A Code of Conduct for Creating Productive Communities

We’ve just wrapped up admissions for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program, and I am looking forward to introducing our wonderful group of students in the very near future! In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to share the code of conduct I put together for our program. The following is by no means an entirely original work, and owes much of its language to existing resources (as noted below); it does, however, collect some basic principles and guidelines that I thought were important for setting the tone and expectations of our program.

In particular, I wanted to emphasize that the intent of this code is to create a learning environment that is challenging and productive. Our admissions process placed a great emphasis on curating a diverse group of students, and unfortunately I often hear people speak dismissively about community guidelines as though their main intent is to protect people from hurt feelings. Sure, it’s true that they can sometimes help people avoid hurtful conflict, but that is a bit besides the point– the point is that creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and knowledge is how we get to excellence. It’s a big universe, and we must value all voices and contributions if we are going to unlock its mysteries.

Without further ado:

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program Code of Conduct

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP) is committed to creating an inclusive, collaborative environment. The DSFP endorses guidelines regarding professional behavior, bullying, and harassment, of the American Physical Society (APS), American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). These documents are linked below, and we expect that DSFP Fellows will read and abide by these guidelines. In addition, we summarize the main values and rules of the program below, which draw heavily from the linked APS/AAS/AURA documents, as well as additional online resources (such as the guidelines of the Recurse Center). 

Our Values:

The following three principles are intended to foster a learning environment that leads to rigor and excellence.  

1. Shared Responsibility. As scientists, and specifically as Fellows of the DSFP, each student is a citizen within the global community of scientists, and shares responsibility in maintaining the health of their community. 

2. Honesty. Quoting from the APS: “Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community.”

3. Respect. Inclusive environments foster excellence by challenging us to consider a variety of viewpoints and approaches. We honor alternate viewpoints as opportunities for discussion and learning, and therefore treat others with respect, even if we disagree. Quoting from the AAS guidelines: “Scientists should work to provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. They should promote equality of opportunity and treatment for all their colleagues, regardless of gender, race, ethnic and national origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any other reason not related to scientific merit.”

Principles of Engagement:

The following are a few basic social rules, adapted from those of the Recurse Center. These rules make explicit certain norms of social behavior that help uphold the values listed above, as well as the ethical guidelines we endorse. If you mess up on any of the below, don’t panic: we all make mistakes sometimes. Apologize, reflect, move forward. 

1. Raise all voices. During group work and discussions, pay attention to who is contributing. Invite contributions from quieter members of the group, and be conscientious of not dominating the conversation. We understand that it can be exciting to discuss a new idea, but always strive to listen (rather than just wait your turn to speak). 

2. No feigning surprise. In a learning environment, it is very important that people feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Therefore, please do not act surprised when someone says they don’t know something, whether it is regarding a technical or non-technical subject (e.g. “What?! I can’t believe you don’t know what X is!”). Quoting from Recurse: “Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it’s usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that’s not the intention, it’s almost always the effect.”

3.  No well-actually’s. As defined by Recurse, ” A ‘well-actually’ happens when someone says something that’s almost (but not entirely) correct, and you say, ‘well, actually…’ and then give a minor correction.” Well-actually’s interrupt the discussion and fixate on a minor, usually irrelevant point, often solely to make the person delivering the well-actually feel more important. If you feel the need to correct someone, take a moment to consider whether your correction is in the spirit of truth-seeking, rather than grandstanding, and whether it will provide a positive contribution to the discussion.

4. No -isms. The DSFP explicitly bans racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of bias— whether these behaviors are overt or subtle. Subtle -isms can be particularly tricky, as they are often unconscious behaviors we engage in by mistake, and are sometimes caused by conflicting norms between cultures. To use an example from Recurse, saying “It’s so easy my grandmother could do it” is a subtle -ism. If you experience these behaviors during the course of the program, you should feel free to bring it up directly with the person, or if it’s more comfortable, point out the behavior to a member of the DSFP leadership team. If someone points out that you have engaged in this behavior, it can be tempting to become defensive— but instead, we ask that you apologize, reflect a moment, and move on. If you do not understand why issue was taken with your behavior, the DSFP leadership will be happy to discuss it with you, so that everyone can learn from the experience. 


Further Resources:

AAS Ethics Statement, including “Conduct Towards Others”: https://aas.org/about/policies/aas-ethics-statement

AAS Anti-Harassment Policy: https://aas.org/policies/anti-harassment-policy

The APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct: https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/02_2.cfm

The Recurse Center Manual: https://www.recurse.com/manual#sec-environment

AURA Standards of Workplace Conduct: http://www.aura-astronomy.org/about/sectionB.asp

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Applications now open for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program!

Update, June 10 2016: The applications for the first LSSTC DSFP are now closed, but there will be another change to apply next year. Stay tuned!

I am pleased to announce that applications are now open for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program! The LSSTC DSFP is a supplement to graduate education in astronomy, intended to teach astronomy students essential skills for dealing with big data. Here’s a list of some of the things LSSTC DSFP students will learn: the basics of managing and building code; statistics; machine learning; scalable programming, data management, image processing, visualization, and communication.

Please distribute this announcement widely, and encourage any interested students to apply! Prospective students don’t need to know anything about data science to join, they just need to be excited to learn. The LSSTC DSFP is committed to building a culturally diverse student cohort, and strongly encourages applications from underrepresented members of the astronomy community.

To learn more about the program and apply, please visit our website:

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Rising Star Girls: #STEAM activities for space exploration, created by @Aomawa Shields

I finally had a chance to check out my friend Aomawa Shields‘ newly-released teaching and activity handbook for her project Rising Star Girls. Poetically subtitled “stars shine in many colors”, Rising Star Girls seeks to encourage middle-school girls from all backgrounds to explore the universe through creative, hands-on activities at the intersection of art and astronomy. The Rising Star Girls activity handbook is full of great activities, which can comprise an entire program, or be integrated into existing curricula (or even as fun activities to do at home!). It’s a really awesome resource, and no surprise that it comes from Aomawa– a PhD astrobiologist with a background in theater, as well as a creative approach to both science, and life in general. Enjoy!

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Imagining Black Futures: a mini-round-up on #Afrofuturism

Science fiction has long been a means for reimagining the present via our ideas about the future– a future that might be bright or dark, aspirational or apocalyptic. Stories about worlds with wildly different tech, social structures, and outcomes give us a lens to help reexamine the world as it is. It’s unfortunate, then, that sci-fi and fantasy are so often thought of as the stronghold of white male nerds– especially at this moment in history, where we so desperately need to find our way towards a more inclusive, equitable world.

As Black History Month comes to a close, here’s a look toward Black futures– in the form of a mini round-up of some cool media on Afrofuturism, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did. As Florence Okoye eloquently puts it in the essay below, “Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.”

First off, here’s some reading music: “Phone Home” by my lovely friend Meklit Hadero as part of her group Copperwire, which uses space as a metaphor for the African diaspora:

While you’re listening to that, give this essay a read: “There Are Black People In The Future” by Florence Okoye (How We Get To Next)

(Here’s the full list of interesting further reading from that same series!)

Last year around this time, I had the pleasure of attending a screening curated by filmmaker Floyd Webb with Black World Cinema, part of “Black Futures Month”– the triple header featured “Hubble’s Diverse Universe“, “Cosmic Africa“, and “Afronauts“, all terrific films, well worth watching. In January of this year I had the opportunity to meet Webb in person at Chicago’s ORD Camp unconference, where he showed us this awesome timeline of Afrofuturism from 1859 onwards. If you’re reading this on a mobile device, do yourself a favor and check it out on a larger screen at home!

And finally, here’s a short video from KQED on multi-media artist Selam Beleke about her work in afrofuturism:

Got a favorite example of afrofuturist media, or your own vision of an inclusive future? Feel free to share in the comments!

Edit: by coincidence, Meklit just posted this article about Sun Ra’s rad 1950’s business cards on FB!


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Martin Luther King Jr. & Astronomy for #MLKDay2016

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m posting this notecard I found in the King Center’s archive. At a time when astronomy is struggling with issues around equal inclusion, and with racism being one of the most pernicious challenges we face (both in the sciences and in society as a whole), I thought it was nice to see a reminder that many people stop to consider their place in the universe (even if they pursue other goals day-to-day). And in his own handwriting, no less! I’ve also transcribed the note below (added emphasis mine).

Screenshot 2016-01-14 14.56.34


A few stars are known which are hardly bigger than the earth, but the majority are so large that hundreds of thousands of earths could be pack inside each and leave room to spare here and there we come upon a giant star large enough to contain millions of millions of earths. And the total number of stars in the universe is probably something like the total number of grains of sand on all the sea-shoes of the world. Such is the littleness of our home in space when measured up again the total substance of the universe.

Happy MLK Jr. Day everyone! Here’s to a more inclusive future.

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The #LSST Data Science Fellowship Program

Want to help grow the future community of astronomical survey scientists while also pursuing your own research? Read on!

We invite applications for a postdoctoral scholar to join the leadership of the newly-established LSST Data Science Fellowship Program. The LSST Data Science Fellowship Program is a series of survey-science-focused schools, designed to supplement graduate curricula with the skills researchers will need to make best use of LSST data. The postdoctoral scholar will divide their time equally between conducting a competitive research program of their own choosing involving data science in astronomy/astrophysics, and developing this new LSST-focused educational initiative. The position is formally located at CIERA/Northwestern, but the postdoctoral scholar will also spend time working with the LSST DSFP Director Lucianne Walkowicz at the Adler Planetarium (also in Chicago). Application deadline is 1/15/2016– APPLY HERE, and read on for more information.

About the LSST Data Science Fellowship Program

Modern astronomy requires a suite of emerging skills that are not traditionally covered by physics & astronomy graduate programs. These skills, which frequently edge into the realms of computer science, statistics, and advanced visual communication, are as essential to the field as calculus. The LSST DSFP was conceived as a way of helping spread these skills throughout the astronomical community: while we can’t teach every astronomy graduate student, we intend to create skilled advocates and an open curriculum that can be adopted (or adapted) by others. We hope to base these schools around hands-on projects, incorporating a range of topics such as statistics, machine learning, scalable programming, data management, and data visualization. The LSST DSFP launches in 2016, for an initial 3 year duration; we are grateful to the LSST Corporation for their support for this essential program.

If you have questions about the program or the associated postdoctoral position, please comment below or contact me via email: LWalkowicz AT adlerplanetarium DOT org

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My new TED talk is up!

At TED 2015 this past spring, I gave a talk about human exploration of Mars. Specifically, I think excitement for exploring our neighboring red planet is great– but we shouldn’t lull ourselves into thinking that Mars will be our second chance if we don’t care for our home world, the Earth. I think our goals of interplanetary exploration and planetary preservation can work together, if we so choose. What do you think?

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