were having them take their own transit observations, they seemed excited to actually get to go observing (I think their enthusiasm will wane after experiencing the tedium involved). Whenever the weather cooperates, we’ll go observe a transit, and spend the wait time using the other telescope on the roof to look at pretty things like galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

We started the course for real last Thursday, with an overview of basic astronomy. We went through from the Solar System, to stars, to galaxies, and the Universe. We introduced the transit method, and did a brief overview of telescopes and CCDs. It was a lot of information for one day, but we assured them that we would go over the more important bits in more detail later. Our hands-on portion of the lesson had them being trained to use the 24″ telescope on the Davey rooftop. Our first potential observing night was only two days away, so they needed to be trained. No hiccups there, and while they really enjoyed getting to work with the telescope themselves (Michael and I kept hands-off), they got their first taste of the tedium of waiting for long exposures. Observing will be an interesting experience.

The first attempt at concept mapping at the end of Thursday’s lesson went alright, though they seemed a little hesitant at first. We pre-selected for them a few nodes they might want to include, and they added many of their own, as well. The connections they made needed a little modification, but overall they did very well at synthesizing the large amount of information we have them that day. Their final concept map for that day was more extensive than we had expected, and I’m very interested to see what they come up with in subsequent lessons.

This blog was supposed to be posted last Friday or Saturday. I realize that being late on your first in a series of blog posts is not a good thing, but it actually highlights one of the lessons I learned last week: always have your lesson plans done before the class starts! My co-mentor, Michael, and I had completed about 80% of of the lesson plans, course material, and project instructions beforehand, but that last 20% is very difficult to complete while you are simultaneously getting ready for class. We have mostly caught up by now, and I have definitely learned my lesson.

Also regarding lesson plans, I have learned that, just like in battle, no plan survives first contact. I am generally a very meticulous and organized person, and my lesson plans are no different. Michael and I created a course outline and a breakdown of the content and skills needed to answer the research question, and from there we created plans for each individual session. The lesson plans are very detailed, given that one of us usually writes them and yet both have to teach from them, and include some lecture, lots of active learning methods, hands-on demos, and actually working with their data. Given that the students are not only working with unfamiliar ideas and extremely exhausted from their intensive program, it’s very hard to predict how long each activity will take. I will have to be very flexible in the coming weeks to ensure that the students learn what they need and get the work done.

Overall, the first week was a bit hectic, but very awesome. Being able to work with interested students in a small group setting is much different than teaching a class of even 20 people, and allows for a more informal and personal approach. I’m excited to see what Week 2 will bring!

Until next week, dear readers.


Mentoring in the UBMS Program: Overview

This summer I decided to take on a new challenge, something that I hope will provide good experience in teaching and mentoring and help me decide if I want to take that sort of path after I defend my dissertation. The Upward Bound Math and Science Program at Penn State has been operating since 2001 and “is designed to strengthen the math and science skills of low-income, first-generation potential college students” (UBMS Website). During the summer session while the undergrads are away, UBMS hosts a Summer STEM Institute on the University Park campus to give students from underprivileged areas of Pennsylvania extra classes in STEM areas, plus classes in useful things like presentation skills, how to write a research paper, how to keep a lab notebook, etc. The students live and work on campus for around 6 weeks to take classes.

As part of the Summer STEM institute, the visiting high school students also get to choose a research project to participate in, complete, and present at the end of the Institute. My role in UBMS this summer is to lead one of the research “labs” with my co-mentor and fellow astronomy grad student, Michael Rodruck. This involved selecting a research question to answer, designing a project aimed at answering it, preparing and executing lesson plans to teach the students background material and guide them through the project, and being an overall mentor to the students in this real-life research experience. Our lab section is a part of the Summer STEM Institute’s Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science (SEECoS) program.

Michael and I have been training and preparing since mid March to lead this lab section, which only meets twice a week. The research question we devised (under the supervision of our Astro department supervisors Drs. Kate Grier and Jon Trump and UBMS leaders) is How do we detect extra-solar planets using the transit method, and what can we learn about those planets from this method?” We chose the transit method specifically over other detection methods because 1) we can use the rooftop telescopes on Davey Laboratory to measure the transits of exoplanets hands-on (whereas, we cannot use those telescopes to make radial velocity, microlensing, or direct imaging measurements) and 2) we can use the publicly available Kepler light curves to get the students working with all types of planets.

I have also found in my public speaking experience that the transit method is the most widely known exoplanet detection method and is the most straightforward of the methods for novices to grasp. Given the extremely limited timespan in which we get to work with our students (only 10 lessons!), the transit method seemed like the way to go.

This teaching/mentoring experience will have a lot of firsts for me: my first time teaching high schoolers, my first time teaching a course on exoplanets, my first time designing the content for an entire course, my first time applying active learning techniques in the classroom. I decided a that a useful exercise for me would be to chart this experience through a series of blog posts. At the end of each week I will write a blog post reflecting on the experiences of the week, things that went well, things that didn’t, things  learned, things I would do differently next time. I will not be using my students’ real names for privacy reasons.

This will also be the first time I’m writing a blog like this: a live, self-reflection on my teaching experiences. I hope you’ll all stick with me as I stumble my way through the next 5 weeks. It will be an interesting experience, to say the least.


Comments on Sexism at AAS

OK, people, so I know that we talked about this during the AAS227 meeting. In fact, there was a whole hour+ seminar about sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism, and gender bias in the astronomical and related sciences. You did go to that session, right? Good. Unfortunately, many of the people who really needed to be there are the people whose demographic was sorely under-represented in the audience of that seminar: older white males. If you know of an older white male colleague of yours who chose not to attend that seminar when they had the option, please do forward this to them.

Note: for the rest of this blog post, I am going to limit my discourse to the subtle (and not so subtle) sexual harassment I noticed at AAS227. I’ll leave my discussion of the other forms of discrimination I noticed to another day.

Here’s why I say that the demographic of older, white males in the physical sciences most need to hear this message. They grew up and were educated in a time where women were treated differently by society. That was the age where women were mostly secretaries to high-powered male bosses, coffee fetchers, “doll” and “sugar”. This is not an exaggeration. Female engineers, scientists, and bosses were a rarity. I give major props to all of the more senior female professionals in my field for finding their way through that type of blatantly hostile work environment and coming out the other side of it into a (seemingly) more tolerant world.

I also specify white males because that demographic has held a position of power and privilege in this country literally since its inception. As a group, they don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of their personal identity (with the obvious exceptions of non-cis-gendered, non-heteronormative, non-Christian, non-able bodied, and non-neurotypical individuals, amongst others). However, because of long-standing societal discrimination against those demographics, their numbers are also very small in the physical sciences. As the most populous demographic in the physical sciences, older white males are the ones that need to adopt the changed attitude towards females and under-represented minorities (URMs), yet are the ones most resistant to change. They are the most hard-put to see the subtle discrimination against these groups, let alone to understand how it feels. This is why I am writing to them.

I hope it is blatantly obvious to everyone that if the only reason you are attending a talk (or stopping by a poster *hint hint*) is because you are physically attracted to the presenter, don’t. Just don’t. I guarantee it won’t end well for you. Go to a talk or stop at a poster because the work is interesting or thought-provoking. If it’s not, just don’t go. It’s that simple.

All right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is one example of subtle sexism that I noticed, and experienced, at this year’s AAS227 meeting. Oi vey, as a fair warning, once you see this one in action you can’t un-see it.

The infamous and dreaded questions portion after a talk. I am specifically referring to the propensity for males to take up the question time of talks by female speakers with “I have more of a comment than a question” or “I have a comment and a question.” This sort of happenstance usually takes the form of:

  1. “I want to make sure you understand that fundamental thing about your research topic or analysis method. Are you sure about that? Really sure? How about now?”
  2. “Have you considered this very tangential approach to your research that I, of course, am an expert in? No? Well let me explain to you in front of everyone why it is superior to your work.”
  3. “Do you honestly expect us to believe you when you tell us this unexpected result? My vast experience suggests otherwise.”

This happened to me for both “questions” in my research talk. I saw it happen to the other women in my talk session and others. Heck, it happened to a plenary speaker on Friday.

Sometimes comments in place of questions can be helpful to spark discussion in the room, if it’s done respectfully and equally to all types of speakers. But lest you think that this happens to all speakers in equal amounts, it doesn’t. Really, it doesn’t. Next time you’re at a AAS meeting, or at the next few departmental talks at your institution, take a census. Sure, there are always those individuals who ask these sorts of “questions” to all speakers. Those “questions” are still rude and don’t belong in the Q&A part of a talk (more on that later). But in the sessions I attended at AAS, these “questions” were only asked towards female (and POC) speakers, and only asked by males.

“Questions” 1-3 above are meant to assert authority over, establish dominance of, and diminish the accomplishments of the speaker in favor of the questioner. They say, in the subtle language of intellectuals, “I am better than you and here’s why.” Asking those “questions” in a public forum in front of the rest of the audience is attempting to humiliate/humble the speaker and elevate the questioner above her. How terrible.

If the horribleness of this were obvious to the perpetrators, they likely wouldn’t do it (I’m casting no personal aspersions here). So let me break down to you why that’s a bad thing, for everyone.

  1. Public humiliation of a professional colleague? Really? That just looks bad and damages your reputation. “But that’s not my intent!” you say. “It doesn’t matter!” I say. That is still the end effect of the interaction you have with that person. If you step on my toes but didn’t mean to do it, you still hurt my foot. The polite thing to do after that is to apologize. The smart thing to do after that is to watch your step more carefully.
  2. You may think that what you’re really doing is making sure the speaker understands the fundamentals or subtleties of her work. OK, sure, that’s all well and good. Did you ever think that it’s not your place to do so? In all likelihood, you aren’t her boss, her academic or research advisor, her project manager, or someone with any responsibility at all over her education. The Q&A portion of a talk is not a quals exam. It’s not an interrogation. If you do have concerns about her education, the proper place to address that is in private, to her face, in a one-on-one setting. To do so in public is to insult her own intelligence and that of her supervisor and institution. And really, public insults? See Point 1 above.
  3. You are taking learning opportunities away from other colleagues and the rest of the audience. There are likely people in the audience who have legitimate comprehension questions about the talk, and you are impeding their opportunity to understand. Did you know that female audience members are more likely to ask questions of female speakers? No really, it’s true (25% female question-askers for female speakers, vs. 22% female question-askers for male speakers). So, not only are you questioning the intelligence of the speaker, you are taking opportunities away and discouraging other females from asking questions at talks. Save your “questions” until after, where they’re slightly less inappropriate.
  4. You discourage future female scientists from speaking at conferences, and from asking questions. You (or your institution) claim they want to increase gender parity in the sciences and encourage diversity. By asking “questions” like these you are actively working against those same goals. If I’m a female audience member who sees a female speaker being treated that way (and having everyone else accept it as par for the course) why would I want to put myself through the same situation? I would be more reluctant to participate in scientific discourse knowing the terrible times ahead (hint: there’s a reason that this past AAS was my first conference talk, but not my first conference presentation). If I have no choice but to give a talk (say, if I want to get a job after my dissertation) I will certainly be less confident in my work and more hesitant in asserting my authority. Is that what you want from the future generation of scientists?

If you have an honest concern about the integrity or quality of the work being presented, that is your prerogative. The appropriate place to bring that concern to the speaker’s attention is in a one-on-one discussion with the speaker after the session has ended. Here’s how you do that: *raise your hand during Q&A* “Thank you for your thought-provoking presentation. I have some ideas that I would really like to discuss with you after the session if you have time. I will stick around after. Thank you.” This acknowledges the work that the speaker has done and respectfully asks for an intellectual discussion, and then gets out of the way for other potential question-askers.

Keep in mind though, when you follow up on that request it should be a discussion, not a lecture or an interrogation. This still isn’t a quals exam. Understand that you may disagree on the best course of action on a project, and that the speaker (by virtue of it being her work with which she is intimately familiar) has an equally valid opinion. If you find that you can’t come to an agreement, THAT’S OK. As a professional person, the researcher will listen to your opinion and take it into consideration as she goes forward. That’s what the scientific process is about. If you feel so passionately about the research, do it your own way yourself and have professional disagreements about it in journals like you would with anyone else.

That’s about it for this. I’m sure that there are better ways to inform conference participants and session chairs than a blog post that (hopefully) a small fraction of the AAS membership will read. A reminder email before a meeting about how to be respectful during a Q&A? A mention during the session chair breakfast? Something. Until then, if you do notice one of your colleagues behaving this way towards a female speaker, SPEAK UP ABOUT IT! Approach that “questioner” (in private, remember?) and say that that sort of treatment of a speaker is not appropriate for a professional setting, and that next time they should bring that sort of comment to the speaker in private, not in front of their peers. Be an advocate and an ally for female speakers, and don’t let this continue to be the norm of how we treat our female scientists.

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