New TED-Ed Lesson!

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.


By aomawa

Next West Coast Rising Stargirls Workshop Scheduled for Fall 2016!

“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.

By aomawa

The Rising Stargirls Teaching Handbook is here!


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.


By aomawa

One scientist’s guide to the holidays

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.



By aomawa

The wonders of “The Sunday Meeting”.


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.

By aomawa

One Scientist’s Approach to the Imposter Syndrome

I recently found myself in the airport waiting to board a plane back home from a conference. While shoveling down a mandarin chicken salad standing up at the crowded gate, I noticed a man who seemed to be lurking nearby. When it was clear that his behavior was not random, I decided to raise my head from my salad and confront his gaze directly. I recognized his face instantly. He was my freshman year physics professor. He had been trying to confirm that I was who he thought I was. When I lifted my head and met his eyes, then heard his single, half-finished question, (“Are you, by any chance…?”), and answered (“Oh my goodness, hello!”), the matter was settled.

Memories of regularly going to this professor’s office two decades ago for help came rushing back to me as we talked: How he told me once that if I went on the class trip to my academic adviser’s cabin for the weekend with the rest of my seminar group I would most likely fail the mechanics exam we were having that Monday; how I’d listened and obeyed, and lived in the library the entire weekend. I’d ended up scoring a full standard deviation above the class average on that exam. But I’d worked so hard for it. It seemed that I’d had to work hard at everything I’d achieved in the sciences. It hadn’t come easily. Not since junior high. Did that mean that I wasn’t cut out for it?

This living history flashed through my mind as my old physics professor and I talked. But the thing was, as I accessed this distant movie reel in my brain, it seemed abstract and fuzzy. Was he my TA or my lecturer? Was that Mechanics I or II? What grade did I end up getting in that class? As we talked about his lab, and my postdoc appointment, and being away from our spouses for ridiculous amounts of time, I realized something: The feelings of inadequacy I had as a freshman were gone. We were talking as colleagues. Faculty and postdoc, certainly. But he was treating me as a fellow scientist, not a freshman struggling through physics with major imposter issues. When I told him I’d gone on to get my PhD in astronomy, he said “I know.” He didn’t seem surprised, and he was not going to hand me a medal. We talked about research. No big deal.

It dawned on me that perhaps things really had begun to shift regarding my imposter thoughts, which had experienced a rebirth when I’d made the decision to go back to grad school in Astronomy in 2009, after leaving the field to get an MFA in Acting and work as a professional actor for a number of years. Having lived with an almost debilitating case of this Syndrome throughout my entire graduate career, I had resigned myself to the fact that, as one of a precious few African-American women in a field dominated by Caucasian males, not to mention a person who also held the Arts in as high regard as the Sciences, perhaps I would always suffer from this affliction. I’d done everything I could to succeed in spite of those feelings of being a fraud, fearing being “found out” as not qualified to practice or teach astronomy, study the climates of extrasolar planets, publish. I’d talked about it with friends, and my other supportive and trusted communities, including therapists. And I had graduated with my PhD. But it wasn’t until I stood there scarfing salad and talking with my mouth full, relaxed as can be, to this once omnipotent, larger-than-life tenured physics professor, that I realized that the Imposter Syndrome – though not completely eradicated from my veins – was now much quieter than it ever had been. And I think I know why. I had started to treat the Imposter Syndrome like a scientist treats a testable hypothesis. I had stopped acting like a victim with it. And I was finally starting to see its justification as seriously flawed.

Here’s the way the old scenario goes: I’m about to do something scary, like submit a paper to a journal, or give a research talk somewhere. Suddenly there is a small place somewhere at the pit of my stomach that does a little flip. Then as if on cue, an ancient tape plays on a distant sound system in my head with endless battery life. The tape says, “You are an imposter. A fraud. You aren’t what you say you are, and pretty soon, everyone’s gonna know it. I mean, come on. You don’t even look like a scientist.” The voice is my voice. And the irony is that I am convinced that what I am saying on the tape is absolutely correct and irrefutable. I’m an imposter about everything else. But about this, I’m totally legit.

This reminds me of a poem I once wrote. One of the lines of the poem is “What do you do when your own mind is your biggest racist?” I still think that is one deep line, and I remember surprising myself when it came out on the page. It scared me, because it was true. And it’s a scary thing to write the truth. Sure, I was influenced by the culture in which I’ve grown up, what I saw, or in my case didn’t see: Light brown, deep brown, ebony faces doing what I wanted to be doing. For over a decade I carried the imprint of an old white prof in my first astrophysics PhD program who advised me to explore other career options. I carried that elephant on my back for over a decade. I internalized his words, and the perceived looks, glances, and judgments of others. It wasn’t my fault, but I had more power than I realized or gave myself credit for at the time. And it’s much harder to overcome an obstacle to success when that obstacle is you.

That’s not a very pleasant atmosphere to create for oneself. And I know a thing or two about atmospheres. This one certainly isn’t positive. Therefore, it isn’t conducive to success.

So I asked myself, “What if I treated myself like one of the potentially habitable planets that I study?” What if I treated this Imposter freakin’ Syndrome like a scientist?

Planets orbit all types of stars, at different distances from those stars. Those planets that lie at just the right distance from their stars that they could have liquid water on their surfaces lie in their stars’ “habitable zones”. We know that on our planet, where there’s water, there is life. So we’re really excited about these planets’ prospects for life.

However, just because a planet could have liquid water on its surface, doesn’t mean that it does. It all depends on the most important factor that can influence the climate of a planet: Its atmosphere. If the atmosphere is too thin, a planet, like Mars, could lose all of its water to space. If a planet’s atmosphere is too thick with greenhouse gases, a planet, like Venus, could be so hot – far hotter than the distance from its star and the amount of light it receives would suggest – that lead would melt on the planet’s surface. A thick atmosphere could also be the saving grace for a distant planet receiving the tiniest fraction of light from its star. A thick atmosphere could give a planet the warmth it needs to keep oceans from freezing over, just as a thick blanket keeps our bodies warm on frigid winter nights.

Just as an atmosphere can make or break a potentially habitable planet’s chances for life, the type of atmosphere I adopt is crucial to my success as a human being. I made the choice to take an active role in creating the atmosphere that would afford me the best possible prospects for success as a scientist.

What was my atmosphere like? Well, like a good scientist, I collected evidence. And this evidence would either support or refute the hypothesis that I was an imposter. What I found was that the evidence was overwhelming and incontrovertible: Passing my qualifying exams, winning that graduate fellowship, passing my general exam, publishing that paper, and then another one, and then speaking there, and over there, and winning that prize fellowship, and then another one, successfully defending my dissertation, answering that question thoughtfully after my talk, and that one too, and yes it did make sense what I said, and wow, I was starting to get the hang of this, and I sure had improved when it came to talking off-the-cuff about the latest papers since way back when, isn’t that something, etc., etc. It seemed that the evidence was in stark contrast to what my brain had been telling me for so long. The facts didn’t match the tapes. And as a scientist, I am all about the facts.

At the conference last week I gave two talks. One was a research talk on a paper I’d recently submitted. The other was the first-ever talk I’d given on my educational outreach work. I was surprised to find that the science research talk was nearly flawless, while the education talk was less than stellar. I think I know why. Science talks have terrified me for years, ever since returning to astronomy grad school after being an actor for so long. In the world of the Theater, there is something called the “The Fourth Wall”. It’s an invisible barrier between audience and performer. The audience doesn’t break the fourth wall unless the performer invites them to. In science – i dare say in all of academia – there is no fourth wall. Questions fly at you like whizzing objects. This was one of the most challenging things for me to get used to when I first returned to the field. But I’ve worked at it. A lot. I’ve drilled, in the same way that a tennis player practices serving to the same point in the square on the opposite side of the court, or the basketball player practices free throws until he or she can do them in his/her sleep (I’ve never played basketball, so I’m totally riffing here), or the same way a golfer practices putting, or goes to the driving range or the 18-hole course over and over (my husband does this, so I do feel qualified to pretend that I know what I’m talking about here). You do something enough times and eventually you get good at it. I’ve gotten good at giving talks about my research, and answering questions at the end of those talks. So those tend to go well. I had never given a talk about my educational outreach workshops. So that one was a bit rougher. Those are the facts. As I do more of those kinds of talks, I’ll get better. End of story. No “Does this mean I shouldn’t do outreach?” emotional terrorist bulls**t. Just move forward.

Also helpful for me in graduate school (and still today) were the following: I kept a notebook with inspiring words from people I admired. I surrounded myself with positive mentors and role models who encouraged me to keep going, shared their personal struggles and how they walked through difficult times, and made sure I remembered that I was not alone on my journey. And because they weren’t always around or available, I became my own mentor, my own cheerleader. I decided that there was no reason that the negative voices in my head telling me “I can’t” should be any louder or more frequent than the positive voices saying “Great job Aomawa! Here’s what you did really well about that talk/test/paper/job interview!”

What if we made a conscious choice to generate – and listen to – the positive feedback about ourselves just as often as we listen to the criticism? I started with that. Then little by little, the positive voices got louder, and the negative voices, that were holding me back got quieter, and eventually revealed themselves for what they were: Old, stale tapes that just didn’t match all of the mounting scientific evidence I had accumulated over time. This evidence indicated that not only could I do it, but I was excelling doing it. Not only was I qualified to be an astronomer and an astrobiologist, but I had become an imaginative, meticulous, innovative researcher with the ability to initiate and organize projects and follow through with results, while collaborating in a team environment. I, as my adviser put it, had “arrived”.

An atmosphere is everything. We who study the climates of extrasolar planets know it. And people who deal in positive affirmations (like Louise Hay or Iyanla Vanzant or Brene Brown) and the art of writing despite the inner critic (Natalie Goldberg) have known it for some time. Let’s not spend our lives putting up roadblocks to our own dreams. Life on this planet is too short not to do everything in our power to create the ideal atmospheric conditions for our success. Favorable atmospheric conditions give rise to a suitable climate not just to survive, but also to thrive, and to become what we were always meant to be. Who knows, you too may find yourself stuffing food in your face at the airport next to someone from your past who’ll remind you of just how far you’ve come.

For more articles on the Imposter Syndrome, visit these links:

Women and the Imposter Syndrome in Astronomy (starts on page 4)

Women in Astronomy guest blog post by Harvard professor John Johnson

Jessica Kirkpatrick’s blog post

By aomawa

Rising Stargirls workshop “Universe: More Than Meets the Eye” wraps up the first week at Irving STEAM Magnet Middle School

What a great first week it has been for Rising Stargirls! We kicked off the workshop “Universe: More Than Meets the Eye” at Irving STEAM Magnet Middle School in Eagle Rock, CA. Many thanks to the enthusiasm and initiative of Irving’s Esther Lee – who saw a need for a Girls STEM club and created one, reaching out to me to help kick it off with a 3-week astronomy workshop. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays for two hours after school, Feb. 18-Mar 9.

On the first day of the workshop the girls received their own “playbooks” – individual journals that they use to record their responses to questions I ask (such as “do you talk to your friends and families about science?” “Do you believe that you can do well in science”), do free writing in (“Write for 5 minutes. The topic is ‘I am thinking of’.”), and draw in (“Draw what you think a typical scientist looks like”). We played theater games to get them on their feet and moving, and also a name game where the girls said their names, a favorite hobby, and a place on Earth or in Space that they would go to if money were no object (all the girls chose places on the Earth. Interesting.). We wrapped up the day talking about constellations, reading constellation myths from different cultures, and having the girls arrange themselves into constellation shapes in small groups.

At the beginning of the next meeting I shared with the girls my own personal story of how I got interested in astronomy and astrobiology. I talked to them about my family background, and where I came from. I thought it was important that they know that I didn’t come from a family of scientists, and in fact, no one ever told me that I should be a scientist. I talked to them a lot about how when I was younger I was afraid to raise my hand for fear of sounding or looking stupid, and how it wasn’t until I started raising my hand and keeping it there until I was called on, and developing strong support structures – mentors, communities of people I could be myself with – that I really started to succeed. I also got to tell them about my grandmother, who was a math major at Tennessee State University in the 1930’s, and how she struggled to feel like she belonged in that field. So powerful!

Then the girls spent the rest of the workshop session creating their own constellations and origin myths. I’m having such fun reading through these. This is an activity from Kelsey Johnson’s organization Dark Skies, Bright Kids, and I’m so happy she shared it with me. The girls are so creative! Then they decorated their playbooks with pictures from old astronomy magazines – images of planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae. The books look fantastic.

Yesterday we spent the day talking about scale. I shrunk the Sun down by 10 billion times (because I am that powerful) until it was the size of a grapefruit, and had one of the girls count 15 large paces away as she walked, to where the Earth would be. Then I asked them how far they thought she would have to walk to get to the nearest star. Many said “the end of the school yard!” or “the end of the block” when I prompted them to go farther. When I told them “New York City”, it blew their minds. Tons of “Wow!”s and “Whoah!”s. It was awesome. We also talked about what a star is and how all the elements we have on Earth come from stars, and we do too. Finally, I had the girls calculate (with my help) the diameter of a solar system planet, or the distance from Earth to the planet, in units of themselves! So the distance from the Earth to Saturn isn’t just 890 million miles, it is “one trillion Amahiranys”, for example. Then the girls got to decorate posters with these statements about the planets. One of my favorite things of the day said by one of the girls when I tried to hand her Pluto to do her calculation: “I don’t want to do Pluto! It isn’t even a planet!”. Priceless.

Look at pictures of the girls with their playbooks and posters here.

Read about this new workshop in my recent Women in Astronomy blog post here. This post has been published on The Planetary Society guest blog, and Universe Awareness.

Visit the new Rising Stargirls website!

By aomawa

Slowing down in academia: Is it worth the risk? I say yes.

I recently returned from one of the busiest conferences I have attended in some time. I gave two talks, and went to lots of sessions. Most notable for me were the number of people I hung out with. Lunches, dinners – my dance card was full the whole week. I thought back to a time when I went to conferences and felt like an outsider. These were definitely not those days. I had come a long way, and I was so thankful to see my progress as a professional in my field.

Upon my return home and to normal life, I thought about all the emails I hadn’t returned during the week of the conference, and all of the science I had left undone while I was preparing my presentations and going to talks. I knew it was all there waiting for me when I returned to work. I took the entire weekend to decompress. I got a massage. I took myself out to my favorite new restaurant for a great meal. But lurking in the back of my head was the fear that once I did get back into work, I would go back to feeling overwhelmed with all that had to be done. Let’s face it – life in academia is intense. Though I haven’t quite committed full-bore to that life permanently – I’m currently a postdoc, so I can be on the fence for the next 2-3 years – I’m in a field where if you do research, you’re basically viewed as only as good as your last published journal article. And the atmosphere can feel competitive and all-consuming if one wants to stay at the top of one’s field of research. I’m not sure I want that, but for right now, this is where I am.

Memories of getting sick three times since starting my postdoc only four months ago were still fresh. I explained some of these bouts of virus with just the act of moving and getting settled, then visiting sick family. But deep down I knew that the underlying reason for my inability to maintain my normally strong and healthy immune system was that once again I was trying to do too much. I wanted to succeed so badly in my new postdoc, with new advisors that I wanted to impress, that I was sacrificing the most basic self-care – like sleep – and overextending myself in all sorts of ways, from scheduling too many meetings in one day to overcommitting when it came to the number of tasks I attempted to do in a given day.

I was diagnosed with borderline high blood pressure during my last year in graduate school, after never having any issues with my blood pressure my entire life. After doing everything I could lifestyle-wise to get my blood pressure back to normal levels – adjusting sodium intake, exercising even more and losing more weight, to the point where my doctor told me not to lose any more weight  –  I decided to go on a low-dose medication, and my blood pressure is now at normal levels. My family has a history of high blood pressure, so genetics could certainly have been at play. But I also wondered something, given the timing: How much of this (relatively recent) diagnosis is stress related? As I have started to come into my own as a scientist, with more demands on my time – conferences, invited talks, collaborations – has my health started to pay the price? Is it possible to live LESS intensely and still be successful as a researcher?

With all of these health-related issues as “evidence” in support of my blossoming hypothesis that academic life has the propensity to create enough stress (if not managed properly) to cause adverse physical effects (let alone adverse mental and emotional effects), I considered a prognosis. I came to the conclusion that whether or not I am successful in my chosen field is less important than whether or not I am healthy, sane, and happy in my very short (hopefully not, but certainly when compared to the age of the universe) life. Others might be capable of taking on as much or much more than I can without any negative consequences. I don’t seem to be in that category. And for the first time in my life, I am starting to consider that a blessing (because it means I get to practice doing less) rather than a weakness (which used to serve as fuel for me to push harder and do more, so that I could “keep up” with those high-powered super-scientists).

So I made some choices during the last couple of weeks that I hope to keep up. I increased the amount of time I spend meditating in the morning to 15 minutes. During that time I try to concentrate on the sounds I hear outside – birds, cars, a distant passing train. Of course my brain inevitably goes to my daily to-do list, or my grocery list, the rumbling in my belly, whatever. But for those 15 minutes, I just sit there and breathe. And I breathe deeply. I’ve found that by increasing the amount of time I sit still at the beginning of the day, I am less reactive at work and at home. I can handle unexpected events that occur during the day with a little less “Aahh! I wasn’t expecting that! What do I do??” and a little more “Ok. That happened. What are my options?”. I feel more on an even keel when communicating with different types of personalities. I think more slowly. For me that’s a very good thing.

I’ve caught myself saying things like “that’s good enough” and packing up my laptop, when normally I would hang in there for another two hours so I could cross at least one more thing off my to-do list. I sat outside last week and ate my lunch, and watched pigeons peck around in search of food. I became fascinated by the way their heads bobbed back and forth as they walked. I fell in love with their metallic green and purple necks shimmering in the sunlight. I know this seems a little crazy. Or maybe a lot crazy. But for me to sit still and watch pigeons – with no book or paper in my hand, no phone, no assignment,  no one I was waiting for – just to sit there and watch something without an end goal other than to slow the f**k down and be still for a minute? It was a big deal for me.

This philosophy, of doing less and just being more may not be very popular among many of my colleagues in academia. And it may not be smart from a career-advancing standpoint. It certainly may not score me points with my advisors. But I have to believe that there are those who will agree with this philosophy, and with my quest to avoid getting on the intense academic train that involves long hours and constant multi-tasking. Books like Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness tell me I’m not alone on this quest. Blog’s like Tanya Maria Golash-Boza’s Get a Life PhD and the amazing Scientific American guest blog post by Radhika Nagpal, The Awesomest 7-Year postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life make me think that it might not be so impossible after all to have a normal, healthy, and well-balanced life AND succeed in academia. Revolutionary maybe. But not impossible.

Being driven has always been both a blessing and a curse for me. Without the amount of drive and ambition that I inherently possess, I would not have returned to graduate school after 11 years away from my field, finished my PhD in five years, or won two prize postdoctoral fellowships, and most recently a TED Fellowship. I am grateful for the amount of drive I have naturally. Drive isn’t my problem. Not slowing down and enjoying the scenery while I pursue all of my wonderful, ambitious goals – that’s my problem. So that’s what I’m working on.

There are conferences that I’ve elected not to attend this year, because I don’t want to travel every month. I am married, and it’s important to me to be a consistent presence at home with my husband, our cats, and our friends. I’m finally learning to make decisions based on my own values, not on someone else’s. Of course I do have responsibilities to my funding agencies to show some level of productivity. But my hunch is that there is a large field of space between showing steady progress (including publications) and killing myself going above and beyond what’s reasonable. And thankfully I am finally starting to see that, and make the decision to slow down. As a relatively autonomous, independent researcher, I have that luxury. I realize that not everyone does. But those of us in academia generally do have some amount of flexibility, and the ability to set much of our own schedules. Yes, in two years when I’m back on the job market I might be cursing this blog post, and wishing that I’d tried to get that Xth paper published during my Yth year of my postdoc so I could be more attractive to faculty search committees. But I’m thinking I’d be more proud of the extra walks I took on crisp autumn evenings with my husband, or of the additional time I spent swinging a toy mouse around my cats’ heads while watching their bright eyes transfixed and focused on a single purpose – killing that mouse. I think I’d be happy to have applied some of my drive to the pursuit of a slower, more peaceful existence, where I just hung out more, with friends or alone, with no objective or purpose; an existence that doesn’t leave my loved ones saying at my (hopefully a long time from now, but one never knows) funeral, “She really went after what she wanted at work.”, but maybe instead something more along the lines of “She really participated fully in life, and I always felt that she was really present – at home, at work, in the world.” That’s my kind of eulogy, with Stevie Nicks or Mary Chapin Carpenter playing somewhere in the background. Definitely Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Beginning with the end in mind might just help me live longer too.

By aomawa

Informal STEM learning starts close to home

My husband and I just returned from a short trip to Vegas to visit my mother-in-law, sister- and brother-in-law and their kids. They have a 15-year-old son, along with 11-year old quadruplet sons, and two other (grown) children. I thought that my role during this trip would be largely typical, family visiting in nature – hanging out, playing games, watching TV. And for the most part I was right. However, something unexpected happened while I was there that changed the way I think about the informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning that a lot of scientists talk about (I certainly do).

At the last minute before we got in the car to drive to Vegas I threw some pretty brochures that I’d picked up during a recent visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute (the folks who operate and manage the Hubble Space Telescope) in my bag. I figure kids usually like pretty pictures, and it dawned on me that, seeing as I am in the process of developing an interactive astronomy workshop for young middle-school girls from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences as part of my NSF postdoctoral fellowship, my nephews fit that target audience (except they’re male).

But it wasn’t the pretty picture brochures that got their attention. Our visit just happened to coincide with the Geminid meteor shower. I had spent a good part of the day hearing the boys talk about NBA players, football stats, and Xbox games. I thought to myself “if I can get these boys to go outside and look up at the sky, and if there is actually something to see from our location in a suburb of Vegas 20 minutes away, it might really be something special.”

While the kids played poker with my husband, I stepped outside of their house, and walked this way and that, trying to find the best viewing angle that was the least obstructed by the glare of the nearby street light. As I stood by the garage (turned out to be the best view, as a tree semi-blocked out the street lamp), I began to see meteors – bright streaks of debris coming off of asteroid/”rock comet” 3200 Phaethon that Earth was passing through while the asteroid came very close to the Sun. I waited until I’d seen at least five meteors, and then I went back into the house and told everybody that I was watching the meteor shower outside, and it was hitting its peak. Long story short, with some great (and pivotal) encouragement from their parents (so important!), the boys and adults put on parkas, hats and gloves and we piled into three cars and headed to the base of a big hill in a dark area nearby where we could get a better look. I was nervous. I didn’t want to get all the way out there and have the kids look up, see nothing, and think “Boring.” I felt like I held the power to spark or snuff out their interest in astronomy that very night.

Well, after a few minutes of looking up to get our bearings, and me pointing out a few constellations in the sky, we began to see meteors. The boys went wild. “OH MY GOD! I JUST SAW ONE! OOH, THERE’S ANOTHER ONE! WOW!!”

I was so happy and proud. Sure, maybe the next day they went back to looking only at TV and video games. But maybe they did that with the deeper understanding now that there’s a lot more out there than they are used to thinking about on a daily basis. What I realized is that no pretty brochure or amount of telling can replace the experience of getting a kid outside in the brisk night air and getting them to look up at the sky. Suddenly their world opens up. And it’s them that did it. I just asked them to shift the position of their head.

If you have children, nieces, nephews, then informal learning in astronomy and other STEM disciplines can start with them. Just try to make a difference there. Present a new perspective. Use them as a a test bed for what you’re trying to do out in the world. If it works on them, then that’s a good sign that you’re doing something that will work elsewhere with a broader audience. Then let it go, and let them go back to their regular lives. Maybe they’ll ask you to show them more things. Then you’ll know you got through. If I don’t achieve another thing this year, that’s alright. I got my nephews to unplug for a few moments and be part of something much bigger than their tiny corner of this world. That’s accomplishment enough for me.

By aomawa