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Life in the Margins November 19, 2010

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , trackback Bookmark and Share

by Dr. Jarita C. Holbrook

This week I have been writing my annual report to the National Science Foundation on the Astronomy Networks project.  Since I moved into cultural astronomy, I have lived the life of an interdisciplinary scholar in the margins.  My behavior and choices are consistent with the research findings I discussed last week: women and minorities tend to find success at the margins of STEM disciplines rather than in the mainstream.  Life in the margins is not bad: I exercise my intellectual freedom, I have a positive international research reputation, and I have been attracting great students.  When I moved into cultural astronomy from the way other academics responded to me (somewhat condescendingly), I determined that I had to get external funding to be taken seriously.  Simply put, it is fine to do interesting research in unestablished areas between disciplinary boundaries, but getting external funding is the official seal of approval.  Many scholars have had the good fortune of having their place in the margins be moved to the center, for example Jeff Marcy and his planet finding projects.

I am co-PI with Sharon Traweek (UCLA) on an NSF funded project that studies women and minority astronomers and their professional networks.  We are studying how they get involved in big database driven astronomy projects that are mainstream and where they chose to make a contribution.  Are they central or on the margins? Where do they perceive themselves to be and do others agree?

For my part of the project, I have been focusing on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (www.lsst.org).  The LSST has not been built.  It is estimated to be completed in 2012.  LSST when it is finished will break all the rules of big telescope construction, management, computing, and collaboration.  There will be no proprietary data, that is anyone and everyone can access the data soon after the observations.  Of course, having an internet connection and enough memory to handle the large images are necessary.

I have been involved in the International Astronomical Union’s new Astronomy for Development initiative.  Projects such as LSST will present a great opportunity for astrophysicists outside of Europe and North America to work with the best data available.  The catch is that they have to learn how to work with LSST data now, in order to be ready when the real data starts flowing.  International scientists need to get networked into LSST now! The LSST team has created a simulator that can be used to simulate what the data will look like.  The simulated data can be used to test if certain astrophysical questions are feasible given the physical parameters of the LSST and the data it will produce.  As with all aspects of the LSST project, the simulator is freely available.  LSST is the type of project that I can admire.

I’m involved in the formation of the African Astronomical Society.  At the upcoming IAU Symposium “Tracing the Ancestry of Galaxies – on the Land of our Ancestors” in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, this December, the first meeting of the working group will take place.  I secretly hope that they will go ahead and announce the formation of the Society there.  If not an official announcement will take place at MEARIM2 – the second Middle-East and Africa Regional IAU Meeting in South Africa in April 2011.  The newly formed Society should work to make sure that African astrophysicists get involved in LSST.  Unfortunately, because I am in India I will not go to Burkina Faso.

The Astronomer Networks project is also an oral history project, so our interviews are tape recorded and will be edited for an online archive.  I have interviewed a dozen astronomers thus far, but this is far too few to draw any grand conclusions.  The graduate students and postdocs on the project have collectively interviewed a dozen more, still not enough data.  However, we are on our way and have discovered some interesting results that may change as we collect more interviews.  What I find most significant about the oral history part of the project is that most oral histories of astronomers focus on the old and famous.  Few include the young and becoming astronomers at a stage in their careers where they have committed to being part of a project that may or may not be spectacular.  Even fewer include self-identified minority astronomers, though many include a smattering of women.

In a reflexive loop, I am in the disciplinary margins studying astronomers in the margins after having been an astronomer not so in the margins.

I’m now in Bangalore, India, visiting the Raman Research Institute (www.rri.res.in).  Next week begins a ten day festival focused on astronomy at the local planetarium.  I plan to write an article about the festival for one of the popular astronomy magazines.

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