Monday, June 27, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Danielle Rowland

This is the first of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Danielle Rowland, who is a student in our TAURUS summer program at UT Austin working on some of the Universe's first galaxies. Her advisor, Prof. Steven Finkelstein talks about his experience recruiting Danielle as is student for the TAURUS program.
I selected Danielle to work with me based on our overlapping interests in cosmology and galaxy evolution, but also because of her unique path through life.  Danielle is a Native American, and contrary to the experiences of many, Danielle spent half of her childhood living on the reservation of her tribe, the Tonawanda Seneca, near Buffalo, NY.  Initially, Danielle grew up in Chicago, but at the age of 10, her parents decided to move their family back to live with their tribe, so that Danielle would grow up engaged in her cultural heritage. She lived on the reservation through high school, at which time she graduated, and started college at NYU.

While astronomy had always been Danielle’s passion, while at NYU she got married and had two kids, and ultimately switched her major to Political Science in the hopes of having more practical job choices after she received her degree.  However, her heart was definitely still in astronomy, and after some time, during which she left NYU, she decided to go back to school to follow her dream of becoming a research astronomer, and now has a little more than a year to go to receive her degree from Columbia University.

We talked about Danielle’s inspiration to pursue a career in astronomy, and it started when she was young, at age five, when she first picked up a book on astronomy. Her interest grew as she used her telescope at home and watched the Nova science documentary series, and grew further when she was encouraged by her 8th grade science teacher.  Danielle is drawn to science because it doesn’t allow for personal opinions to dominate an argument - if you have an idea about a problem, science allows you to search for a definitive answer to a problem and back it up.  She is drawn most to astronomy because it is the story of humanity - astronomy allows us to learn who we are and where we came from, at the most fundamental level.

The pursuit of her dream job, a Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, has not been easy.  Danielle now has four children, aged 3, 5, 11 and 12, and time management is a constantly adjusting ebb and flow of balance between her home life and her work.  She has been able to consistently maintain success by constantly evaluating the needs of all of the areas of her life, both personal and professional, and adjusting her priorities when an area is in need.

To anyone who wants to pursue a career in astronomy, but especially for those who are members of underrepresented groups, Danielle urges you to be persistent, and to be your own advocate.  Danielle has learned this experience repeatedly, and shared a story she had about trying to improve her programming skills by attending some training sessions where she ended up being the only undergraduate student in a room full of advanced astronomers. As the only beginner, she wasn't fully embraced, but was ultimately able to earn their respect for her dedication to learning a new skill.  Of the many options for role models, Danielle was quick to name Einstein, as even though he struggled at times through school, his ideas were so revolutionary, and he was able to work until they came to light.

For the future, Danielle hopes to be involved in discovery, especially in the field of cosmology.  The subject of multiple universes (M-theory to be specific) came up multiple times, and it is clear Danielle has a true fire in her to learn about these fundamental issues in our universe.  She would also like to maintain her ongoing work in public outreach, as she believes that is one of the best ways to make astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community, by making them more aware of scientific progress, and de-mystifying many aspects of our jobs, specifically about math.  With her eagerness for discovery, I fully expect Danielle to reach her goals, and I look forward to learning about the nature of our universe from her future publications!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Week one, CHECK!

After a whirlwind week, our TAURUS cohort is enjoying their weekend unwind... the first week was packed full of activities to not only orient them to their new projects, but also to build an strong sense of community and build the toolbox they'll need for the rest of their summer stay in Austin.

Essential to any first-hand astronomy research experience is programming and fluency with Unix.  So that's what we focused on in our seminar series during this first week.  Some of excellent graduate student Unix ninjas Jeremy Ritter and Jessica Luna came to the rescue to introduce students to Unix and text editors (a bit more advanced than the familiar vi and emacs, thankfully that battle was avoided) and IDL blackbelt Intae Jung and Python guru Emma Yu gave them the run down on programming basics.  It was great to see some presence from UT-based astronomy researchers as well!

Have no fear though, it wasn't all work!  Our TAURUS scholars enjoyed a reception in the grand hall of the UT Tower to welcome them to campus, along with other summer researchers in other programs.  Many got the opportunity to meet students from all over the country, and world!  Enjoy the weekend TAURUS! You deserved it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Opening Day for TAURUS @ UT!

Today was the first day of TAURUS!  We were delighted to welcome five incredible scholars to UT's campus this morning who will spend the next nine weeks in intensive research.  It was a busy day of meeting members of our Department of Astronomy, as well as walking around campus taking care of some practical matters like ID cards and office keys.  The heat almost cut our campus tour short, but we miraculously made it everywhere we needed to go without melting.  After a lunch with graduate students, the TAURUS scholars met with their mentors to talk science and what they would be working on over the next nine weeks.  We'll learn more about what they discover in the weeks to come, but first let's introduce them!  Here they are on top of the RLM building on campus (our physics, math and astronomy building, after checking out the telescope on the roof):

Right to left:

Danielle Rowland, joining us from Columbia University, working with Prof. Steven Finkelstein
Elizabeth GutiƩrrez, joining us from Villanova University, working with Dr. Ivan Ramirez
Jennifer Medina, joining us from Florida International University, working with Dr. Andrew Mann
Derek Holman, joining us from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, working with Dr. Chao-Ling Hung
Isaiah Tristan, joining us from Rice University, working with Dr. Brendan Bowler
Me! Prof. Caitlin Casey, TAURUS coordinator.

As if day one wasn't busy enough, the department welcomed them with a special afternoon tea, including an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the 23 UT Austin-based undergraduate researchers doing active astronomy research over the summer.  Tomorrow, science!  Stay tuned.