Date: June 19, 2011

Title: Mentoring in Astronomy

Podcaster: Diane Turnshek

Organization: Carnegie Mellon University


Description: The recent hiring of two women cosmologists into the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University has prompted a look into mentoring for women in astronomy. The ADVANCE program (NSF solicitation 10-593) is a funding opportunity with a goal of increasing the advancement of women in the STEM fields. While it’s well-known that any mentoring program is better than no mentoring program, deciding what’s best is not always obvious. We survey of what works for different-sized departments and various astronomer ages and stages.

Bio: Diane Turnshek teaches astronomy at CMU, Pitt and St. Vincent, and coordinates the physics outreach at CMU. St. Vincent’s planetarium boasts a state-of-the-art Spitz SciDome projector. Diane worked as a planetarium operator at the Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium, assisting in the production of shows. In her astronomy outreach efforts, she has visited to schools, libraries, camps, Scouts and Congress. She hosts a monthly public lecture series at Allegheny Observatory. She has consulted with many who wished to keep their science accurate, from authors to opera companies. She is a science fiction author and editor, whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by David Rossetter on behalf of the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association specializing in observing and sharing the skies of the Mid-Hudson Region of New York State in the US.


Hi and welcome to another installment of 365 Days of Astronomy. I’m Diane Turnshek, Outreach Coordinator and astronomy instructor for the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University. CMU is located in the academic corridor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with the University of Pittsburgh, Carlow University and Chatham University. Carnegie Mellon’s school motto, “My heart is in the work,” is from founder Andrew Carnegie and it’s based on the core values of innovation, creativity, problem solving and teamwork. The CMU Physics Department began in 1906 and currently has over forty faculty members. We recently hired two new cosmologists, both women.

Shirley Ho will be joining us from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California. She does theoretical and observational cosmology. She runs simulations and analyzes large survey data (working with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III and both the high and low frequency instruments on the Planck anisotropy probe). The questions she’s asking involve the initial conditions and evolution of the Universe.

Rachel Mandelbaum from Princeton will be starting at CMU in the coming year. She studies galaxy formation and evolution and uses weak lensing to gather information about the intervening material in the cosmos, between us and the distant objects that are lensed. She uses the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The distribution of dark matter in clusters can be gathered from lensing data and then compared to the optical and X-ray distributions.

They’ll be joining our astronomy group, which includes Tiziana DeMatteo, who is perhaps best known either for her cosmological models of black hole formation or her GigaPan Time Machine, which models the workings of gravity across 600 million light years to condense matter into stars and galaxies. She’s been with the department since 2005. Our new faculty will have offices near hers on the 8th floor of Wean Hall in the refurbished wing housing the Bruce and Astrid McWilliams Center for Cosmology, which supports research on the make-up and evolution of the Universe. The arrival of our new faculty members will add to an already dynamic department, but it started me thinking about mentoring. Who will show them the ropes, answer questions and guide in the continuation of their successful careers? The current Chairman is great at that and the astronomy group takes care of its own, but I keep hearing about mentoring.

Mentoring is hot, and not just in academic settings. Formal and informal programs are springing up in government and private industry. Mentoring can refer to all ages and career levels, and cross socioeconomic, geographical and political boundaries. It’s more than fashionable—studies show mentoring works amazingly well. NASA mentoring programs are available to each employee at NASA Headquarters and the Centers. The concern is for the employee’s goals, either technological or in the areas of leadership development. Of course, this being NASA, TLAs are used . . . (three letter acronyms) . . . and the Leadership Development Framework becomes LDF. The LDF defines mentoring as:
“ . . . an informal or formal relationship, between an individual and peer or a more senior manager usually out of the individual’s chain of command that targets dialogue and discussion about career management, organizational environment, technical knowledge, etc.”

Studies have shown that any mentoring program works better than no mentoring program, but funding is available to tailor a specific program to a department’s needs.

The National Science Foundation solicitation ADVANCE has been released, which is designed to help increase the participation, advancement and retention of women in academic science and engineering careers. One subset of the solicitation struck me as particularly interesting. PAID stands for the Partnerships for Adaptation, Implementation and Dissemination awards. There’s a web portal for ADVANCE grants. Letters of intent for Institutional Transformation proposals are due October 3, 2011. I read through the solicitation and was flooded with ideas of what we could do to be of assistance to our new tenure track faculty members.

First off, what should a mentor do, and do they need training for this?

• Point out to their mentees the teaching and research resources.
• Introduce them to promising graduate students.
• Show them an appreciation of the academic culture and political dynamics of the department. A few examples: understanding how decisions are made, which University events are “musts” to attend, working from home guidelines and collaboration possibilities in the department.
• Establish the process of setting goals, working toward filling needs, building trust.
• Ascertain procedures for dealing with problems and methods of taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.

This is not to say we don’t do a good job with informal mentoring of our tenure track faculty. But there’s always room for improvement. Here’s what I would ask for—

• We could train senior faculty members to be the best mentors they could be, providing them with the tools needed for effective communication, discussion of strategies and case studies.
• We could provide junior faculty with skill training (negotiation, self-promotion, communication, time management, awareness of avenues to address problems and life/work balance possibilities).
• We could hold spring and fall luncheons to introduce the program, establish the guidelines for mentee and mentor, sign contracts, explore available resources, have the opportunity for peer mentoring, distribution of materials, building a network of colleagues.
• A yearly reception to honor women faculty’s accomplishments and show appreciation to the mentors.
• So many people travel to exotic locales to do their research. Why not have a lecture series that combines two popular things? “Physics and Travel,” would show an infrequently seen aspect of women scientists to the community. Role models for girls, front and center. I’d need funds for refreshments, honorarium and advertising.
• Travel funds to bring back alumni (who had gone off to other institutions) to talk about, not only their current science, but the mentoring climate at their new institutions. How easily did they adjust to their new environment and what did they find helpful?

Studies have been done on best practices for mentoring junior faculty. Again and again, it’s been shown to be effective. I attended the Women in Astronomy meeting in Washington DC in 2009, and heard statistics like this, “Female assistant professors with mentors had a higher probability (93%) of having a grant than those without mentors (68%).”

We must recognize that we have, all of us, an unconscious gender bias and that marginalization exists. However, an increase in the hiring of females in astronomy because of affirmative action really doesn’t. Drawing attention to problems is the first step in correcting them. Retention is a problem. Diversity is not—institutions with a broader diverse population generally fare better than others. The two-body problem (duel career couples) is . . . oh, very real.

At the recent AAS meeting, the one in Boston, a panel discussion of experts shared their concerns about the state of mentoring. I’ve quoted them– “highlighted examples of concrete steps to take to enable sustainability, obstacles to be aware of, how to develop allies through making it clear the ways your program champions your institution’s priorities.”

The AAS Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy has great online resources. They’ve been making waves since 1979. They keep a database for women in astronomy that can be used for finding speakers and job applicants.

We will know we’ve solved some of the problems when the percentages of women in astronomy stays constant through the pipeline from undergraduate, grad student, to postdoc through assistant, associate and full professor. I’m looking forward to that time.

Thanks for listening. I hope I’ve given you food for thought.

End of podcast:

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