Tuesday, March 29, 2016

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Awardees

All of us at Astronomy in Color wish to extend our congratulations to some of the winners of this year's NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. We are so very proud of you!

*Carcia Carson (Fisk-Vanderbilt)
Carl Fields (Arizona State University)
Ekta Patel (University of Arizona)
Erica Gonzales (University of Notre Dame)
*Greg Vetaw (Arizona State University)
Jamila Puegues (Princeton University)
*Jessica Avva (University of California, Berkeley)
Jessica Luna (The University of Texas at Austin)
LaNell Threatt-Williams (Fisk-Vanderbilt)
Maria Katy Rodriguez Wimberly (CSU Long Beach)
Maurice Wilson (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)
Mia de los Reyes (North Carolina State University)
Michael Busch (Arizona State University)
*Patricia Jaimes (Michigan State University)
Seth Gossage (Harvard University)
Simone Hyater-Adams (University of Colorado Boulder)
Sinclaire Manning (The University of Texas at Austin)

Honorable Mentions:
Antonio Porras (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Felicity Hills (U. Michigan)
Ivanna Escala (Caltech)
Michael Calzadilla (University of Cambridge)
Moiya McTier (Harvard University)

*Folks in related fields (cosmology, physics education, geology, other physics subfields).

Also, we wish to express our gratitude to programs like the Banneker Institute, CAMPARE, Cal-Bridge, Fisk-Vanderbilt, Lamat, and the National Astronomy Consortium - as well as to individual mentors - for helping make these outstanding achievements a reality.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Student Highlight: Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, University of Colorado graduate student and
Beth Brown Memorial Prize recipient, speaking at the 227th AAS meeting.


Christopher Moore is a a fifth-year graduate student in the Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  His Ph.D. thesis research focuses on two areas of instrumental space physics: as a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, he works with collaborators at the Micro Devices Lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help develop, fabricate, laboratory test, and space flight-test (via sounding rocket) new Ultra-Violet (UV) optical coatings for future NASA satellite missions. His second area of research has been the development and testing of X-ray detectors for the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) CubeSat, which launched in December 2015 and will study the Sun's corona in soft X-rays. Chris earned the 2015 Beth Brown Memorial Award for best astrophysics oral presentation, and was also a selectee for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Congressional Visits Day (CVD) that year. He is also an inaugural member of the AAS Early Career Advisory Board. He has been NASA Student Ambassador since 2011 and active in community and science outreach for several years.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being a recipient of the Beth Brown Memorial Award! How did it feel to receive that award?

Moore: Thank you!! I felt honored to win the Beth Brown Memorial Award at the 2015 National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) Conference. The version of the award that I won is for the Best Oral Astrophysics Presentation. I practiced that presentation many times. It was rewarding to know that other individuals felt that it was a high quality presentation and worthy of an award. But the Beth Brown Memorial Award is not about me, it is in honor of the great life that Beth Brown lived. I did not know her, but after winning the award I looked up information about her. All the websites that I found spoke highly of her. She was a lively person that inspired many individuals through her outreach and interaction with colleagues. The Beth Brown Memorial Award winner gives colloquia talks at Beth’s alma maters, Howard University and the University of Michigan and everyone I met at these two places that knew Beth, spoke about what a great person she was. It was a testimony to how impactful she was with the short time she had. I just hope that I can represent her well as a recipient.

Burgasser: Please tell me about yourself; what is your story?

Moore: I grew up in Calumet City, IL, which is on the outskirts of Chicago. It is a city with mostly African Americans and Latinos/Mexicans, and the rest composed of Asian Americans and Caucasians. So I grew up around different types of people and developed a respect for different cultures. In high school, sports was my main priority, not necessarily academics. Mostly because it was not very apparent to my classmates - and I - what opportunities a good education could provide. I was on the football, basketball and track teams in high school. I made the decision in my junior year of high school that I wanted to go to college, but not any type of college - a large four-year university. I focused on my classes during my senior year of high school and applied to a few universities. I decided to attend the University of Iowa for financial reasons and had to work very hard to improve my academic skills so that I could succeed in my undergrad classes (due to the lack of preparation from my high school education). After a summer internship in heliophysics at the University of Colorado, I knew that I wanted to continue with my physics and astronomy undergrad major. After much more hard work, determination and some help from others, I graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy, and a minor in Spanish. I have been in graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU-Boulder) ever since. 

Burgasser: Tell us a little about your research.

Moore: I recently finished a Comprehensive Exam project (Comps 2) investigating what effects that magnetic field structure on the solar surface (called the photosphere) can have on the emergent intensity, and also how that structure also relates to spectrally derived abundance estimates of oxygen and iron. I used numerical simulations to investigate these effects. My PhD research is two-fold. I have a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF) to help develop high-reflective UV mirror coatings for the next generation of UV-Vis-IR astronomical space telescopes. This is a collaborative project with Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). We grow thin films one atomic layer at a time, with a technique called Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD). I go to JPL regularly to assist in the depositions, film characterization and environmental tests. I test the UV performance at CU-Boulder in our special vacuum test facility.

The second half of my PhD research involves the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) cubesat. I help test and characterize the X-ray detectors, use physical models to predict the solar X-ray distribution, and study how we will better understand the outer atmosphere of the sun (the corona) from future MinXSS measurements. I am particularly interested in the short term evolution of physical quantities (temperature, density and magnetic field) of active regions (strong concentrations of magnetic fields that protrude through the solar surface and extend high into the atmosphere). Additionally, future MinXSS data can be used to better understand solar flares (large magnetically driven eruptions in the solar atmosphere) and their effect on Earth’s upper atmosphere. 

Christopher Moore (left) and fellow graduate student James Mason in
Cape Canaveral at the MinXSS CubeSat launch in December 2015

Burgasser: You’ve done several internships at NASA research centers; how did you get involved in these, and what keeps you coming back?

Moore: I have done three official internships at NASA Goddard SpaceFlight Center as an undergrad and have spent many months (over 6 so far) at JPL as a graduate student. After my first two summer internships at the CU-Boulder Laboratory for Atmospheric and SpacePhysics (LASP), my mentor Dr. Phillip Chamberlin sent me to a conference to present my findings. Dr. Brian Dennis was in the group that I presented to, was impressed with my presentation, and offered me an opportunity to work with him at NASA Goddard in the Solar Physics Laboratory. The next summer I received an offer to intern in the Detector Systems Branch. I took it and interned there the next two summers. NASA is like a playground filled with diverse research projects and brilliant minds to tap into. I kept coming back because of the breadth and depth of the research opportunities provided there.

Burgasser: You’ve also been involved in a few outreach programs in Colorado and your hometown of Chicago. How did you get involved in these, and why do you do this work?

Moore: Being from the Chicagoland area, I was exposed to many things that could deter one from desiring to pursue higher education. I know that these distractions can take future opportunities away and thus I strive to help keep youth on track to a better life. I go to grade schools in Chicago and the surrounding areas on the south side to help inspire students to pursue their dreams and assure them that they can do whatever they set their mind to. Other programs that have much more contact time that I have been involved with are SPOT in Iowa, Impact the Youth in Colorado and a newer program called Men & Women of Color Leadership series. In general, I am asked to participate in these programs, but speaking to kids in the Chicago area is the one activity that I am most proactive about, because I know how fragile many of those kids’ situations are.

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

Moore: Not one specific person or any particular event. I have always been interested in the stars, the few that I could see through the bright Chicago lights. In general, I like to learn how things work, and physics attempts to describe how everything works. Since I studied physics and like stars, I figured that I could pursue a career trying to understand the physics of stars.

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career so far? How did you overcome them?

Moore: Many… too many in my opinion. Some are on a larger societal level, from grade school to high school to college: the typical deterring and oppression of a marginalized group in society by the dominant group. On the science level, there have been other types of ‘subtle’, passive/aggressive-type of barriers put in place to inhibit progress. Different types of obstacles and challenges need different tactics in order to circumvent them. In summary, being very careful, smart and aware of my surroundings and situations have helped me tremendously. It is unfortunate that such obstacles exist, but that is the reality of our world. Advice to the younger generation: do not let anyone or anything prevent you from achieving your dreams. I can divulge more about this in personal conversation if anyone is interested.

Burgasser: People of color are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors etc.) that helped you succeed? 

Moore: That is a fact and it is a saddening one. People of color are under-represented and marginalized not only in our field, but in many aspects of society also. I was not involved in any particular science program, but as a sophomore in high school I was in the Alpha Phi Alpha Leaders of Tomorrow program. They taught us about personal responsibility, accountability, how to graduate high school, how to apply to college, college financial aid, etc. My high school had a relatively low graduation rate, so if you graduated high school it was a big deal. Thus, the Leaders of Tomorrow program was critical in keeping me in high school, so that I could graduate and eventually go to college.

Early in my undergrad career, the presence of a black physics professor, Prof. Vincent Rodgers. and one of my upper division physics peers, were examples showing me that African Americans could obtain degrees in physics and succeed. That was all the external motivation that I needed, because I was determined to obtain my goals of being successful.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? 

Moore: At the simplest level, if everyone keeps an open mind with respect to other cultures, ethnicities and background that can be a good start. Astronomy, science and career opportunities in general should be accessible to everyone willing to put forth the effort to participate. From my experiences in life, this is rarely the scenario. I continue to participate in outreach (astronomy, science and just life advice) to many different types and groups of people. In terms of formal education (B.S/A., M.S., Ph.D.) in astronomy specifically, I think more can be done to modify how physics and astronomy are taught. I have been part of a Professional Development Program (PDP) based out of the University of California Santa Cruz that focused on inquiry-based learning and has direct involvement with improving science education in Hawaii. I think changes can be made to the ‘typical’ graduate admissions process, to highlight attributes that non-traditional students may have that can be beneficial for graduate programs. Finally, more emphasis can be put on hires of individuals not already dominant in the field or plentiful in the current departments. It is kind of like cooking and creating a new stew to add to the menu. By altering some of the ingredients in the pot, and adding more variety to the constituents, we can have a more flavorful stew that can have an array of perspectives to answer current and future science questions.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to students of color interested in following your path?

Moore: Follow your dreams, never give up and only you can dictate your goals and your career.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Moore: If you want to find out more, you will just have to ask me when you meet me.

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Student Highlight: Carl Fields

Carl Fields, ASU Astrophysics and Physics major and recipient
of the Beth Brown Memorial Award and Carl Rouse Fellowship

Carl Fields is an dual Astrophysics and Physics major at Arizona State University, who will be earning his Bachelors of Science degrees (with Honors) this May.  His research interests include compact objects, astrophysical sources of gravitational waves, and supernovae progenitor evolution, explosion, and nucleosynthesis. He is a lead developer of MESA-Web, a web-based interface to the widely-used Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA) stellar evolution code. His undergraduate thesis, "Properties of Supernova Progenitor Stars" has already lead to two publications, one in press and one currently in review (as first author). A native of Phoenix, AZ, Carl has given back to his community through extensive outreach efforts to local schools and churches, and is a mentor of current Physics majors at ASU.  Carl has won numerous awards and distinctions, including the Beth Brown Memorial Award for outstanding undergraduate poster at the National Society of Black Physicists national meeting, and the Carl Rouse Fellowship in support of research on gravitational waves, which he conducted at Caltech.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being a recipient of both the Beth Brown Memorial Award and the Carl Rouse Fellowship! How did it feel to receive these awards?

Fields: Thank you! Winning the Beth Brown Memorial Award was truly an awesome feeling. It was my first time attending an NSBP conference and I had worked really hard on my research project. Not only being able to present my work, but also being acknowledged for it, was a great feeling. Being awarded the Carl Rouse Fellowship was a huge surprise to me. I was informed that I was selected to participate in the LIGO Summer research program, which itself was an amazing opportunity, but was not actually informed that I was a Rouse fellow until halfway through the summer! When I found out, I was ecstatic. I felt extremely honored to receive such prestigious honors and was very thankful to the AAS, Caltech, NSF, and NSBP for supporting my research in gravitational-wave science.

Burgasser: Please tell me about yourself; what is your story?

Fields: I was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ. I attended pre-school just a few miles away from my current institution, Arizona State University. Growing up I was always fascinated with science and technology. I can even recall days dissembling my Playstation just to see if I could put it back together. I went to high school in Mesa, AZ, where I took my first physics class. I didn't actually know what physics was before taking the course but I knew it had to be better for me than the other option, taking chemistry. The experience I had with my first introduction to physics set me on the path I am on today. While I had always had a general interest in science, and in particular astronomy, it was not until this experience that I truly considered physics as a possible career path. I worked in high school to make my way to college so that I could continue to study physics. Being the first from my family to attend college presented many challenges during my journey, but I was fortunate to have the support of those around me to reach that goal. Entering ASU, I began contacting professors about conducting research, and started working on a project with my current advisor, Frank Timmes. Under his tutelage, I learned how to program, conduct research, and many other important aspects about being a scientist. The successful partnership between my advisor and I has led to my progression as a scientist and helped me reach the next stage of my academic career. Currently I am choosing where I will attend graduate school to obtain my Ph.D in Physics/Astronomy. I am very thankful for those who helped me along the way.

Burgasser: Tell us a little about your research interests.

Fields: My research interests vary. I am interested in compact objects (such as white dwarfs and neutron stars), astrophysical sources of gravitational waves, and supernovae. My research has been in stellar evolution. Specifically, modeling supernova Type 1A progenitors using the stellar evolution code, MESA. Extending upon this, I wish to move towards 3D hydrodynamical simulations of supernova explosions. This is a very interesting topic to me and is full of very interesting physics, such as gravitational wave emission and neutrino transport! I also have a particular interest in the nuclear astrophysics aspect. A large part of my undergraduate research was considering nucleosynthetic processes in low to intermediate mass stars and I look to build upon that in graduate school.

Burgasser: How does it feel to be involved in gravitational wave research at such an exciting time for the field?

Fields: I really enjoyed working with LIGO. It was an exciting time to be working at Caltech as everyone prepared for the first observational run of Advanced LIGO. I was surrounded by an awesome and supportive REU cohort that made the experience worthwhile. While deciding to participate in the LIGO SURF program at Caltech, I was also considering a summer project at the Univ. of Chicago. However, I choose to work with LIGO because I felt that it would broaden my research horizons and help me gain context outside of my current research. I'm very happy I made this decision and recommend the program with my highest endorsement!

Burgasser: You’ve also been involved in several outreach programs in and around Phoenix. Tell us about them: How did you get involved in these, and why do you do this work?

Fields: Outreach has always been very important to me. After having such an influential experience in my high school physics course, I knew that I wanted to do my part to return the favor and hopefully inspire others as well. During my time at ASU I have been involved with EPICS, a multidisciplinary club that uses the collective skill sets of ASU students to tackle local and global problems. I got involved in this program through an elective course at ASU and continued in a volunteer capacity afterwards for several months. After this work, I began volunteering as an instructional fellow of the Western School of Science and Technology (WSST) in Phoenix. I chose to pursue this opportunity because I felt that it would put me at the forefront of inspiring the next generation of scientists. WSST is a public charter school that focuses on providing quality education to students in predominantly low income households or other inhibiting socioeconomic factors. My goal was to show the students that pursuing higher education is a possibility and to hopefully inspire them to continue toward their goals. I am not required to do these activities and have never been paid for my time. However, it is my hope that one day I will be the reason that someone discovers their passion for science and has the adequate resources to pursue it.

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

Fields: My high school physics teacher, Mr. Chad Jacobs at Skyline High School in Mesa, AZ had a huge impact on my decision to pursue science. Deciding to pursue science was not the norm in my family. It would have been more common to pursue a trade or vocational school. Having the support from my family and the staff at my high school made my decision to pursue physics possible. 

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career so far? How did you overcome them?

Fields: One of the most difficult challenges in my career has been supporting myself through college. Often times I have had to hold multiple jobs while focusing on schoolwork, conducting research, and volunteering. While this has not been much of a career challenge it has definitely shaped me into the scientist I am today. Another persistent issue is having to handle the fact that I am the only one that looks the way that I do. Attending large conferences are amazing at demonstrating the growing, inclusive community we have in astronomy. However, in normal day to day roles this is not so. For instance, at ASU I will be one of three African American BS physics students graduating this year and the only BS astrophysics. Coming to terms with being 'different' has been a challenge, but I would say that through the conferences I've attended over the past few years and the people I have met, this issue has begun to fade.

Burgasser: As you have personally experiences, people of color are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors etc.) that helped you succeed? 

Fields: I would say that finding adequate help at ASU during my early undergraduate years was 
very difficult. If it weren't for the help of a handful of awesome graduate students, I probably wouldn't be doing this interview right now. However, the Sundial Project at ASU is a new program that has addressed this and offers research mentoring and also seeks to foster an inclusive community for physics and School of Earth and Space Exploration students. I am glad to be a part of this project 
and to see it address issues that could inhibit success among minorities or underrepresented groups at ASU. My current research advisor, Frank Timmes, has had a tremendous influence on my success as a scientist. He worked with me since I first approached him about research during my sophomore year and has always made me feel valued as a young scientist. The support of other faculty within the School of Earth and Space Exploration has also made my time at ASU enjoyable and allowed me to 
grow as a researcher.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? 

Fields: I feel that it is important to inspire the next generation of scientists. I think that engaging with all groups of students through outreach and volunteering is the first step of many towards making astronomy more inclusive. We will not start to see an increase in representation until we have an increase in interest.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to students of color interested in following your path?

Fields: The field of astronomy is one of the most active and progressive of the sciences. The programs and opportunities available are starting to remove the barriers previously in place. If you 
have a passion for astronomy, I urge you to pursue it. I assure you that you will be entering a welcoming community of hardworking, kind people, actively working towards change. :)

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Research Scientist Highlight: Dr. Elisa Quintana

Dr. Elisa Quintana, NASA Senior Research Fellow 
at NASA AMES, lead discoverer of the Earth analog
Kepler-186f, and 2015 Hispanic Scientist of the Year
Dr. Elisa Quintana is a NASA Senior Research Fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center, and a Research Scientist at the SETI Institute, where she investigates Earth-like planets and multi-planetary systems with the Kepler spacecraft.  Raised in rural New Mexico, Dr. Quintana earned her Bachelor's in Physics from UC San Diego and PhD in Astronomy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has since worked at SETI and NASA Ames. Dr. Quintana led the team that discovered Kepler-186f, the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star (i.e., “Earth 2.0”). She received the Lupe Ontiveros Dream Award in 2014 and was named Scientist of the Year in 2015 at the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC)

Burgasser: Your discovery of Kepler-186f, the first real Earth analog, was an incredible achievement and a real breakthrough in the field. How did it feel to lead that effort?

Quintana: It was definitely an exciting journey. I started my graduate studies at NASA Ames in 1999, working on both planet formation models and on a project called Vulcan, which was a ground-based exoplanet search program that was a pre-cursor to the Kepler Mission. I’ve been working on Kepler for the past decade and have done a little bit of everything - from work as a software developer where I wrote code to calibrate the pixel data, to searching for and validating new exoplanets. I participated in the discoveries of many diverse Kepler planetary systems, but Kepler-186f was the first planet that I worked on from start to finish. Leading a project like this, you get to work with a lot of great scientists that are experts in their various subfields of astronomy, but you still have to learn and understand all the pieces and put them together in order to confirm, publish and announce a new planet. I think working on Kepler-186f was the most challenging year that I’ve spent during my time at NASA Ames. The data was also public at the time, so it was a bit nerve-wracking knowing that we were putting so much work into confirming this planet, yet anyone at any time could publish it. It’s one reason I really like working on my theoretical planet formation models, it’s typically more relaxing than the world of planet hunting!

It was an honor for me to lead the efforts for the Kepler-186f discovery, as it was a major milestone for the Kepler mission. I’m proud to be able to say that the first Earth-size planet that could potentially harbor life was discovered by a Latina.

Burgasser: How did it feel to be named Scientist of the Year?

Quintana: I was surprised and felt very honored to receive this award from the wonderful Great Minds in STEM organization. They have been so successful in promoting STEM fields and supporting the Hispanic community (K-12, college and professionals!) for many years, so receiving their top honor is something I’m very proud of. (I also got to meet Mario Lopez who was hosting the awards event.)

Burgasser: If NASA gave you half its annual budget ($9 billion) to do any astronomy- or space-related project, what would you do?

Quintana: I believe in manned spaceflight and would love to see humans go to Mars, but if I had this budget I would definitely choose to fund a LOT of small unmanned science missions. Faster, better, cheaper! $4B could fund about 8 Discovery class missions (like Kepler!), then $4B to fund lots of $100M missions. I would like to see lots of Solar System sample return missions that could give us clues to our origins, and visits to as many moons and asteroids as possible, and all of them would require student involvement. I would give $1B to the SETI Institute, half to expand their classic SETI program (the truth is out there) and half to scientists working in astrobiology, studying life in extreme environments.

Burgasser: Was astronomy something you’ve always been interested in?

Quintana: No. My career path is so different to many people I know in astronomy. Many of my colleagues either have parents that were scientists, or have known since they were 5 that they wanted to be one. It honestly never crossed my mind until I was in community college. I was born and spent my childhood in a small town (Silver City, NM) surrounded by my large extended Mexican family. My father writes Chicano poetry and I grew up going to poetry readings. There were no scientists, let alone female or Hispanic ones, that I can recall. It wasn’t until I took my first physics class at my community college that I became intrigued, partially because I did so terribly in the class and the challenge drew me in. I ended up earning all of my degrees in physics.

Burgasser: Who inspired you as you were pursuing your career, and how?

Quintana: When I transferred to UCSD, my physics advisor was former astronaut Sally Ride. I basically went from having no role models to having the ultimate role model. I loved how she just exuded strength. Growing up I always liked space-related things, which I can attribute to Judy Jetson. Maybe she inspired me more than I think!

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career? How did you overcome them?

Quintana: Because I went to a community college and transferred to a UC school, I had a hard time calibrating how I fit in with my peers. I always felt a few steps behind and assumed that I was supposed to know things, so I rarely asked questions in class and worked alone (for long hours). That is the worst way to get through college! Looking back, I realize that physics is just hard, for (nearly) everyone, and my lack of confidence only made things harder for me.

Even now, after all of my accomplishments, I don’t feel like I’m taken seriously many times. After I published the Kepler-186f work, I received quite a bit of backlash from some senior male scientists that I can only attribute to envy, and it’s disappointing because I’ve never seen such behavior focused towards male scientists following the discoveries of the other hundreds of Kepler planets. I’ve developed thick skin over the past few years and my experiences have only made me stronger. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Thick skin shouldn’t be a requirement for a woman, or a person of color, to succeed in science.

Burgasser: People of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors etc.) that helped you succeed?

Quintana: A huge factor that helped me succeed was that my California community college had a Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) program with the University of California. The program requires a student to plan ahead and meet a set of requirements in order to have a guaranteed transfer. The program gives people a second chance in life to pursue a dream career, and gave me hope. Many community college students come from underserved communities, are the first person in their family to get an advanced degree, didn’t have a college fund set up, and/or never considered a career in a STEM field was even an option. There are so many brilliant and talented people attending community colleges, some simply because of the low tuition and the flexible schedules. I was saddened to hear that UCSD had cancelled their TAG program (it will be interesting to see their diversity stats over the coming years), however six other UC campuses still offer it.

Burgasser: Can you also share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Quintana: I would encourage all scientists and engineers that have survived college or graduate school to become mentors, regardless of their career path. I think the one-on-one support can do wonders for student retainment. There are lots of programs, like MentorNet (http://mentornet.org), that don’t require a huge amount of time, and knowing that you’re helping someone succeed, and helping the field of astronomy, is very rewarding!

Burgasser: What advice would you give to young women of color interested in following your path?

Quintana: I would advise young women of color to pursue what interests them most, but learn how to program really well because it will always give you an advantage. Also, realize that it’s ok not to be perfect. Don’t let a lack of self-confidence become a barrier to reaching your full potential, find support groups or a mentor to help with that.

Also, I know in the Hispanic culture that it’s not easy leaving home. In my extended family, for example, kids are expected to stay close to their parents. Encouraging children to go off to college (especially to move out of state) isn’t a thing. However, you have to take risks sometimes, break the cycle, because you can always go back home, with your degree in hand, and be in a powerful position to set your own path. Your community will come to look up to you, and you’ll likely inspire others to follow in your footsteps!

Burgasser: Any final words?

Quintana: Thank you for allowing me to share my experiences. Astronomy in Color is a wonderful idea and I can’t wait to read future posts from other scientists. I’m also happy to answer any questions anyone may have on graduate school, careers in physics/astronomy etc. (my email is elisa AT astrob DOT io).

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Student Highlight: Ivanna Escala

Ivanna Escala, graduate student at Caltech
Award recipient at the 2015 CAMP Symposium
Ivanna Escala is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Caltech, working on galactic chemical evolution in the Local Group. A first-generation US citizen of Costa Rican and Argentinian descent, and the first in her family to attend college, Ivanna earned her Bachelor's of Science in Physics from UC San Diego in 2015, graduating at the top of her class, and was awarded the Physical Sciences Dean’s Undergraduate Award for Excellence. She was active in her Undergraduate Women in Physics group, contributing to UCSD's winning proposal to host one of this year's APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. She has also led workshops for her peers on applying to graduate school and Python programming, and enjoys community outreach.

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (jorgemoreno AT cpp.edu) if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

Burgasser: How did it feel to get into one of the top graduate programs in Astronomy?

Escala: It felt surreal. I never considered myself to be part of the group of people that could get into a top program. When I was accepted into Caltech, I didn’t even realize what was happening. They were comparatively late to respond, so I already thought that I had been rejected without notice, which wasn’t too hard to convince myself of since I thought I had thrown a hundred dollars out the window by applying at all. The astronomy option representative requested a meeting over Skype with me, and I prepared for it as if it was an interview – so when I was told that I was accepted, I was quite pleasantly surprised!

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

Escala: I’m a half Costa Rican, half Argentinian first-generation American. When my mother knew that I was on the way, she decided to move to the United States in hope that I would have a better life here. I’m very grateful for the difficult decision that she made, because otherwise I do not think that I would be where I am today. When my family immigrated to the U.S., we ended up in New Jersey, where I spent most of my life. I went to high school in San Diego, then got my Bachelors in physics from UCSD. I feel as if somehow I stumbled into university on accident, since I never really thought about it during high school and had no idea what I was doing when I finally decided I should apply. I am the first in my family to go to college, and it seems that I will be the first to get a PhD as well!

Burgasser: What inspired you to pursue a career in astrophysics?

Escala: I’ve loved astrophysics since I was a child. I used to watch documentaries on the Discovery channel about space and have my mother take me to the library, where I would check out nonfiction books about the universe.  Once I even got my uncle to take me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where I went to the planetarium, got to see cool meteors, and ate a cookie that looked like Jupiter! In high school, my physics teacher, who encouraged me to take AP Physics, had a big influence on my life. Although I had always been skilled at mathematics, it wasn’t until then that I realized I could do physics. Given my childhood, it only seemed natural to declare as a physics with specialization in astrophysics major when entering university! I couldn’t think of anything more worth studying than the universe itself.

Burgasser: What makes working in Astronomy unique and compelling?

Escala: One of my favorite things about working in astrophysics is the independence. The sense of ownership over a project – of learning all the relevant background, diving into the problem, writing your own code to perform the analysis, presenting your work to the scientific community -- contributes to a great sense of accomplishment. I can honestly say that I learn something new everyday. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that by sitting at my computer all day, I’m working toward contributing to humanity’s knowledge of the universe. What could be more awesome?

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Escala: The challenges that I’ve faced boil down to a lack of guidance and support, low self-esteem as a scientist, and a little bit of outright sexism. All are likely a consequence of my background, so the three things seem to go hand-in-hand. I had no guidance from my family, who could not provide it due to a similar lack of experience. Going to college was never something that was emphasized or talked about – my parents never saved to fund my education. I found out everything I needed to know about applying to university (and somewhat similarly for grad school) from the internet. When I was accepted into UCSD, a classmate of mine expressed surprise, saying that it was only probably because I was a Hispanic female. I remember thinking that person was probably right.

It was difficult; I often felt lost and out of my depth, and doubted if I belonged in physics. I struggled with the fact that I was feminine in a male-dominated field. But it gives me comfort to know that I am entirely self-motivated, and ultimately I know that I got myself where I am today and I deserve to be here. I know that I can succeed, because I can always count on myself and I got here on my own merits.

Even today, I sometimes find it difficult to identify with other graduate students at Caltech, due to our differing backgrounds. It’s hard not to compare yourself to someone who has been groomed for academia since middle school or who has a family filled with doctors, engineers, and scientists. But it’s important to remember that everyone is born into different circumstances, and there really is no legitimate comparison between you and someone else. I just always try to do the best that I can, and not seek validation as a scientist through others.

Burgasser: As you have personally observed, people of color - especially women of color - are severely under-represented and face social barriers in our field. Can you point to one or two factors (specific programs, individual mentors, etc.) that have helped you succeed? 

Escala: Mentorship has been extremely important in my life. I am very fortunate to have had supportive and kind research advisors as an undergraduate. I can say with certainty that I would not be where I am today without them. In particular, my research advisor at UCSD helped me prove to myself that I could become a successful scientist. He encouraged me to apply to Caltech, even though I honestly thought that I didn’t have a chance. Look at where I am now! I hope that one day I will be able to do the same for someone else as a mentor.

Burgasser: I'm sure you are aware of the sexual harassment by faculty at many of our top Astronomy programs, including Caltech; how are you approaching these issues as a promising young woman in science?

Escala: I’m definitely aware of the Title IX issues within astronomy. Unfortunately, I’m certain that these issues have a long history, and are only now beginning to be appropriately addressed. I think one of the best ways to approach this issue as a woman is to not let it be discouraging – pursue your career in astronomy just as vigorously, if not even more so, because having a larger female presence within the field is something that will help resolve this issue. It is important to work to maintain a supportive graduate student community within your program, so that anyone who is subjected to harassment does not feel isolated. A tight-knit graduate community has a strong voice that can be heard by the faculty and the administration, and thus we have power to bring attention to these issues and call for change.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Escala: I think that raising awareness and having a line of communication open between students and faculty is essential to making the field more inclusive. Often times, others do not know that a problem even exists, either because of a lack of communication, or because they are incapable of seeing the problem in the first place. Programs that emphasize the advancement of groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM by providing them with a supportive network and access to information/opportunities, such as the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP), are an excellent way to combat the bias that has been entrenched in our society. As people from diverse backgrounds occupy more and more high-ranking positions in the field, racism/sexism will likely become less of an issue.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to other young women of color interested in following your path?

Escala: Do not give up. Know that you are not alone, even if you may feel that way within your department. I would bet that other women of color have felt almost exactly the same things that you have—it has nothing to do with any fault of your own. Your success is not just your own. The path before you may be difficult, but by walking it you remove some of those difficulties for the women that will follow you.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Escala: Thank you for taking the time to read this! I hope that this has been helpful.