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June 25th: Astronomers are People, Too! | 365 Days of Astronomy


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June 25th: Astronomers are People, Too!


Date: June 25, 2011

Title: Astronomers are People, Too!

Podcasters: The ‘Ask An Astronomer!’ Team

Organization: The Ask an Astronomer! @ Cornell University Team


Description: Astronomers come from all over the world and from a variety of different backgrounds. While the astronomical community certainly is diverse, it is unfortunately not nearly as diverse as it could be. This is a situation we would like to change. Why do some people choose astronomy and others do not? Ann Martin and Betsy Adams sit down to discuss.

Bio: We at Ask an Astronomer! are a grassroots team of volunteer graduate students from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. We have a website which has run for about a decade where we answer astronomy related questions submitted by readers on topics from planets to galaxies to careers in astronomy. If you like what you heard here today, please check out our new podcast series: Our website is

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — NO ONE. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this web page, or contact us at


Introduction: We’re the Ask an Astronomer team at Cornell University. The Ask an Astronomer service has been staffed by the Cornell Astronomy department’s grad students since 1997, answering questions submitted by the public on any topic in astronomy, from planets to galaxies to careers. Now, we’re trying our hand at making podcasts.

If you like what you hear, we hope you’ll subscribe to the Ask an Astronomer @ Cornell podcast through iTunes, or you can visit us at our website, For our contribution to 365 Days of Astronomy, here’s a segment from our upcoming podcast entitled “Astronomers are People, Too!”

Ann: In the segment, you’ll hear me, Ann Martin, along with my colleague Betsey Adams, and Kevin Covey, a Hubble Fellow at Cornell University. The views expressed here do not represent NASA or the Hubble Fellowship program.

Ann: Astronomers come from all over the world and from a variety of different backgrounds. While the astronomical community certainly is diverse, it is unfortunately not nearly as diverse as it could be. This is a situation we would like to change, but doing so means learning what’s actually going on to cause this problem. Today I’m speaking with my cohost, Betsey Adams, about this issue. We’re also joined by Kevin Covey, who is a NASA Hubble Fellow here in the department of astronomy.

Ann: So welcome, Kevin, and thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today!

Ann: To get us started, Kevin and Betsey, we’ve brought up this idea of diversity in astronomy. To start off, could you help our audience get up to speed on what the situation and the numbers actually look like?

Kevin: Sure. So most of what I know about the statistics of the demographics of the field has to do with the US in particular. So that’s the statistics I know best and they vary somewhat, of course, depending on which country you take. But here in the US, there have been a number of studies looking at the representation of various groups of people within practicing scientists as compared to the general public. And folks have looked at things like the number of PhDs awarded to groups like women or groups of underrepresented minorities, either ethnic minorities or first generation college students. What they’ve usually found is that there’s at least a factor of 2 difference between the representation of those groups in the general public as compared to folks who are practicing in science, as measured by, for instance, having a PhD.

Ann: Just to clarify what that means, if you were to base your expectation of how many astronomers should fall into different groups, you’re finding that there are half as many as there are in the general public?

Kevin: Well — That’s unfortunately on the good end. For instance, for women, people have – this is a tough game because you have to balance the age group that you’re looking at in terms of the scientific production, and the age group in the general public. But the way people have done this is to compare the number of – thinking about astronomy in particular – the number of astro PhDs earned from, say, 1996 to 2005 – and compared that to the number of people who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in science within the same amount of time, and within that age group. For instance, women received about 23% of the astronomy PhDs in the period between 1996 to 2005, and they make up something like half the US population. For ethnic minorities, it’s actually significantly worse. We think that African-Americans and Hispanics make up something like 20% of the US population, but they received less than 4% of the PhDs during that same period. So, there’s a very large gap, for those groups and also for first-generation college students it’s also a factor of 2 difference.
Ann: We’re definitely looking at some pretty stark differences. Betsey, I know for you, the issue of women in astronomy in particular is an issue that is near and dear to your heart, as it is to mine. Would you like to share a little bit of the statistics on women in particular?

Betsey: The statistics are similar to what Kevin said, so the example I had was a snapshot from 2009, the number of PhDs granted — about 30% of them in astronomy went to women. And you look at the fact that about 50% of the population is women, and you can see that there’s a clear discrepancy there. For me, I often think of it more anecdotally — for example, I’m sitting in on a graduate course in astronomy right now, and I’m the only women in the class. And that’s been a common experience for me, that both as an undergrad taking physics courses and now as a graduate student, I’ve often been the only, or one of the only, women in the room.

Ann: We’ll talk about underlying causes in a little bit, but one of the issues that has been looked at is that question of not having role models, and that’s true for all of the groups that we’re speaking about today. One question that often comes up at the very beginning of this discussion is, “Why is this a problem?” Why does it matter to you, and why do you think it matters to the field of astronomy?

Betsey: Clearly, as we’ve talked about, there is a discrepancy in the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in astronomy, and you might just say, “Well, as long as astronomy is doing well, who cares?” But we’re missing out on a whole portion of the population that doesn’t have the same opportunities, and would contribute new ideas, new ways of thinking about things, to problems — but they’re not, as we’ll talk about in a little bit — a large part of the issue is that they don’t have the same opportunity to become involved in astronomy. So astronomy is missing out on this portion of the population that could be — could have really brilliant ideas and could revolutionize the field, but it’s not accessible to them.

Kevin: I mean, we’re missing out on very, very bright scientists who, by virtue of their background, have not made it into what we often speak about as the “science pipeline.” That really has a concrete impact on the quality of the science we do, and more broadly speaking, this has ramifications — because science, technology, and engineering are all technical fields which suffer from this problem, and they’re critically important in today’s economy. These problems, which are not just specific to astronomy, have large ramifications for America’s economic competitiveness going forward. These fields make up a large portion of what we expect to be “growth industries” in the future, and if you look at demographic trends in the US, if we’re not able to ensure that we’re getting the full participation of everyone, all the citizens that we have in the country, then we’re actually going to start lagging peer nations. That’s going to have very big ramifications.

Ann: One part of trying to find solutions is understanding where a problem is actually originating. Do we have any ideas about what’s causing this lack of diversity and participation? Either specifically in astronomy, or also more broadly in science and technology fields.

Betsey: I think people have a lot of different ideas about where the problem starts. Kevin mentioned earlier the phrase “the science pipeline.” We often talk about, in reference to this problem, about the “leaky pipeline.” The idea is that you start off at the youngest age and you have a representative population in K-12 schools. But as you go along, you start to “lose” women and underrepresented minorities, and it can happen starting very early that there are unconscious biases, or people are educated to believe that, “Oh, girls aren’t as good at math.” So, by the time you get to high school, where you’re starting to elect courses to take, women and underrepresented minorities aren’t taking as many science and math courses. Then, you get to the university level, and at the undergraduate level you have a smaller percentage doing degrees in science and technology and engineering. And you just keep going on — then you get to graduate school, and then you get to the question of staying in science. The idea of the leaky pipeline refers to the fact that you’re consecutively losing more and more women and underrepresented minorities.

Ann: One of the things you mentioned, I think, is particularly important: this idea that if you are not, in high school, taking the pre-requisite math and science courses that you would need to major in a field like that, you’ve already, at a very young age, selected yourself out of that leaky pipeline. That makes it — that would make it very difficult for you to get back in, even if your interests change, or even if you do run into a fantastic role model or mentor who helps you out and puts you on that path.

Kevin: Yeah, and that’s a very important issue, and a lot of the folks who are trying to address this issue are definitely trying to take a holistic approach, and understand that we actually — that there’s many leaks, at many levels, all along the pipeline, and that to really succeed at improving the situation and getting the best science that we can, by tapping into the science talent, we’re going to have to address those leaks at a variety of levels.

Ann: I want to wrap up today on an optimistic note, looking forward. I want to ask both of you what you think about addressing this issue and trying to make changes in the astronomical community, so that we can change the face of astronomy to reflect the face of America.

Kevin: Sure! One of the important things is actually just sensitizing the community to the idea that these issues exist, and to help build a stronger sense of understanding of the issues and of how to help students from every background to actually build the support networks they’re going to need to persist and overcome the challenges they face on the way to becoming a practicing scientist. I mean, this is the flip side of the fact — the challenges that underrepresented groups face aren’t, necessarily, particular just to those groups. They effect a broad swath, which actually means that if we address those issues, it will benefit those groups the most, but it actually benefits folks like me as well, and it makes the astronomical and all scientific communities much more welcoming.

Betsey: I think we’re doing a good job in astronomy of talking about this issue. There are committees for the national astronomical society [ed note: this refers to the American Astronomical Society, AAS], both on the status of women and of minorities. And just having a discussion about it, and bringing it up and reminding people that this is a problem and that we need to work on it, is very helpful. In fact, there have been studies that have shown that if you just talk about it, and remind people when you’re doing admissions to graduate school or looking for a new faculty hire — reminding people that there are these problems and that they might have unconscious bias against women or underrepresented minorities, goes a long way toward overcoming those issues, and helping increase representation.

Ann: Thank you, Betsey and Kevin, for sitting down and making our podcast audience aware of this very serious issue in astronomy!

Outro: The Curious? Ask an Astronomer website can be found at Ask an Astronomer is run by volunteer graduate students at Cornell University. Ask an Astronomer was created by David Kornreich, former Cornell grad student, now professor of Astronomy at Humboldt State University. Our theme music has been provided by Mevio’s Music Alley. Check it out at The theme music was composed by Alexye Nov.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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