Graduate student and astronomy writer


On the Road to a PhD: Houston, we have a defense date!

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.

It’s official. The cats have been herded, the votes have been tallied, the gods (aka the Department Assistants) have spoken. I have officially scheduled the date and time for my dissertation defense.

Tuesday, May 9th at 10am EST.


That’s…2 months, 4 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes and 58 seconds from now. 57 seconds. 56 seconds. Oi vey, the countdown has started!

What does that mean for me right now? Well, that means that I need to get my behind into gear and…

1) finish up the data analysis that has caused my research to lag for the past few weeks.

2) write up the last bit of the research that I’m currently working on. I would like to get this to a point that it can be submitted to a research journal before my defense, so that the text can also be incorporated into my dissertation.

3) write the paper on astronomy communication that I want to submit to a different journal. Luckily, this one doesn’t need to be submitted before my defense.

4) write all of the introductory and background  material for my dissertation. All of the extra stuff that connects my (currently) very disjointed chapters.

One of my committee members likes to measure dissertation progress based on the number of pages one need to write per day before the dissertation is submitted. At Penn State, the dissertation needs to be given to the committee two weeks before the defense, which for me is April 25th. So, in 51.73 days I need to write/edit approximately 300 total pages, which comes out to 5.8 pages per day.

Now, I’ve already written about 150 of those pages, so those really just need to be edited for spelling, grammar, and cohesion with the rest of the dissertation. So, let’s say that I still need to write 150 more pages and then edit all 300 later on. That is only 2.9 pages per day of writing original text.

That sounds like a lot, to be true. But truth be told, it’s not a lot in actual words. In the particular format that Penn State requires for its dissertations, a single page of text (no equations, tables, or figures) holds about 450 words. So, that’s 67,500 words to write before I submit my dissertation, or 1305 words per day.

But since this is scientific research, there will be equations, figures, and tables to incorporate, so in reality the number of words to write will be lower than that, and some of the pages will be taken up by figures or tables that have already been generated. Things are not quite as dire as they seem, to be sure.

Still…I best get to it! Only 2 months, 4 days, 18 hours, 22 minutes and 44 seconds to go!

On the Road to a PhD: I won…an award?

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.

So…I guess I won an award. Huh. Cool!

Back at the AAS229 meeting in Grapevine, TX about a month ago I presented a poster that summarizes my future thesis chapter on strategies to effectively communicate astronomy. You can see my poster, and come of my commentary, here on a previous blog post. I also, as I usually do, entered my poster into the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award. This means that during your assigned poster presentation day, your poster and your oral poster presentation will be judged by a few volunteers for content knowledge, clarity, and focus. Two-thirds of the possible points are awarded for the content knowledge as presented orally and on the poster, and one-third of the points are awarded for the design and clarity of the oral presentation and poster itself.

This is the third time I’ve entered the Chambliss competition, and mostly I entered my poster as a “why not?” sort of thing, with no real expectation of winning and no real need to win other than personal validation that my focus on astronomy communication was valued by the community.

But…turns out I won one of the six graduate awards given out this year. Woah! That’s…unexpected and awesome and terrifyingly brilliant and relieving and satisfying and super exciting! The email came through last night, and I just sort of stared at it for a minute not really believing that I wasn’t misreading it and then I might have (read: most definitely did) shout a little and do a happy dance.

Granted, it wasn’t quite to the level of my happy dance after the Cubs won the world series a few months ago (but really, what could top that?), but it was up there.

It’s not so much that I won an award, because in all honesty recognition for academic achievements like that make me uncomfortable and self-conscious more than anything else. But after a lot of uncertainty in my mind about my additional “alternative” focus on astronomy communication as part of my graduate education, this type of validation from the astronomy community is certainly soothes away a bit of my uncertainty.

Since the poster was meant to serve as as an outline and “first draft” of that thesis chapter, I guess it’s full steam ahead!

(also, as an added perk, this award comes with an actual medal…neat!)

On the Road to a PhD: Graduation timeline…yikes!

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.

So, I’ve known that I intended to graduate at the end of this semester since the end of last summer. I met with my thesis committee (which seems to just keep growing!) and presented them with a timeline of work that I intended to finish up, when I would be able to accomplish that work, a (very) rough outline of my thesis and they said…great!

Well, actually, they said, “This is a very ambitious set of goals in a very tight schedule with not much leeway. If it was anyone else but you, Kim, we’d have concerns. But since it’s you…” As if that wasn’t just a little bit of pressure. But hey, it’s always nice when your committee recognizes that you are a ridiculous overachiever capable of serious multitasking and incredible workloads when you put your mind to it.

So I’ve been working hard the past few months to keep on schedule, which has mostly been successful. A few of my projects have taken longer than expected, but that’s how research usually goes.

Only, I didn’t take into account the fact that Penn State requires an absurd amount of lead time between when you defend your dissertation and when they let you walk at graduation. The Penn State Spring Commencement is at the start of May, and in order to walk in the ceremony (and you know, get your diploma and such) you have to defend your dissertation to your committee two months before that. That’s the beginning of March (or a little over a month from now). Yikes! Seriously Penn State, more than two months before graduation?!? Seriously?!? (sidebar: how many of you read that in a “Grey’s Anatomy” voice? No? Just me then…)

So, I had a hard think a few days ago and tried to take an honest look at what I still needed to do, the time frame in which I had to do it, and how long it would really take to finish all that work. And get a mostly final draft of the thesis. And put together a talk. And prepare for the defense. Whilst simultaneously completing a science writing internship and finding a new job.

I came to the pretty tough realization that I couldn’t get all of that done in a month. For all my multitasking and overachieving abilities, I am only human (no radioactive spiders or Gallifreyan DNA over here, thank you very much) and I have limits. I can’t get all of that done in a month, while maintaining a good quality of work, supporting a husband who is also defending his thesis in a month, and keeping myself in good physical and mental health.

So, after having a good and honest talk with my advisor, I decided to wait to officially graduate in August rather than May. However, I don’t actually want to still be in grad school in August doing graduate work (chas v’shalom!). I want to have a real job doing real work in science communication. And my husband will have graduated by then and hopefully have started a new job as well. And research funding would be an issue throughout the summer.

So, the solution is to finish up all of the work I need to do in order to graduate (i.e. apply to graduate, format my thesis, defend, submit my thesis, sign the forms) by May, move on to my new job, and then come back in August to walk the walk. I’ll still technically be enrolled as a student, but will have everything done and a letter from the University stating that I’m ABG (“all but graduation” in the common parlance). It might be messy, but everything will get done, there won’t be two people in this house both frantically trying to defend in a month, funding will stretch, I won’t go spare trying to handle more than I am able to, and I will still be able to start a new job in May. Seems like a solid plan to me!

Now, I’ve actually got to get my committee together to let them know the new plan. Six professors all in the same place at the same time…oi vey.

On the Road to a PhD Blog Series

Hello all! Thanks for joining me on my Road to a PhD…where I blog in semi-real time about the different stages I’m going through now that I’m officially cleared to graduate this year. It’s a lot like the stages of grief only not as grim and with a (hopefully) happy ending. Anyways, here’s a look at my thoughts and experiences while finishing up all the myriad tasks and responsibilities before getting my PhD. This series is part journal, part catharsis, and part chronicle.

Warning: there may be (read: will be) lots of geeky pop culture references, sarcasm, and Yiddish phrases scattered throughout these. These are my default modes when I’m stressed. You are forewarned.

Disclaimer: all thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog series are my own and do not represent the stances of anyone else. Every grad student’s experience is different, and mine is shaped by both the privileges I hold and the challenges I overcome.

Here are the posts in chronological order:

January 6, 2017 – My AAS DTalk

January 24, 2017 – Graduation timeline…yikes!

January 31, 2017 – I won…an award?

February 13, 2017 – Thesis Committee Meetings

March 4, 2017 – Houston, we have a defense date!

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.


Best Practices for Effective Poster Design

You’re probably (hopefully!) at this blog post because you followed the QR code or link found on the meta-poster entitled “Best Practices for Effective Poster Design.” Well done on being hip to the new technological trends and welcome to the website and blog of Kimberly Cartier (me!). If you’re here because you are a regular reader…kudos to you!

This post includes a PDF of the meta-poster, some more good poster practices and suggestions, sources used in the meta-poster, and additional places to find good material for how to make posters.  The original QR code you used should always take you to the most recent version of this post. Feel free to download a copy of the poster for yourself and distribute to your colleagues and students.

Thanks, and stay tuned!

Note: this post will soon be updated with more comments and suggestions gathered at the AAS227 meeting. Stay tuned!

Note: after the poster session at the 2015 ERES, I have added a section to the bottom of this page containing some of the feedback I got at the conference. There were some really good suggestions and comments! So, taking those into account, I wrote down some things that I would modify about the poster, or comments I got about specific things. If I talked to you about this at ERES and your comment is not on here, leave me a message and I will include it! Thanks to everyone who commented at ERES, I had a great time discussing this with all of you.    -Kim

Note: I also hope to soon have a video of my poster pop to put on here. I had a lot of fun doing the poster pop, and I recommend that people learn how to do them. You can read more about poster pops on my post about them.

Download a PDF of the poster here: Best Practices for Effective Poster Design

Additional good poster practices not found on the meta-poster:

  1. Put a picture of the lead author on the poster. This will help people find you at the conference to talk about  your poster if you’re not standing at your poster when they visit. Make sure that the picture is professional (so, probably not your social media profile picture) and that you’re the only one in it.
    • Note: this was the most controversial part of my poster, based on my experiences at ERES. This was the question I was asked the most. If you are uncomfortable having your face on your poster, then don’t do it. If you are uncomfortable about your poster, it will be noticeable in your oral pitch. However, if this is something you are comfortable doing, having a picture on there can only help with the networking process.
  2. Make sure that there is a contact email address on the poster somewhere. That way, people can contact you after the presentation with questions, comments, or suggestions.
  3. A nitpicky detail that will make your poster look really clean is to make sure that everything within one section is aligned along the tops and along the sides. For example, in the top section of the meta-poster, there are two clearly defined “columns” in the section. The left column has the top text box and the table. The text box and table are aligned on the left to form a straight line. The top text box in the right “column” is aligned along the same horizontal line as the text in the left “column.” Small things like this make your poster look very clean.
  4. Everyone knows to cite text or results that are found in publications. Many people forget to also put citations on figures that are found in publications. Whether or not you are the author of that paper, if the figure is published in a refereed journal it is technically copyrighted, and needs to be cited.
  5. Regarding citations: having citations of the format [Author, et al. (year)] all over your poster is distracting and takes up a lot of space. Use superscripted numbered citations like “cited text[1]” with a numbered reference list at the end to save space.
  6. Some people find that having a reference list on the poster itself to be a waste of space and not completely necessary. I say that it depends greatly on the type of poster you are presenting and where you are presenting. If it’s a research poster that presents a lot of content from published sources, it’s good to have a list of where it all comes from, especially if you’re presenting at a scientific conference where you might run in to someone who wrote the content you are citing. In that case, I recommend the citation format described in #5 to conserve space. If there is mostly original content on the poster, you can more easily justify having your sources elsewhere, like on a website, or even on a separate piece of paper that you tack on next to your poster. Be sure that if you do this that the location of your references is easily found (like having a big honking QR code on your poster). Whatever you choose, always, always cite all of your sources. A plagiarized poster is most definitely not a good poster!
  7. The Layar App is one of the newest ways to augment your poster with additional content. It is, as the name suggests, a way to virtually layer your poster with additional information that can be read by the Layar app on your smartphone or tablet (they call it “Augmented Reality”). This is a great way to show things like the simulation movies that your simulation snapshots come from, alternate plots, links and references, or even just additional content that is in that section. I have not yet used it myself, but have seen it used at AAS a few times and it is really cool.
  8. Before you take your poster to a printer (or even before you start designing your poster) be sure to double check the poster guidelines for your conference. Then, make sure you set the page size for your poster designing program to the right size — and it may be different for each poster!
  9. Tip about printing: printing your poster can be expensive, so shop around. At PSU, the cheapest printer to be found is the Engineering Copy Center. If you don’t have access to that, keep in mind your options for printing are flexible. There is always the classic flat print poster on regular poster paper, but those can be flimsy and may not hold up well to travel or to multiple uses. Glossy photo paper looks really nice, but it much more expensive. Fabric printing is gaining popularity: the quality is nice, the price is reasonable, and the fabric travels really well (you can fold it in your suitcase instead of using a poster tube!). A good compromise if you don’t want to do fabric is to print on regular poster paper and then have it laminated for glossiness and durability. Laminating a poster is often cheaper than printing on glossy photo paper.

The ideas and content contained in the “Good Poster Poster” were compiled from many sources. A lot of the ideas were contributed by the first and second sources in this list. The other sources listed here are also good places to look for examples of good and bad poster designs.

  1. AstroWright’s “Make Award Winning Posters”: Much of the text was contributed by Ming Zhao (with contributions from Jason Wright), and contains examples of award winning posters by Ming and by Sharon Wang as well.
  2. Kathryn Tonsey’s “How to create a poster that graphically communicates your message”: This page by the Chair of Biology and the University of Miami is a good source for how to communicate to different types of audiences and how to layout your poster effectively. Bonus: there are both good and bad examples for each of the themes she talks about.
  3. AstroBetter’s on Presentation Skills: A compilation of a number of other sources for good presentation skills for both oral presentations and poster design and presentation.
  4. Credit for the headshot on the poster goes to 2015 Meadow Lane Photography.
  5. Bonus: can create beautiful and functional plots using the most up-to-date exoplanet catalogs. If you want to make plots that use current exoplanet information (like the ones on the poster!) but don’t want to have to download and compile all of the data yourself, this is the place to go.


Based on my conversations at the ERES poster session, here are some thoughts on what I, and others, thinks would make this poster even better:

  1. Use an even higher resolution graphic for the large PSU logo at the top. The current one still shows up a little blurry when printed full-scale, which is not a good poster practice!
  2. If I were to make a research poster with this design (and indeed, I have), I would use much fewer words than what is on this representation of the poster. The meta-poster, as it is, is meant to be an education and outreach poster, containing educational concepts. Some of those concepts are very difficult to put in an effective graphic, and so were left as words. A confusing or ineffectual graphic is just a waste of space, I say, so I left them as words. For a science poster, you should aim for many fewer words and use more graphics instead.
  3. The organization within the third blue box can be a bit confusing, especially on the right-hand side. There are two separate ideas (using high-quality graphics and choosing appropriate colors and symbols) that don’t really relate to each other well. I would add a light horizontal division line, or more whitespace, between the two to better delineate them.
  4. In the table in the top box, the dots in the bullet points are pretty close to the vertical table lines. If I had more space, I would separate the two more.
  5. If this were a science poster instead of an education poster, I would not use a graphic in the style of a pie chart to demonstrate that point. In a science poster, I would use a histogram instead. However, many non-academic people are more familiar with a pie chart, so I chose that format for this education-based poster.

If I talked to you at ERES about the poster and you have more comments, please feel free to leave me a message! I will happily add your comments to this post for others to comment on.



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