Tag Archives: astrobites

Mid-AAS Musings

I can’t imagine kicking off a new year without the winter AAS meeting, and there’s no better venue than Seattle. This year, I’m teaming up with fellow astrobites author Erika Nesvold as a Media Intern. We have official-looking “Press” ribbons on our badges, access to a quiet press room with free coffee and tea, and even less free time than usual (ha!) as we dash between regular science sessions and press conferences.

I am also presenting a poster on Wednesday (345.16). This is a sneak preview.
I am also presenting a poster on Wednesday—this is a preview.

A lot has changed since I attended my first AAS meeting in 2008. Certainly the obvious things: everyone has a portable screen, oodles of sessions are all about exoplanets, the program book is (finally!) accessible online with an app. But more noteworthy to me is my sneakily slow-growing familiarity with all the science. I remember my first few AAS meetings were fraught with struggling to understand the plenary sessions, being completely lost in the parallel sessions, and being afraid to ask anyone about their poster because I didn’t think I knew enough about their subfield. That’s not to say everything was over my head; rather, it took me a good deal of intellectual effort to distill the gist of a presentation, and sometimes I didn’t have all the pieces I needed to complete the picture.

There was no “Eureka!” moment when this changed. I can’t point to a single event, or even a single year, when I suddenly filled in the missing knowledge gaps I barely knew about. But today, I realize I am more often than not answering others’ questions: Why should I license my code? What is reverberation mapping? How do I analyze stellar spectra? What is the SDSS data release all about? How does the revamped Kepler “K2” mission work? What is microlensing and why does it require precision parallax? In turn, I find myself actually wanting to ask questions after talks, and when I see someone standing in front of their poster I am comfortable starting a legitimate conversation about their research.

At the same time, AAS meetings remain incredibly exhausting. The introvert in me still protests on day 2 or 3, and I have to acknowledge I cannot attend an event in every single time slot. A deluge of newsworthy science results from my colleagues can still set off a bout of impostor syndrome. But it is wonderful to cram one week a year chock-full of nothing but astronomy. The whole shebang will be over before I know it.

If you’d like to learn more about what’s happening at this year’s AAS meeting, check out the daily astrobites posts and the #aas225 hashtag on twitter.

Adventures at AAS

One of the highlights of my year is always the winter American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. It’s a few days in early January jam-packed with as much astronomy as you could imagine—some 3000 astronomers presenting new research, learning about resources for education and outreach, and seeing colleagues in person for once.

AstronoMerrdiff with fellow conference-goers Gavin Mathes, Laura Mayorga, and Nigel Mathes.

This year’s meeting was held in National Harbor, outside Washington, DC. For the first time, I signed up to give a talk about my latest research instead of a poster. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for Thursday morning, the last day of the conference… and if you know anything about AAS meetings, you know that Wednesday night is Party Night. Oh well.

Between frantically scraping together results for my talk and trying to be in two places at once from roughly 8:30am–10pm for three days straight, it was pretty tiring, but equally engaging and amazing. Here are some highlights.

  • Achieving an airplane miracle: I had to rebook on a different airline out of a tiny five-gate airport (at the last minute, for free, with a layover in a different city) and I managed to arrive at my final destination within five minutes of my original flight. What.
  • Arriving early to crash participate in part of the AAS Ambassadors workshop. I did this program properly last year, and was invited back to chat with the new cohort.
  • An excellent plenary talk by Alyssa Goodman about visualization in astronomy.
  • Answering questions at the combination astrobites / astrobetter booth and getting to know my fellow authors.

    Astrobites authors gearing up for AAS.
    Astrobites authors gearing up for AAS.
  • Helping judge undergraduate posters for the Chambliss Award. It is a great way to learn what they are researching and help them practice their presentation skills.
  • Being invited to write posts for the AAS Facebook Page about the meeting.
  • A special lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Unfortunately many parts of his talk didn’t sit well with me; he is a superb communicator but he is also very full of himself. His talk didn’t need to denigrate vegans, Republicans, the poor/uneducated, religion, women, or anybody else just for a laugh.
  • An excellent session about code sharing in astrophysics. (Summary: do it!)
  • A fantastic plenary talk by Mark Krumholz about the origin of stellar mass. He is a superb speaker. Read an astrobite about his paper on the same topic here.
  • A very important discussion about the use and misuse of the GRE for admission to graduate school. As somebody with an abysmal Physics GRE score, I was interested to learn that the exam is biased against women and should never be used to make admission cutoff decisions. Vanderbilt’s Bridge Program stood out as an awesome example for how to completely ignore the GRE and actively recruit and support underrepresented populations in STEM PhD programs.
  • Participating in a Hangout for Nicole Gugliucci’s Learning Space show as a followup about the AAS Ambassadors program.
  • The aforementioned Wednesday night party with a pre-party to match.
  • My five minutes of fame: telling a room of ~20 people all about my latest research, and successfully answering questions afterward.
  • A full afternoon of Hack Day that featured a variety of fun projects and free food.
  • Tweeting all the while. Search #aas223 for a sampling of meeting-related tweets.

All in all, an excellent conference. As usual, I am now inspired to go forth and do all the science! (Which is a good thing, because AstronoMerrdiff’s thesis proposal is coming up very, very soon, and there is lots of work to be done.) The next AAS meeting will be in Boston this summer, and the one after that will be in Seattle next January. If you’re ever geographically colocated with a future AAS meeting, I encourage you to stop by.

AAS Astronomy Ambassadors and You

The following is cross-posted from a guest post on Astrobites, a blog that features summaries of recent papers in astronomy and astrophysics. From time to time, Astrobites contributors write about conferences, education, outreach, and other “real life” interests for astronomers. The target audience is undergraduate students in the physical sciences with an interest in research, and astronomy in particular.

Imagine you have the following sketch. Your job is to get a room full of people to accurately reproduce the sketch themselves. The caveat? Only you can see it. And you can’t show it to anybody else – you can only describe it in words.


Now, the picture is your favorite astronomy research topic, and the room full of people is the public. Or an introductory classroom. How would you do?

This is not easy stuff. If you go to graduate school in astronomy, chances are good that you will spend time teaching undergraduates in some capacity and participating at public events like observatory open houses. These activities are sometimes viewed as a waste of time by more senior researchers, and are dumped in graduate students’ laps. On the contrary – this is some of the most important work you will do. It is crucial to educate the public about science in order for our nation and species to thrive, and that is not going to happen if scientists don’t learn to reach out and share their passion.

The Astronomy Ambassadors program is one way for early-career astronomers to learn crucial outreach skills. Started in January 2013 by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the program provides a series of workshops and resources with the goal of improving astronomers’ ability to effectively communicate with students and the public. But the benefits of being an Astronomy Ambassador don’t stop there – the techniques you learn also apply when you are discussing and presenting research to colleagues and specialists.

I am delighted to be a member of the inaugural class of Astronomy Ambassadors. Throughout the two-day workshop, we heard from experts in education and public outreach, and got the chance to try many hands-on exercises for ourselves. We worked in groups to design outreach activities that would have a lasting impact, discussed how “random acts of education and public outreach” are ineffective in the long run, and brainstormed new ways to get involved in our communities. To support this last piece, we learned strategies to seek out and stay in contact with teachers and other community leaders who are interested in hosting outreach volunteers more than once.

In the months since January, our class of Ambassadors has stayed in touch sporadically through an online forum and recorded logs of our outreach efforts. These logs showcase the different activities we have all led across the country in countless different settings, and help us see what does and doesn’t work in different situations. Together, we are working to make a real difference in science literacy.

Let’s return to the drawing exercise. What are some techniques you might use to improve the chances your audience will understand, and succeed? Based on what I learned during the Astronomy Ambassadors weekend, you might…

  • Give an overview before asking participants to start drawing
  • Provide thorough context, and repeat each instruction before moving on
  • Pay close attention to pacing – in particular, don’t go too fast
  • Have participants work independently to start, and compare their work later
  • Describe concepts in more than one way – for instance, perhaps the background landscape is an S-curve, a sine wave, a rolling hill, a snake, and a roller coaster track
  • Give a recap or review of the big picture at the end


This advice, in a general sense, can be applied in many different communication situations. And I can think of many more suggestions to add to the list! But these things don’t come naturally – you have to practice, and you have to try different strategies in different situations to see what works best. This is what being an Astronomy Ambassador is all about. Ambassadors take the next step beyond just showing up to teach or volunteer – we share science in an accessible way to make a real impact.

Do you want to be an Astronomy Ambassador? Read more and apply to attend the workshop at the January 2014 AAS meeting here.