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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An Astronomical Primer on Workplace Environment, Discrimination, and Your Rights

This post is intended as a primer on harassment for those entering the academic workplace. It was prompted by recent events surrounding sexual harassment cases in astronomy, but I have tried to make it more broadly applicable to workplace environment issues faced by underrepresented groups– however, I am writing as a white, able cis woman and acknowledge up front that I may not have the direct experiences necessary to capture everyone’s concerns, so I welcome alternative viewpoints from members of marginalized communities, as well as commentary and contributions to improve the post if you see places to do so.

Welcome to astronomy! I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am that you have decided to explore the workings of our universe. Regardless of your eventual career goals, studying astronomy (and the sciences, in general) prepares you to think both analytically and creatively about the world around you. Knowledge of the physics that lies underneath everyday phenomena provides you access to a deeper appreciation of the physical world, and links us to places and events across the cosmos.

If you are reading this post, it may be because you are a member of a group that is traditionally unrepresented in the sciences– maybe you are differently abled, you differ in gender identity, in ethnic background, or just in some way don’t resemble the other science students you see around you. That’s awesome! You are part of a vanguard that will enhance our ability to solve outstanding scientific mysteries, because diverse groups solve problems more efficiently than monocultures. In other words, we need you— you make science better!

Unfortunately, because science is a human pursuit, and human society is plagued by both structural and individual discrimination and inequality, it may be that you will encounter discriminatory behavior during your career. Discriminatory behavior can take a variety of forms, from subtle to overt. In pop culture, you often see various forms of harassment depicted in very obvious ways (someone being grabbed inappropriately, someone using a racial slur)— but there are a variety of other behaviors that may contribute to a hostile working environment. This post is arranged into four sections, designed to help you:

  1. know your rights
  2. recognize discriminatory behaviors
  3. validate the way you experience those behaviors, and
  4. understand your options for making the situation better.  

I hope you will never need this information, but if you find that you do, I hope you will draw strength from it.

  1. Your Rights Are Protected

There are a few major pieces of legislation you need to know about: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the US Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the IDEA Fairness Restoration Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into detail on each one, but respectively, these laws protect everyone from discrimination on the basis of race or national origin (Title VI), gender (Title IX), or physical or mental disability (ADA/IDEA/504).

The existence of these various documents means one thing: you have a right to live, be educated, and work free from discrimination. Your personal comfort is not a luxury, it’s the law. Experiences of discrimination are nefarious— they can undermine one’s confidence, they can make you feel unwelcome. Know first and foremost that your experiences are not a reflection of your self-worth, they are illegal actions being taken against you, and you have a right to be free of them.


  1. Learn to Recognize Discriminatory Behavior: Bad Apples, Bad Barrels

By Dave Bonta from Tyrone, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (conjoined apple 3) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dave Bonta from Tyrone, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., via Wikimedia Commons

In narrative arts, whether it’s written fiction, film, whatever— there is usually a villain. That villain is not typically a sympathetic character; storytelling often hinges on the battle between good and evil. This depiction of how bad comes to be in the world is misleading— in truth, the world is not full of singularly-evil bad apples. History is littered with complicated human beings, many of whom caused great harm to others while simultaneously being appreciated by others as a friend or family member. However, the fact that they were not singularly evil does not excuse their actions— nor, for that matter, do the circumstances under which they committed harmful acts, or their intent. Harm is harm.

In your career, you may encounter people who harass you directly and overtly— but just as likely, you will encounter more subtle forms of discrimination that lead to what is known as a “hostile work environment”. Now, I always thought that a “hostile” environment was an obviously threatening place, one where I would be consciously aware of said hostility. I mean, that’s what it sounds like, right? In fact, a hostile work environment happens any time the conditions of your workplace interfere with your ability to do your job. Here’s an example: let’s say someone says something racially charged to you at morning coffee in your department. You are rightfully upset, and you find you are distracted from your ability to do your research for the remainder of the day. The next morning, perhaps you are reluctant to go to morning coffee, where you might have to interact with that person again— thus depriving you of both research time and the opportunity to discuss science with your peers. That person has contributed to a hostile work environment.

We don't really need to see the original again, do we? Here's Elly Zupko's hilarious photoshop remix covering the shirt with women scientists instead.

We don’t really need to see the original again, do we? Here’s Elly Zupko’s hilarious photoshop remix covering the shirt with women scientists instead.

Note that this can also apply to groups: if discriminatory discussions frequently take place, it doesn’t matter whether one person or several are responsible— it’s a hostile work environment. It can even apply to the field as a whole, rather than an individual institution: the #ShirtGate uproar a while back is a good example of how discrimination can casually seep into workplace culture (and mar a perfectly good comet landing). 

Here, I would like to take a moment to highlight a piece written by John Johnson that specifically addresses serial sexual harassment— unlike single remarks, inappropriate discussion, or other acts of discrimination, there also exist more calculated forms of harassment that exploit the hierarchical structure inherent in academia (in other words, older scientists in positions of power or influence abusing that position to take advantage of younger scientists). This post, entitled The Serial Harasser’s Playbook, is an extremely useful, practical guide to recognizing problem behaviors by sexual harassers. While it is based specifically on behaviors by Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley astronomer who was recently found in violation of Title IX, my own anecdata says that many of these behaviors are common practice amongst harassers. 


  1. Your Experiences Are Valid

Yoda_comeatmebroKnow yourself, young Padawan. You are the best judge of your own experiences, and you must learn to trust the feelings that go with them. As scientists, we tend to discount phenomena when we can’t readily identify a direct cause— so if someone does something that rings that little alarm bell in your head, you may be tempted to analyze their behavior and pass judgement on whether you had verifiable cause for that bell or not. Instead of interrogating it, practice listening to and respecting that bell.

Listening to your intuition is very important, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the early stages of harassment may be a kind of “testing the waters”, where your potential harasser is trying to figure out where your boundaries are. Their behavior may or may not be directly inappropriate, so you might not have something solid to point to to justify your feelings. Your intuition may not be legally actionable, but it is your first warning system.

In the case of racial discrimination, it’s handy to become familiar with the concept of microaggressions— small acts of discrimination that subtly add up to create hostility (this fact sheet on recognizing microaggressions is particularly handy). Again, you may not be able to point to a single one of these as an overt, actionable racist act (although make no mistake, that’s exactly what they are), they are inappropriate all the same.

There are two notable caveats to the above:

  • If you did not experience a warning bell, it is not your fault. You are entitled to not have to think about whether someone is behaving inappropriately, because it is your legally-protected right to not experience that behavior.
  • Your response or reaction to a discriminatory incident is not a factor in the seriousness of the incident—if the perpetrator’s behavior is inappropriate, you did not contribute to it. It’s on them, not you.

Bearing the burden of discriminatory behavior is tiring, distracting, and takes your energy away from your studies. On top of this, those who choose to report or discuss their experiences bear the added frustration of people questioning whether they truly experienced discrimination (see for example these two excellent blog posts, also from John Johnson’s blog):

Race and Racism: Why won’t you believe me?

On Sexual Harassment and Our Culture of Denial

And for a lighter take, here’s a personal favorite (NSFW language warning),(because if you have to ask… it probably is): Yo Is This Racist 

Remember: it’s not you, it’s them.


  1. Talk To Someone

Image via betanews

The decision whether to formally (or even informally) report harassment or other discriminatory behavior is a highly personal one, and no one can make that decision for you but you. However, if you are experiencing any of these behaviors, you do have options. Your zeroeth-order step should be to talk with someone you trust— know that you are not alone, and do not have to bear this burden alone.

You can talk with a fellow student, a family member or friend, or a trusted superior– however, before you speak with someone at your institution, be sure to look up your institution’s reporting policies! Some institutions require that fellow employees report any violating behavior they learn of, so you may not be guaranteed of confidentiality. Maybe that is a concern for you, maybe it isn’t– but you should make sure it’s an informed decision.

Besides the moral support of talking to a friend, you can also take steps to address your concerns and end the behaviors in question. If you feel comfortable speaking with a faculty member within your department, or the department chair, you may of course do so, and work with them to develop a course of action (note again the above comment about looking up your institution’s reporting policies to be sure you are comfortable with them). However, discussing with members of your department might not be the best solution for you— for example, you might be concerned about the confidentiality of that discussion for one reason or another, and you want to make sure your comments stay private. In that case, look up the Ombudsman of your school— the Office of the Ombudsman is tasked with helping you address your workplace concerns, and your exchange with them is confidential.

Furthermore, while I am not a lawyer and can’t provide legal advice, I can also give you an outline of your more formal options:

In the case of sexual harassment, all universities are required to have an established procedure for handling Title IX violations. You may also file a formal complaint with the Department of Education (here’s an overview of how to do so).

Incredibly, as noted in this piece by Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, universities are not currently required to have an established procedure for dealing with Title VI violations. In theory, there is supposed to be an American with Disabilities Act coordinator at every school, but in practice this may not be the case. Having said that, if you have experienced discrimination as a result of race, disability, or age in an educational setting, you can also file a complaint with The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education.


Thanks to the analytical brain of Renée Hlozek for being my second pair of eyes, and to disability studies vegan superhero Nicole Sims for help with disabilities legislation!


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#AdlerGalaxyRide Road Journal, Day 8

This post is part of a series of travel journals for the #AdlerGalaxyRide, a biking science roadshow over the 300+ miles between Chicago and St Louis. You can follow our ride by checking the website, following @AdlerPlanet on Twitter and Instagram, or searching for the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag.

We were preceded by a segment on bohemian fashion and threatened by Boehner’s looming resignation announcement, but otherwise the morning segment on Fox-2 St. Louis went off without a hitch. Leila and I lit up the plasma ball and a few emission tubes on the air, got in a brief discussion of how we use light to identify elements in space,photo 4 thanked our host, and then it was back in the van to head out for the last ride segment. Colleen caught a break on this ride, having gotten stuck with the hot, wearying stretch of pockmarked frontage road the day before– our first stretch was mostly on one of the Madison County Transit bike paths, partially shaded and smoothly paved. We did pass another “sewage lagoon”, this one backed up against a new subdivision. Our last day of riding was a shorter one, and in spite of my now worn-out legs and the cold I’ve been nursing, felt all the easier for not being near the roaring highway.

Chain of Rocks Canal

Chain of Rocks Canal

Our very last stretch ran along the sparkling Chain of Rocks Canal, leading up to the bridge by the same name, where the bike route we’ve been following officially ends. Unfortunately, the path along the canal once again seems to have been surfaced by someone who’s never ridden a bike– or at least whose proclivity for gravel leans towards the weathered cyclist we encountered back in Elkhart, who claimed to love it. I will sacrifice some toughness points to that man and his Death Valley Velo Club jersey, because he can keep his gravel… I will have none of it, please and thank you.


OMG WE DID IT! Photo credit: David Miller

We knew we must be close to the route end, but stopped in the shade of an overpass for a water break; I noticed a swastika amongst the graffiti under the bridge a ways off. As we wound down off the path next to the canal, a small ramshackle house sat in the trees and brush nearby, one window curtained with a confederate flag. The house must have been there forever— there was no neighborhood around to speak of, nor any other residences at all, for that matter. We biked up the road past it and I saw a few figures in the distance walking towards us— one crouched down and pointed something at us, and then I realized: it was David holding his camera. We were at the end of the ride!

We all cheered, high-fived and toasted. I splashed my bike and christened it Our Lady of the Highway— I rarely name inanimate objects, but I think this one earned it— after all, she survived not only the 350 mile ride, but a fair amount of raised eyebrows when I said I’d be riding a Japanese road bike from 1984 on this trip. Remember, while having fancy equipment makes certain things easier, it doesn’t make those things any less possible: any working bike will get you around, one way or another.

photo 3 (17) photo 2 (22)We loaded up into the van and went to set up at the St Louis Science Center Planetarium, located in a (beautiful) building shaped like a tagine dish (contrary to our expectations and much to our confusion, the dome-shaped building is the science center and not the planetarium as you might think). We had considerably fewer visitors at this last event, I think because the planetarium had closed prior to an event later that evening, and the park doesn’t lend itself to foot traffic. Still, we got in a bit of sun-viewing, and showed off some demos to the people who were around, and afterwards demolished several pizzas at the nearby Pi Pizzeria. Team Galaxy Ride then spent our last couple of waking hours exploring the City Museum, which might be the most magical place on Earth.

I had a devil of a time falling asleep last night— despite being exhausted I felt wired and overwhelmed. I can’t believe it’s done! As I write this on the Amtrak home (Taryn et al. kindly drove the van back early this morning, letting me sleep in and catch a train later), we’re tracing our path backwards through the towns Galaxy Ride stopped through on the way south (funny enough, we’re currently delayed near Elkhart, exactly where Kyle and David and I had to haggle to cross the train tracks earlier this week). After another solid night of sleep I hope to write an epilogue, but for now suffice it to say we had a fantastic week and made a lot of people happy and excited about science, and I’m hoping we will get to do this again next year.

See you in space!

Team Galaxy Ride (L to R): Leila Makdisi, David Miller, Taryn Mason, Colleen Incandela, Kyle Sater, Christina O'Connell, and me. Photo credit: David Miller

Team Galaxy Ride (L to R): Leila Makdisi, David Miller, Taryn Mason, Colleen Incandela, Kyle Sater, Christina O’Connell, and me. Photo credit: David Miller

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