Monday, July 24, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Aldo Sepulveda

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This week’s TAURUS interview is with Aldo Sepulveda, an undergraduate student from the University of Texas San Antonio.  Aldo is working with Dr. Brendan Bowler to determine the orbits and host star masses of directly imaged exoplanets.

BB: Can you talk how you first became interested in physics and astronomy?

AS: I’ve always enjoyed math and science.  As a child, those were always my favorite subjects in school.  During my first semester at UTSA we were required to take AIS (Academic Inquiry and Scholarship) and that’s where I was reconnected with the part of myself that really liked science and math.  My experience in that course inspired me to want to pursue a career in science as a life goal.  Astronomy and physics are simply the areas of science that fascinate me the most.

BB: In your TAURUS application you had mentioned your interest in exoplanets.  Can you talk about how that came about?

AS: Earlier this year Dr. Nancy Levenson from the Space Telescope Science Institute gave a talk at UTSA all about the James Webb Space Telescope and all the cool science it will accomplish.  I talked with her a bit about exoplanets and she told me about all the things JWST could clarify, like models of planetary atmospheres.  So it’s because of that experience that exoplanets in particular were in my head.

BB: Have you experienced any challenges during your education, and if so how have you overcome them?

AS: Being a first generation college student was a challenge (my parents don’t have college degrees) because I didn’t know anyone who had been through college before.  So everything that I know now, especially for a career in academia and graduate school, I had to find out on my own in college.  So that was tough.  However, I think of it as a double-edged sword because it’s also turned into extra motivation; knowing that there’s a lot I still don’t know has made me seek out advice and information about careers in astronomy and graduate school.  For instance, finding out about summer research programs was part of this drive.  So although it was a challenge at first, it ended up giving me extra motivation that’s become very helpful to me.

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

AS: There’s one thing that comes to mind: recently home life got stressful and was interfering with my college work and my well being.  Early last semester I decided to move to an apartment close to UTSA to escape from that.  I’m proud of that decision because it was a necessary act of self care, and my ability to focus on college has substantially improved from that decision. 

BB: Thanks for sharing that.  You arrived early this summer to attend the AAS meeting in Austin.  That was nice because we were able to meet each other before the summer program started.  Can you talk about what motivated this and what you learned from your first astronomy meeting?

AS: I was accepted into TAURUS so I knew that I was going to go to the AAS meeting in the winter to present research.  I looked into the AAS because of that and I noticed there was a summer meeting in Austin one week before this program starts.  It was too lucky and convenient of a date to pass up.  So of course I was going to go!  One particular motivation was that I wanted this meeting to be the first exposure to a scientific conference as opposed to a winter one where I would be presenting research.  

I learned a lot from the meeting.  It was a remarkably wide spectrum of knowledge; it had everything from tips and advice for astronomy careers to the importance of public outreach in science to the fact that solar wind is a result of thermal pressure temporarily winning over gravity.  I learned all kinds of things there.  It was a great experience and I’m glad I went.  I’m looking forward to the winter meeting.  I’ve never been in an environment like that, surrounded by so many people doing astronomy.  It was lovely.  I really felt like that was my first exposure to the world of astronomy.  

BB: I enjoy the AAS meetings too.  The science is great, you always learn something new, and it gives you ideas for your research.  It’s also a great networking opportunity to meet new people and form new collaborations.  Wait until you see the much larger winter meetings!   
Can you talk about what your research or personal goals have been throughout this summer?  What do you continue to hope to achieve for the remaining few weeks of the program?  What would success look like for you in the TAURUS program?

AS: My primary goal was to get my first research experience.  Starting on day one, I already felt like this was a success.  Some of my other goals included learning everything and anything I can, doing a good job on the research project, and boosting my overall confidence— which is a personal goal that was important to me for the summer.  Every week that I’m here I learn so much and gain more experience.  I’m really happy to be here this summer.  

BB: Do you have a better feel for what the research process is like? 
AS: Yes!  That was a big motivation for seeking out these summer programs to begin with.  Certainly with programming experience; I had taken one introductory programming class, but now I feel like I can actually use that and apply it not just to a homework assignment but to an actual task we want to accomplish related to our research goals.  I also feel that my general understanding of the research literature has improved compared to the start of the summer.

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

AS:  After I complete my undergraduate studies, my next goal is to enter a graduate program and earn a Master’s degree and PhD degree in astronomy.  I don’t think I’ve told you that yet!  I was interested in graduate school as soon as I knew that that was part of becoming a scientist and having a career in academia, but it wasn’t until last semester that I felt like I wanted to pursue a PhD in astronomy.  But at this stage I’m leaving my specific career options open.  Right now I feel like I’m learning and training for academia, but I know that that’s not the only option.  Ultimately as long as I find a career related to astronomy in some way, and I can support myself with it, then that’s certainly going to make me happy.

BB: Having been through 5 weeks of research, do you plan to apply to REU programs again next summer?

AS: Heck yeah!  I’ve heard that it’s good to find out early whether you like research to know whether you want to go down that route.  I’m relieved that I’ve been enjoying this and I want to keep at it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Pa Chia Thao

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This is the fourth of six profile pieces about the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Meet Pa Chia Thao, from Mt Holyoke College working with Dr. Andrew Mann, who writes about Pa Chia's passion for and growing experience in astronomy.

This summer, Pa Chia joined us from Mount Holyoke College as a TAURUS scholar. Pa Chia will be working on Spitzer data taken on two young planetary systems, which she will use to study the atmospheres of these planets, and more generally, understand how exoplanet atmospheres change over their lifetimes. I spoke with Pa Chia about her story, background, research interests, and future plans:
Pa Chia’s story begins back with the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and is intricately tied with the recent history of the Hmong. When war spread from Vietnam to neighboring Laos, the U.S. recruited Hmong heavily to fight communism, with the U.S. offering independent and autonomous control of their homeland. When the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the Laotian Government declared Hmong enemies of the state, forcing them to flee. Pa Chia’s parents ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she and her two brothers were born. It was years before her family were allowed entry into the United States.
Not long after her arrival in the U.S., Pa Chia quickly discovered her love of STEM. By sixth grade, she was transferred to an aerospace elementary school, which peaked her interest in astronomy and aerospace specifically. Since then, she has always been curious about how the world works and has strived to become a scientist. Her interest only grew when she began to do research for herself.
In college, Pa Chia got involved in a broad range of astronomical research. She is currently working with Jason Young, examining warm Spitzer data of low-surface brightness galaxies with warm Spitzer data, which will become her senior thesis. She has also been identifying signatures of ram-pressure stripping in blue compact dwarf galaxies in Virgo. Last summer, she took part in an REU at the University of Toledo with Noel Richardson, searching for high-mass members of Galactic open clusters. Although most of her background has been in Galactic and stellar astronomy, Pa Chia has a passion for a wide range of topics and has shown the greatest enthusiasm toward working on exoplanets this summer.
Pa Chia was particularly drawn to the TAURUS program because she felt the program’s mission to improve representation in astronomy is extremely important and that the goals ‘spoke to her, directly’. She also welcomed the opportunity to broaden her research experiences beyond stellar and extragalactic work and to sample a wider range of astronomy before picking a specific path in graduate school. She is eager to leverage her TAURUS research-project to improve her programming skills and is particularly looking forward to the trip to McDonald to gain more observing experience with a larger telescope.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Pa Chia plans to take some time off from academics. She has particularly expressed interest in helping others abroad through the Peace Corps. After this, she plans to apply to graduate school and eventually pursue a career in astronomy. As Pa Chia progresses through these experiences, she hopes to follow in her parents’ fearlessness as they overcame tremendous odds and is continually thankful for the sacrifices that they both made so that she can have the opportunities that her parents never had.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Profile: Alexander Fortenberry

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This week's TAURUS scholar spotlight is all about Alexander Fortenberry, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands who's majoring in both physics and mathematics.  His TAURUS mentor, Dr. Rachael Livermore, sat down with him to learn more about his aspirations, thoughts on TAURUS and research techniques.

Alexander Fortenberry joins us from the US Virgin Islands! He is a NASA MIRO scholar at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he moved from his small hometown in Georgia for college.

During the summer of his sophomore year, he was offered a chance to do research and worked at the university’s observatory. His interest in astronomy piqued, he went on to conduct research in a range of topics including binary stars, Gamma Ray Bursts and high-redshift galaxies. This summer at UT Austin, he’s working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and using the magnifying effect of gravitational lensing to study distant galaxies.

“The most appealing thing about TAURUS for me,” he says, “is how many graduate students and postdocs are involved with the program. I figured it would give me a chance to learn about more than just what I was researching.”

Alexander hopes to go to graduate school and ultimately pursue a career in research. Having begun his research career earlier than most, he is well on his way to doing so, but he acknowledges that choosing which field to devote that career to is a big challenge. Of his goal for the summer, he says, “My main hope is that TAURUS will help me narrow down, if not decide, what field I would like to go into.”

So far, Alexander has found his observational research “extremely fun and great learning experiences,” but it hasn’t all been easy: “the hardest thing is that there isn’t one single way to do things.” However, some things that initially seemed daunting have turned out not to be so bad; the experience of working with an advisor who uses a programming language he’s not used before has taught him that switching from one programming language to another is “surprisingly easy.”

One thing Alexander has learned from his research experience is that he’s “really more keen on the more theoretical aspects of astronomy.” When I ask what draws him most to the subject, he highlights two things: first, “that there is always something new to find. But the most interesting thing to me is that we are not only living in the universe but that we are part of it, and by studying the rest of the observable universe we have the potential to find how we came to be or even other forms of life.”

Outside of work, Alexander enjoys hiking, traveling, and photography. He’s especially interested in astrophotography, and was kind enough to share some examples of his work.

Whatever area of research Alexander ultimately settles on, I am certain he will be a great asset to the field and I look forward to reading his future publications and seeing some stunning photography from his many travels. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Profile: Andrew Cancino

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

This is the second of six spotlights on the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Adolfo "Andrew" Cancino is a senior at Missouri State University where he majors in physics.  His advisor in the TAURUS program, talked to him about his experience, background, and aspirations for the future.

When you meet Andrew, the first thing you will probably learn is that he likes to be called Andrew. Shortly after that you may learn that he's lived all over the country—as a self-proclaimed army brat—and in fact he's even travelled all over the world, too. But it's family, not geography, that determines what's the closest thing to home for him, and that's why he landed at Missouri State University, even though he went to high school in California and briefly considered UC Irvine for college.

The road that would eventually bring Andrew to Austin this summer for the TAURUS program probably started in his senior year of high school. He decided to take an AP class for the first time that year (well, actually, four of them), and this was looking to be a bad decision. The worst was AP Physics. But fortunately for our story, he had an awesome teacher that helped him turn the tide by meeting with Andrew during lunch breaks and after school. Not only did she simply get him through it, she sparked Andrew's interest in physics for the first time. 

By the time he arrived at MSU, Andrew was determined to pursue a degree in physics. It still wasn't the subject that came easiest to him, but it was the most interesting, and Andrew had become used to overcoming such challenges through hard work and persistence. In fact, when I asked Andrew to give one piece of advice to a starting physics/astronomy major, he simply said "put in the work." For example, he says he's bad at coding, but he's found that when he has kept trying things pay off. When he had to choose a concentration for his physics major at MSU, he didn't have previous experience in astronomy, but that's what he choose because it sounded the most interesting. So far he's really enjoying it. He successfully applied to the NASA Space Grant Consortium and has also been working for Prof. Peter Plavchan on exoplanets and circumstellar disks. This is what has kept him busy since last summer, when he isn't taking classes or at his regular full time job outside of school.

While Andrew has only been here with us in Austin for two weeks, his experiences here and at MSU have already left him with a greater appreciation of astronomy research endeavors. For one, the idea that there is still so much that we don't know, and that he could be the first person to discover something that hasn't even been imagined yet, is deeply inspiring. But the first thing Andrew actually said that he's come to really value is the incredible network of people that make up the astronomy community. He already felt connected to so many people through his work at MSU, and now at Texas this is growing wider. It's not surprising then that Andrew's favorite part of the TAURUS program are the weekly seminars led by students and postdocs. It's not just that he says he's learning about a dizzying array of topics that are instrumental to astronomy, many of which haven't been covered in his normal classes, but that it's a connection to peers and mentors here at Texas who are choosing to spend their time to share their knowledge and experiences. It's a great source of encouragement.

With nearly seven weeks of the TAURUS program ahead of him, Andrew has big plans. He's really looking forward to the trip to McDonald Observatory. He is also curious about being part of the process of writing a paper, from start to finish, for the first time (as well as having his name immortalized in print, of course). Beyond that, Andrew is hoping to get a thorough background on all things astronomy in Texas, as he's heard the same rumors I have that there is more to astronomy than exoplanets [citation needed]. Above all, Andrew hopes to make lasting connections with people that will buoy him in the years to come, no matter what path he follows.

Monday, June 26, 2017

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Adrianna Perez

Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)

We are thrilled to share with you the first of our 2017 TAURUS Scholar Spotlights!  Adrianna Perez is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she majors in Physics.  Adrianna participated in the Banneker-Aztlán Institute last summer working with Dr. Jill Naiman and Prof. Jorge Moreno and joins us for TAURUS this summer. She was interviewed by her research mentor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

CLH: Can you tell me about yourself? What is your story?

AP: I’m from California, live in Bellflower. Basically my whole life in Bellflower, went to Bellflower high school, graduated from there. Right out of the high school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hill as a first generation college student with already my Physics major declared, although I was still unsure whether that was what I wanted to do. I took Physics in high school, and I did really well in it and I thought it was fun, so I went with that :). I was like, OK, I like Physics, so I feel like that’s a good place to start.

So I went to Dominguez Hills, start taking my Physics classes there, and really started to like it. The problems were harder at first. So I was a little, oh no, what if I can’t do this. But I just kept working at it, got better at it, and really started to like it. And then, just space was cool, so that’s how the Astronomy part came in. But we don’t have an Astronomy department at my school, so I wasn’t really exposed to it. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Moreno came to my school and gave a talk about his galaxy mergers, that I learned about research in Astronomy. And he mentioned the Banneker-Aztlán Institute, and I was really interested. So after his talk, I spoke to him. He encouraged me to apply. So I did that and got accepted, and then went to Harvard, and really liked it. Now I’m positive that I really want to be in Astronomy.

CLH: Can you share a little bit about of your future and career goals?

AP: I think a lot about becoming a professor, but I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. After that, maybe do a postdoc, and after that, get into academia, or try to be a faculty member. I feel like I might go down that path, but I’m still open to the possibilities. You don’t necessarily have to go to academia, there are other options. But I feel like, that is where I will end up.

CLH: So what brings you to the TAURUS program, and how do you think the TAURUS program will help you to reach your career goals?

AP: I was interested in TAURUS because at AAS, Dr. Moreno was telling me that Caitlin was gonna be here and the TAURUS people were going to be here. So we had a joint lunch with them, the Banneker-Aztlán people had lunch with the TAURUS people. I got to speak with the previous scholars and I asked how they liked it, and they were all really happy and excited and tell me all these great things. So I’m like, wow that sounds really good. Especially because I really liked Banneker and I wanted to be in something that’s similar. Because I know some REU can feel more competitive, and lonely. You’re just in the office, working by yourself and nobody wants to help you. So I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I wanted to be in a place that would feel similar to the one I was already in. And the previous scholars spoke very well of it. I met Caitlin there, and spoke with her. She said, sure, go apply! So I applied. I heard the program had a goal of diversity and inclusion and I really liked that. That’s up and coming in Astronomy, people are trying to change that. So I would like to be in part of the program where that is included.

CLH: So how would success in this TAURUS program look like to you?

AP: I hope to make many new friends. And I hope to get somewhat far in the research, and just to be able to answer that question now. And I want to give a good talk at the end! :) I want to have a nice talk with nice pictures, and explain myself well. I used to have a pretty big fear of public speaking. So I want to be able to communicate, and give a presentation without running off the stage. :)

CLH: I heard from Dr. Moreno that you gave an extremely good talk at the final presentation last year. Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. I worked really hard. We had a speech class once every week. But I would go a bit earlier, that way, I will practice before everybody else would come to, just to get comfortable saying it on stage. I can handle speaking in front of a couple people, but when the group gets bigger than five, then it’s like, oh no! 

CLH: Yeah, the community here would definitely help and provide feedback, and you can give an even better talk in the end.

AP: Yeah, I hope to top my previous talk, and that would be a success to me.

CLH: Just to change the gear a bit. How do you learn best (e.g., hands-on experience, reading literature about a topic, verbal explanations, process diagrams, etc.)? What is the most useful kind of assistance your mentor can provide?

AP: I think I learn the best from reading and listening. So I can read something and if I don’t understand it right away and get some kind of verbal clarification, that would be good. Sometimes drawing pictures helps a lot. But I don’t know if I would consider myself a hands-on person. Because I normally don’t like to build, or do things from my hands, I feel uncoordinated. :) So that doesn’t work too much.

Something I like is smaller celebrations. Even if it’s like a small goal, like I read half the paper, or I got a plot to work. These small things are what make me feel good. Yes! It might not be something big or fancy, but it’s progress, and I feel that’s worth celebrating.

CLH: Can you talk about what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

AP: I’ve already briefly mentioned the public speaking one. I feel like it’s my biggest obstacle. Because I can get really shy, nervous, and anxious sometimes, and withdraw into myself, don’t talk to anyone and go out much. When you need any help, you should be able to ask. If you don’t ask, then nothing will happen. That’s the biggest obstacle is to come out and say I need help.

CLH: What are you most proud of?

AP: I am proud that I can make little movies. Something that makes me proud is that I make little bunch of snapshots, and compile them up into a little movie. I think it’s really cool.

CLH: If there are other freshman or sophomore students who are interested in following your path, what advice would you give to them?

AP: I feel like I was lucky that Dr. Moreno came to my school, especially because it is small. But for other places, I feel like you would at least want to look into places you would be interested in doing research. If somebody is interested in going to Harvard or here at UT Austin, then I’d say try to get in contact with somebody here or I would put them in contact, introduce them to somebody. Let them talk about what that student’s research or career goals are. And hopefully, they will get a better idea if that’s what they want to do or not.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Faculty Highlight: Kelle Cruz

Kelle Cruz is a rising Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the City University of New York Hunter College. She is an observational astronomer and studies low mass stars and brown dwarfs. She was born and raised in San Antonio, TX. She earned both her BA and PhD in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000 and 2004, respectively. She was an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC from 2004-2007 and then a Spitzer Fellow at Caltech from 2007-2009. She joined the faculty at CUNY in 2010 and was recently awarded tenure and promotion. Kelle is the founder and editor of the Blog and Wiki. She is also on the Coordinating Committee for the Astropy Project. As Chair of the AAS Employment Committee she helped expand the  professional development workshop offerings at the Winter meeting. Her term as a AAS Councillor begins in June.

Jillian Bellovary*: The BDNYC research group is a really unique scientific community.  Can you talk about your role in establishing the group and the leadership role you have?

Kelle Cruz: The BDNYC research group is based in NYC and is led by three women. One of our primary goals is to foster a supportive and inclusive environment for our members.
I was never interested in leading a typical research group. I’ve always recognized that I wanted to do things differently. Specifically, I wanted to create an environment that was supportive of various types of learners and students like myself who were never considered “good at physics” because they weren’t good at the classes. I’ve known since I was a freshman in college that being a good scientist is very different than being good at getting A’s in Physics classes and I wanted to create a research group which recognizes and honors that.
For personality reasons, I decided that I wanted to live in NYC no matter what and staying in Astronomy and/or academia was secondary. The opportunity to become a professor at Hunter College (which is part of the City University of New York) and to collaborate with my best friends came after my decision to settle in NYC. However, my commitment to NYC also fueled my dedication to build a successful collaboration. At the time of formation, I was a brand new faculty member, Jackie Faherty was about to get her PhD from Stony Brook, and Emily Rice was a postdoc at AMNH. We all had a shared vision of living in NYC, doing research, strong outreach, and mentorship.

Jillian: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?

Kelle: Brown dwarfs are literally cool while also being scientifically complex due to the clouds in their atmospheres. They can be thought of as massive planets or as super small stars. Their properties have clues to tell us about both planet formation and star formation. In fact, for some objects, we’re not even sure if we should call them “failed stars” or over-ambitious planets. I think it’s this not-quite-knowing-what-they-are-yet, not being able to reliably label them, which makes them particularly intriguing.

Jillian: You have been an active participant in AAS Hack Day and .Astronomy, and you are the founder and maintainer of AstroBetter and a coordinator of the Astropy Project.  Why do you think these things are important for our field?

Kelle:  Astronomy is relatively small compared to other fields and our ability to organize is much higher than in other larger disciplines. I find this ability to influence the way everybody does things very attractive. I think that improving the technological proficiency of the astronomy community is low hanging fruit for making everyone happier, more productive, and more marketable outside of academia. The initial success of AstroBetter and it’s near immediate influence on the field propelled me to take on active and vocal roles in similar initiatives and communities such as .Astro and the Astropy Project.

JillianPlease tell us about yourself.  What’s your story?

KelleI was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and we spent a lot of time thinking about how we got here and what the future holds. When I was about 12, I realized that since I was a woman, I would never be able to hold a leadership role in the JW organization and that was a deal breaker for me. My self-awareness of my bossy-ness was acute at an early age and if I was going to dedicate my life to something, I’d want to be in charge! Around junior year in high school, I recognized that studying Astronomy was a way to continue engaging with these same weighty topics in a community where I could hold a leadership role. In many ways, AstroBetter is just my version of proselytizing, just like I was raised doing.

JillianCongratulations on being named an AAS Councilor!  Why did you decide to run for council?

KelleAs long time chair of the Employment Committee, I have become familiar with the way the AAS works and was eager to take on an even larger role in the society. I am particularly excited about helping to usher in the new governance structure, which gives more voice to the committees. I also think that the AAS is an avenue for making tangible change real for a lot of people. In a time where we might otherwise feel helpless, the prospect of making things better for people via the AAS is very attractive.

JillianWho inspired you as you were pursuing your career, and how?

KelleI’ve always been self-directed. There was no person in particular who I was aiming to emulate.

JillianWhat challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?

Kelle: I am bad at doing physics problems. I have overcome this problem by recognizing that skill is mostly relevant for being good at physics coursework and the physics GRE and is not a prerequisite for doing excellent science. I think I was just lucky that this disconnect was obvious to me very early in my career. There were two things which helped me “overcome” this obstacle: 1) I got involved in research as a freshman because I was precocious like that and 2) I didn’t know better. I was free of preconceived notions about what being a good scientist means so being bad at the coursework didn’t discourage me very much.

JillianPeople of color, especially women of color, are severely underrepresented in our field.  Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors, etc.) that helped you succeed?

KelleYES. The PREP program in San Antonio. I was taking math and engineering courses for three summers starting after 8th grade. We were told that we were the “cream of the crop” and we were also all Latinos or African American and also got free lunch because more than half of us qualified – in retrospect I recognize that this program was selecting first generation college students and the generally underprivileged who would otherwise not have been pushed towards STEM careers. We had speakers come to tell us about career paths, college, and pursuing a professional STEM career in general. As a result, I was academically prepared and aware of the options available to me.
I was maybe 12 or 13 and my mom said, if we weren’t JWs, I would want you to go to an Ivy League school. And since I wasn’t super committed to being a JW, I realized I should consider going to an Ivy League school. I don’t think that’s what she intended to happen! By the time I was in 9th grade, I had decided I wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania. Mostly due to the undergraduate business program. I got accepted as a junior, deferred admission so I could finish my senior year of high school. During that year, I decided I wanted to pursue astronomy and not business. A motto I came up with is that I didn’t want to make money by making other people money. This is something which I still live by. I arrived at UPenn and went to the “Astronomy” adviser. I learned that the Astronomy dept had recently been dissolved. He asked me if I wanted to do backyard astronomy or science astronomy. I told him that I wanted to be scientist and he told me I had to be a physics major. That is NOT what I had in mind -- I had dropped out of my high school physics class. I declared my major immediately so that it would be harder for me to quit.

JillianCan you share any ideas you have about making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

KelleI think we have many “aspiring allies” who want to help but lack the experience, training, knowledge, etc. I think if we made this a priority for our community, in the same way we’ve made transitioning to Python, for example, a priority, we could be the most inclusive scientific community in the US and a role model for everyone else. We’re small. Word travels fast. Grass roots efforts make world-wide impact in a short period of time because people move around so much. I think if every dept/research group/collaboration dedicated some time to raising awareness and changing practices, we’d reap the benefits of increased matriculation and decreased attrition. People would choose to become astronomers over other fields because of our awesomeness. Basically, I think small but dedicated efforts are worthwhile.

JillianWhat advice would you give to young people interested in following your path?

KelleSelf-awareness and knowing what you want is really helpful in making decisions and choosing the path that’s right for you. Spend time and energy looking inward and thinking critically about what you want more of in your life and what you want less of. Make career and life choices which will get you more of what you want and minimize what you don’t want. Iterating on this algorithm is what led me to my dream job. Everyone’s optimization function is going to be different.

Jillian Any final words?

KelleThanks so much for taking the time to do this interview series!

* Jillian Bellovary is an assistant professor at Queensborough Community College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History.  She is also a member of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

ACLU Texas Travel Advisory in Wake of SB4

By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On May 9th, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced a travel advisory for people traveling to Texas after the passing of SB4, a law that will allow police officers to investigate immigration status during any encounter with law enforcement -- including routine traffic stops. Although SB4 will not go into effect until September 1st, the ACLU warns that its passing may cause some to enforce the law prematurely.

As with a similar law that has been in place in Arizona since 2010, we recognize that this policy puts some AAS members at risk. With the AAS Summer Meeting and the Women in Astronomy Conference just a few weeks away, these members may be reconsidering their travel to Austin or feel anxious about attending. We recognize that these fears are legitimate and offer our support at such an uncertain time.

The following are recommendations for people traveling to Texas in the near future. If you are considering canceling your travel plans to Austin due to the passing of SB4, or if you can suggest resources for those affected, please contact CSMA Chair Jorge Moreno (csmachairmoreno at gmail dot com).

For more general information about what to do if you encounter ICE, please see this article.
  • Do not drive without a license
  • Do not ride with someone who does not have a license
  • Favor using taxis or rideshares over renting/driving. A local community development clinic has been working with an Austin taxi cooperative (green cabs), which can be called at 512-333-5555.
  • Do not drink and drive. Avoid drinking excessively.
  • Do not engage in any criminal activity.
  • Austin Police Department does not have a written policy regarding inquiring about immigration status, but in practice they do not cooperate with ICE.
  • Travis County still has its anti-detainer policy in place. 
  • Boycotting Texas is always an option, although this may not be feasible on such short notice

If you believe your rights have been violated because of SB4, please contact the ACLU of Texas at 1-888-507-2970.
ACLU “Know Your Rights” materials relevant to SB4 are available here:

Monday, May 1, 2017

Student Highlight: Sydney Duncan

Sydney Duncan, Physics & Dance, University of Utah
(Left photo by Sydney's father. Right photo by Luke Isley)

Sydney Duncan is a native of Dallas, where she trained in classical ballet at Tuzer Ballet and Texas Ballet Theatre School. At Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she studied saxophone, voice, and dance. Duncan then attended University of Utah, where she double majored in ballet and physics and performed with Utah Ballet. She has attended summer intensives at American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West, Atlanta Ballet, LINES Ballet, Ailey, Oklahoma City Ballet, Dallas Ballet Dance Theatre, and Hubbard Street. She completed Astrophysics REUs at University of Oklahoma and University of Chicago. At the University of Utah she conducted research on the chemical abundances of globular clusters with Dr. Inese Ivans. She is now dancing professionally in New York City.

Nicole Cabrera Salazar*: What made you decide to double major in ballet and physics?

Sydney Duncan: I started dancing at 3, and around 13 I saw an African American dancer on stage and I told my mom I wanted to be a professional dancer, so I started a more rigorous professional training in classical ballet. I went to a math and science elementary, middle, and high school magnet program. In my junior year I took my first physics class and it was incredible. I first learned kinematics and I thought, this is dance! I already knew about torque through ballet, and I applied what I learned in physics to dance, and vice versa. My parents told me I couldn’t dance forever, and encouraged me to look at physics college programs. From the time I was little, I always wanted to be an astronaut, so I decided to major in astrophysics. I looked for college programs that had both physics and ballet as majors. It really narrowed my choices down! I wanted a top tier dance program at a research university, which narrowed it down to 3 schools and finally decided on Utah.

Nicole: Both ballet and physics require hard work and dedication; did taking both majors slow down your progress toward graduation?

Sydney: Yes! I did a lot of work for both. The summer before my freshman year of college, I did a summer intensive training program for ballet. Every semester after that I took more than a full course load, around 23 credits a semester including summers. I don’t recommend doing that, especially because upper level physics courses require more time to learn the material. I took more than 90 classes/200 credits in the course of 4 and a half years.

Nicole: I heard that you also did research in 3 different astronomy fields! When did you find time to do that?

Sydney: I did two REUs, one at the University of Oklahoma on Dwarf galaxies, learning about N-body simulations. That was tough because it was my first research experience and it was very computer heavy. My second REU was at the University of Chicago doing experimental cosmology, and making parts for a cryogenic refrigerator for the South Pole Telescope Group. My last year of school I did spectroscopic research with my professor at Utah on chemical abundances of globular clusters. I would do this on top of training at various ballet companies at their summer intensives. I was always doing something!

Nicole: As someone who participated in summer REU programs, I’m amazed that you were able to do this while also fitting in summer ballet training. How did you manage it?

Sydney: To be quite honest, I put a lot of pressure on myself and had trouble taking time for myself and sleeping enough. I am just now learning how to sleep again! I would advise other people not to do it this way. Being sleep deprived for 4 years takes a toll on your physical and mental health. I was an angrier person, it affected my class attendance, and I did not go home to see my family very much. There was one whole calendar year I saw them for only two weeks. I would go directly from school to training to my REU and back again. I managed because I was doing what I loved, but there was definitely a lot of sacrifices.

Nicole: Where does your motivation come from? Do you have mentors you look up to?

Sydney: My determination comes from my family. My grandfather was a chemist who finished his degree at UC Berkeley after being rejected by other schools because of his skin color, at a time when it was unheard of for people like him to get a chemistry degree. His wife was a math teacher, and my dad became an electrical engineer. My mom’s dad is an amazing architect, and she became one of the few black female licensed architects in Texas. I have some role models in physics, but nothing compared to how my family has influenced me. I truly do wish I did have a female physics mentor in college, but it just didn't happen for me.

Nicole: What kind of hardships did you face in ballet and physics?

Sydney: I was told that ballet isn’t for black people, because no artistic director is going to cast you due to the way your body develops. It really hurt, but I could not get this dream out of my head so I was not going to stop. With physics, I never really felt welcome until I joined the Women in Physics group at Utah. People thought I was way too ambitious, that I wouldn’t be able to do Physics because I’m not smart enough, that I should change my major. My dad was very encouraging, he told me I could do whatever I wanted, he was my rock.

Nicole: What advice would you give to women who look up to you and want to follow your path?

Sydney: I want all the women out there to know there were times when I was ready to quit, but things started changing when I started believing in myself. I still struggled, I felt imposter syndrome, but I persisted. Find a female mentor who will encourage you, reach out to people and form study groups, find other women you can relate to. My time in undergrad would have been so much easier if I could have done this more.

Nicole: Now that your undergrad days are over, what’s next for you?

Sydney: On top of sleeping regularly, I’m focused on dancing for now. Physics will always be there, but you can only dance professionally for so long because your knees only have so much cartilage. I’ve moved to New York City, which has always been my dream. I go to auditions every single day; sometimes you get cut just from your resume, but you learn how not to take it seriously. I’ve just booked a show, and I’m considering a contract from a ballet company, which is every dancer’s dream!

You can follow Sydney on social media:
Twitter: @Syd_Duncan
Instagram: @SydneyDuncanOnEm
*Nicole Cabrera Salazar is a recent astronomy PhD graduate from Georgia State University. She is also a member of the Committee for the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing outstanding achievements by astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (csmachairmoreno AT if you know any other person of color in astronomy who should be featured.