UCI Professor Aomawa Shields is featured in Adler Planetarium’s Online Exhibit “Life on Other Worlds.” An exhibit which is about the search for life and covers astrobiology/SETI on Earth, in the solar system, and outside the solar system, Professor Shields’ exoplanet climate work is included in this exhibit. She is also featured in “The Limit Does Not Exist” Podcast,” episode 111: “Star Power,” which presents a discussion of Professor Shields’ transitions between the world of acting and that of astronomy, and how she has found herself in the space between worlds.
I haven’t known what I wanted to say about the last couple of months. People have been saying a lot. Many people – half of the country, for whom things did not go according to our plan on election day – are afraid. And fear is a powerful emotion.
I’ve read a lot of responses to fear online – on social media, and on other platforms. In some cases, what I’ve read has been informative. In many cases, however, I’ve taken what I’ve read for what it was – someone’s fearful words put out into the world. And I’ve thought to myself, This person is afraid. And this is how this person has chosen to express their fear. I’ve chosen to limit my time on social media so as not to be further scared or agitated by someone else’s public expression of their feelings. And when I’ve elected to return to social media for short periods of time, I’ve made strategic choices about what I read. I’ve chosen to look for, and amplify positive messages. Messages of hope. Messages of empowerment. Messages of trust. Because those are the messages that resonate with me.
This doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid and uncertain. However, for today, I choose to focus on hopeful possibility, rather than on my own fear and worry. And I’ve always heard that what I focus on expands.
I have made changes in response to recent events. My husband and I donate monthly to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Now we donate to both the Food Bank, and to the ACLU. I attended a recent town hall held by faculty in my department, affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusive practices. When I heard language that didn’t sit well with me, I spoke up and expressed myself – respectfully, yet firmly. The other day, on campus, I heard a small group of students chanting near one of the buildings. “RACISM – HELL NO! FASCISM – HELL NO! MISOGYNY – HELL NO!”. Instead of passing them by like I might have done four months ago, far too busy and in a hurry to get to my office to work, my body steered itself over to these students. As they marched past me, signs in hand, I cheered them on. They called to me. “Join us!” So I did. I walked with them for a short while, carrying one of their signs. As they called out, “RACISM!” I joined the response of “HELL NO!” As they called out, “FASCISM!” I responded, “HELL NO!” As they yelled “MISOGYNY!” I chanted back, “HELL NO!” along with them. But when they shouted, “F**K DONALD TRUMP!” I paused. Hmm, I thought. No. I‘m not down with that. I let that response proceed along without my voice.
No matter how much I disagree with the politics of the current President of the United States – and make no mistake, at the present time, based on what I‘ve heard throughout the campaign, I find most, if not all, of the policies that this new administration seems poised to institute abhorrent – I do not wish this individual, nor any members of his cabinet, harm. Sure, if the new president and his entire cabinet decided to resign, and we were able to do this whole election all over again, I would be ELATED. I would probably dance in the streets. And if someone – anyone – tried to physically harm me or those I love, I would defend myself and my loved ones. But if I am to retain my own humanity at a level that I can live with, I must in my own mind at least endeavor to respect and hold precious the lives of other humans on this Earth. Because – selfishly to be sure – this is about my soul, and me living my life in a way that lets me feel good about myself and the human being I am continually striving to become in the world.
I hope to one day be able to take it a step further. Though, honestly, it may take a while. In one of the best episodes of any show I’ve seen on television, the TV show Blackish recently tackled the very NOT black-and-white issue of the current division that exists within the United States over the election, as well as the many ways that people may choose to handle the reality of the times that we are living in. A powerful suggestion was raised – to try to build a bridge that might cross the great divide that exists between those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton, and those who voted for Donald Trump. This bridge might be built by someone in one or the other group reaching out seeking to understand the other’s point of view, rather than to be understood (The 5th of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). I mean, the episode was DEEP. And brilliant. Because at the same time that it threw out this bold suggestion, the characters acknowledged how difficult – how possibly unfathomable – that task might be.
Most especially wonderful about this episode was seeing how differently people within the family approached the situation. While the mother and father were extremely vocal and outwardly passionate in expressing their opinions, the oldest daughter Zoe elected to make lemonade for her school. She decided that the way she felt she could most help was to make something with love and share it. I thought, Bingo.
There are so many ways to contribute to making the world a better place. Regardless of whether I march or I don’t, whether I am outwardly vocal or express my opinions through less public avenues, it is just as important – perhaps more so – for me to be clear about what I am FOR as I am about what I am AGAINST.
I am for Love. I am for Inclusion. I am for the Empowerment of historically marginalized groups, like those to which I belong. I am for Racial Equality. I am for the rights of the LGBTQ community. I am for Choice, in all its forms. I am for Personal Freedom, for Religious Freedom, for Freedom to Do Whatever the Hell You or I Want to Do, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. I am for Slowing Down and Being Present in my own life – to all of the beauty and wonder it contains, and that I have the opportunity to notice each and every single day.
On Saturday, I did not march. I walked. I walked around one of the communities in Los Angeles that I frequent, usually by car. That day, I was on foot – walking up hills, through neighborhoods, down hills, around people’s yards. My goal was to notice as much beauty as possible. I looked actively for it, paid close attention, and stopped when something caught my eye. This is a list of what I saw:
Birds moving around one another in a succession of spirals
Large, flat cacti
Flower buds that looked like red pointy spokes of a wheel
Trees with thick roots running deep into the Earth, almost seeming to move like tendons, their grey muscles flexed and strong, and at the same time, soft like velvet
Cut out paper-colored stars hanging in a window
A house being built from the ground up on a long, slanted street
A stained-glass doorway
A tree full of oranges, still lemon-colored, but on their way to meeting their name
Two men lifting a mattress out of a small, skinny truck
The bright sun, warm on my chilled face
Wind chimes on someone’s balcony, the very air moving through them and giving them life
Buddha awash in rows of brightly-colored sparkling necklaces, sitting content in the crook of a tree where branch met trunk. And sitting opposite him, a large, nosy grey owl with bright yellow eyes. What a pair they made.
A few days ago, while hurrying to my office on campus, I was struck by the sound of a loud squirrel flipping out in a nearby tree, and it kicked me into this mode of Being Present briefly. I stood and listened to that large agitated squirrel, chirping, maybe even coughing. In that moment, I remembered that I was alive and breathing. Suddenly, I could see red and green leaves like jewels in trees all around me. It doesn’t take much to make a decision to slow down. Sometimes, it’s just a soft breeze on my face, or a singular chill in the air telling me that the season is changing.
The day of my walk I also gave a gift to someone who didn’t expect it. The gift wasn’t much. And it didn’t have to be. It was thoughtful, and given with love.
I realize that my wish most of all is for people in the world to slow down and become more present to life and to each other. It’s hard for me to feel violent or harmful to myself or to anyone else when I have slowed down.
I want people to understand that we are all indelibly connected to one another, by the very nature of being human beings on this Earth at the same epoch in history. I may not like to think about being connected to someone whose politics I loathe, or who might prefer it if I weren’t a professor of astronomy looking the way that I look, or who might wish me and my entire race or gender harm. But like it or not, I am connected to that person. I may not be willing or able to reach out across the chasm that separates us anytime soon. I am a work in progress, and nowhere near that enlightened. But I can’t hurt that person without hurting myself in return. Yes, now is a time to be watchful, like the Owl, so that I may stand up, express, and defend my civil rights and the rights of others when necessary. And at the same time, I can practice being present and more loving, like Buddha.
So, if that’s what I want – more people to be present in the world, and more love – then I have to walk the talk. That is my practice. Not perfect. Practice. Positive effort for the good. I choose to believe that a bigger force than any one individual – elected or not – is hard at work in the world. If my focus is on the positive, then that force can be a positive force. That force can be Love. And what I focus on, what we all focus on, will expand.
As the number of “potentially habitable” planets that astronomers find continues to rise, we seem ever closer to answering the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” But should we be looking for life elsewhere? Rising Stargirls Founder and Director Dr. Aomawa Shields navigates the murky waters of pursuing curiosity in her latest TED-Ed lesson, “Should we be looking for life elsewhere in the universe?”
Designed as a resource for educators and curious students alike, the lesson addresses the philosophy behind the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Discussion questions and supplementary resources are also available in the lesson for you to explore and answer together.
“The Universe and Me”
An Astronomy and Art Workshop
September 27 – October 20, 2016
Tuesday and Thursdays 4 – 6 pm
YWCA Pasadena-Foothill Valley
50 N. Hill Ave, Unit 301
Pasadena, CA 91106
This workshop, designed for young girls between ages 10 and 15, will explore constellations in the night sky, planets in and outside of our solar system, and the unseen mysteries of the universe. We will be using writing, theater, visual art, and our own personal stories and lives to process what we discover. Feel free to bring with you a sense of adventure and curiosity, as well as your own unique background!
To register, please visit the YWCA Pasadena-Foothill Valley and download the registration form.
The Rising Stargirls Teaching and Activity Handbook is out and available for download!
Rising Stargirls is committed to the idea that there is no one way to be a scientist.
By integrating creative strategies such as free writing, visual art, and theater exercises, we have created a new, innovative astronomy curriculum that addresses each girl as a whole by providing an avenue for individual self-expression and personal exploration that is interwoven with scientific engagement and discovery.
All of the activities used in Rising Stargirls workshops, plus educator resources and a suggested structure for workshops are provided in this manual. It is meant for use it in classrooms and informal learning environments anywhere in the world.
Many of these activities come from other programs. Others were created by us. You can use whichever activities are most useful to you, depending on the time available, size of the group of girls that you are working with, and the individual interests of the group. They are created for middle-school girls, ages 10-15. If you use them with high-school age girls, you may want to adjust some of the activities accordingly.
Enjoy and share widely!
For more information about Rising Stargirls programming, visit the Rising Stargirls website.
So I just came out of that magical time between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, when it seems as if most of the business and academic world shuts down. There are no emails in my inbox. No one responds to any emails I might dare to send during that time. There is nothing to do, except enjoy some well-earned time off.
Except, for a scientist, there is no dedicated time off. A scientist could always be working, if she chooses to. There’s always more research to do, even more research to write up, a conference abstract to submit, a proposal to write, perhaps new courses to prep. It never stops. And it never has to. Unless a scientist chooses to stop.
So I decided to. Stop, that is. I remembered earlier musings about work-life balance, rather than forgetting those resolutions as is typical a month or so after they are made.
There were a few things that needed to get done over the holiday break. A talk needed to be prepared. But instead of letting it hang over me through the week, ruining any fun I was having because I felt like I should have been working on it and wasn’t, I stopped should-ing all over myself. In my regular Sunday Meeting, I scheduled in a few hours to put the final pieces of the talk together. I added another hour later on in the week to try to get some simulations going. And the rest of that holiday week was left BLANK.
Because I’d kept up with my daily writing practice throughout the quarter, I felt completely guilt-free when it came to taking the entire week off from writing. I showed up for those four hours total, and took care of the pressing work things first. Some bug prevented my simulations from submitting successfully during that hour I’d scheduled to get them going. And instead of extending my scheduled time to try to figure out what the problem was, I let it go. There was no impending deadline. No one was going to die if I didn’t get these runs submitted over the holidays. In fact, no one cared but me. Everyone else was enjoying their holiday vacations. I had put in the time I said I’d put in, so I decided I would too.
I took two-hour long walks. I read books. For fun. I watched a New Year’s marathon of my favorite TV show. I binge-watched Netflix with my husband. We ate delicious meals at home and out at restaurants. I knitted. I took naps and played with our cats. I resurrected my yoga practice. I acted like one of those normal human beings who does a job, and then leaves that job at the office during their holiday break. My holiday break, for the most part, was a real break.
I have been trying something for the past three weeks now, and it’s proven revolutionary. It’s called “The Sunday Meeting“.
This comes from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), a center started by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD. NCFDD is an organization I plan on being VERY embedded in over the next several years. They will probably get sick of me. They had me at an entire webinar on “The Art of Saying No”. Now, after reading about and implementing “The Sunday Meeting”, I would marry NCFDD if I could. And I think my husband would understand.
The Sunday meeting is simple. It lasts a total of 30 minutes, and you do it on (you guessed it) Sunday, prior to the upcoming week. You set the timer and spend 5 minutes writing down all of your scheduled appointments for the week in your calendar. These are things like doctor’s appointments, picking up the kids at school, research or other meetings, colloquium talks you really want to attend, gym workouts, and the all-important academic writing (try scheduling this in the mornings before opening email or checking Facebook/Twitter). When the timer goes off, you set it again for 10 minutes, and this time you write down all of the things that need to get done during the week, in one massive “Brain dump”. Just get it out and onto a piece of paper in a notebook somewhere. This includes personal stuff like grocery shopping or laundry, as well as running that N-body simulation, or working on that painting that needs to be done for Lord and Lady Hillary Sheffield of Fancyshire, because they’re paying you to paint that mural for their castle wall, and well, it has to get done.
Timer goes off again. Now you set it one more time, this time for the last 15 minutes. And this is where you take that list of things you wrote down that you need to do this coming week and you give each task on that list its very own time block among the open spaces left. The unfortunate part of this step is the sobering realization that everything is probably not going to fit. This is The Perfectionist’s Nightmare. But it requires that you decide what’s most important and must be done this week, and what can possibly fall by the wayside for the week (or maybe even forever). It guarantees the act of prioritizing.
The beauty of this simple 30-minute exercise is that not only does it require that I spend the first 5 minutes scheduling the really crucial stuff first, the so-called “Big rocks” as Stephen Covey has referred to them, but it also gives me a guide for how to do my week in an organized way. I look at my planner and I can see what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time. And because I’ve gone through and seen first-hand all of the things that I want and/or need to do that week, I am acutely aware of just how extensive that list is (so extensive that everything didn’t fit!). So I am more likely than not to actually do the things I wrote down in my calendar. I don’t want to have to write them down again the next week!
It’s also much easier to say no to additional requests on my time in a given week after doing a Sunday meeting, because I know what my schedule is for the week before it starts. So I know how much free time I have for things not on my list of must-do’s. The answer is “not much”, unless I want to move something else out. Either way, it’s a conscious choice, not an automatic “yes” to shoving one more thing into a clown car.
Since implementing the Sunday Meeting into my normal routine, I’ve felt more directed and organized. I did the Sunday Meeting before facilitating a 4-day Rising Stargirls/Science Club for Girls workshop this summer. I wrote every day for an hour that week, before meeting the girls for our 5-hour days. And I was energized when I met them, because I had made space for my own professional writing beforehand. There’s no way writing would have happened otherwise during that week if I hadn’t scheduled it in there ahead of time. The Sunday Meeting has also helped me spread out my work throughout the week so that I’m not doing too much on any one day and burning out before the week’s half over. This is the wonder of advance planning.
Try the Sunday Meeting out. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.