Saturday, 15 May 2010

The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 2

Continuing from my earlier post; now we're onto Friday 23rd April.

I should have mentioned yesterday that while we were putting up those banners, Helen asked me what I thought about winding up the She is an Astronomer forum. I agreed with her that it was probably all for the best as, sadly, it was very little used apart by spammers. I think there were several reasons for this. For one thing none of us really got round to putting up all the articles, statistics and so on that were available on the website - the information was available in one place and the discussions in another. And yet when we did do this, the response was still depressingly small. In the main, Helen pointed out, what we learned was that women astronomers don't really want to use a web forum - which in itself was a useful finding that we wouldn't have known without having tried! I would have thought it would be a terrific place - I know that doctors have a forum where they get to rant their heads off - but I guess it just didn't work like that in practice. It was a shock to me, but I've been spoiled by the Galaxy Zoo Forum and forget that such things don't appeal to everyone. Maybe in another generation, it will.

We just had a morning of lectures before a nice leisurely lunch, and very interesting they were too! First up was Sotira Trifourki, who I gather had done 50 slides for a 20 minute talk - she has been up to an awful lot during the International Year of Astronomy. You can find her at her Cosmic Diary Blog from 2009, the Cosmic Diary website, the wonderful international website Astronomers Without Borders, and here for what her long term plans are now that the International Year of Astronomy is over.

She also told us about Cosmos Media, a project to equip schools and teachers with materials and knowledge to teach astronomy. Many primary school teachers are afraid to teach science and astronomy, having had little exposure to it themselves at school - and, of course, that breeds more of the same thing. Their research revealed that children's perceptions are set very early: for example, that even after learning about bricklaying, very small girls will say, "I can't be a bricklayer, I'm a girl." (Whether they challenge that thinking when they are older - as teenagers do challenge many of the things they thought as kids - I don't know. But it's fair to say one doesn't often hear of a female bricklayer!) There was a lovely little project in which children were invited to "invent their own moon". Sotira's project was part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy, and mentioned the zoo's contribution too. They also developed a science newspaper of citizen writing, which can be looked up at Astronomers Without Borders.

Pedro Russo gave a delightful and detailed account of about a thousand and one activities of the International Year of Astronomy! The idea for it was thought up in 2003 by Franco Pacini, to celebrate the upcoming 400th anniversary of Galileo pointing a telescope at the sky (he wasn't the first, but he was the first to publish). A lot of planning went into it from about 2005 onward, with topics being thought up such as light pollution, and projects such as Cosmic Diary. Universe Awareness was launched during 2006, and and a UN proclaimation in 2007 - this was especially important to secure funding, especially to work in developing countries.

It worked well due to it being a great idea and having strong support, global participation, funding, a UN recommendation, exciting activities, the engagement of people at all levels. The funding was the hardest bit, he said.

Pedro's role was a global coordinator, and he obviously enjoyed it! He was involved with science centres, planetariums, educational communities, professors, and amateurs - the last of whom he thought were the best. They had great media coverage. Women made up 30% of the staff, and were often a sole point of contact for an area or project - in fact, 70% of cornerstone projects were chaired by women.

Each story Pedro told was cause for a smile. Astronomy displays appeared all round the world, of varying descriptions - for instance, someone grew an astronomy flowerbed in Solihull, Birmingham! (I Googled it and there were no current images available - how sad. But local websites offer such appalling puns as how "blooming great" it is . . .) The International Year of Astronomy went to Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Exhibitions took place in developing countries: Mozambique did lectures and introduced astronomy into their undergraduate curriculum; public talks in Bangladesh were attended by thousands; Ghana took up Galileoscopes. In India, a camel pulled a display through the streets! Around the globe in total there were 24,595 activities, and astronomy is estimated to have reached 975 million people. And by the way, this is estimated through only 50% of the reports. The only activity formally discontinued was Galilean Nights; everything else was kept in some form or another. Pedro hopes that a coffee table book of the best of IYA can be produced.

Jan West spoke about the mentoring scheme, and she started with some stern advice to the women watching. "The way to advance yourself - and this is controversial - is not to put your head down and quietly do a good job, or spend all your time in a scientific laboratory." She told us that about 70% of jobs (through out the whole of employment) are obtained through networking, not objective merit. So personal and social skills are very important, as are not letting others take the credit for your work. "I'm afraid it is a game."

A mentor is not a teacher, but someone to advise and encourage you, to remind you of your goals and keep you on track. Some women are afraid to admit they have a mentor, in case they look weak, or as if their work is not their own. That, of course, is not what happens: you still do all the work! Many people are happy to mentor the younger generation, feeling that it is their responsibility; also, many "top people" are hugely thankful to mentors they have had.

A worldwide mentoring scheme is not yet ready. However, the UK now has MentorSET. It's a project started by the Women's Engineering Society. Basically they ask you to be willing to give up a few hours of your time every few months. And they ask women who have had mentors to be willing to be mentors later.

I thought it was a very positive scheme, but odd to see it formalised and I could easily picture women being uncomfortable with it. It's really what happens naturally at the zoo. I cannot thank people like Chris and Kevin enough for all I've learnt from them - and all the places I've got to due to their guidance and steering - and I hope that I have taught dozens of people half as much. I guess it was the kind of thing I'd hoped to do via the She's an Astronomer forum - let people actually meet each other. It's also odd that it does seem to happen naturally with men - the "old boy network" and so on. But perhaps there are also plenty of men out there who could do with a mentor and haven't got one?

We were rounded off with a lovely talk on comets and telescope time, and by Helen being asked to wrap up with conclusions! Helen got up from the back. "Oh, boy, conclusions? My conclusion is I'm very tired!" We laughed as she went up to the front. She doesn't think we've found all the solutions yet - or even all the problems. But as Jocelyn Bell-Burnell said, women are just as capable of doing science as men, so why is there not a 50-50 ratio? "Answers on a piece of paper please." We all do astronomy because we love it. We also love communicating it, especially to the next generation - so we are lucky to have public figures such as Brian Cox and Chris Lintott.

Helen's original IAU proposal had massive support. She wanted it to be generic but not too detailed as each country had its own characteristics and problems. Only challenging attitudes can stop bullying and harrassment. Sometimes encouraging men to say "shut up" can help!

It's not a leaky pipeline, she said, but a labyrinth. There are lots of small problems rather than one large one; so there is no one solution, such as "more girls' schools". Local problems have local answers. Nevertheless, there are some specifics - for example, women should be less shy about giving talks (even though it's often them who do the inviting! We should make sure women are invited). It helps to get men on our side - all the evidence I have seen shows that many of them are - and to encourage them to nominate women for awards. She promised that She is an Astronomer will continue, and urged us to keep sending in our suggestions.

There were some funny moments, such as us collectively noticing that solar astronomy and dust disks seem to be particularly popular areas of study for women (and therefore, great meetings to sneak in on to get some feminist action going!). And there were painful ones, such as when talks like mine, Ruth Wilson's, and Jan West's encouraged women to blog and reach out over the Internet - and these were greeted with injured faces and protestations of "We don't have time!" There was obvious resistance to the idea of going out in public; it bemused me and Hanny, as both of us are keen to the point of over-eagerness to do that. I wondered why: if it was a lack of confidence, if they were dropping with tiredness. And I wanted to help. I love blogging and outreach. It doesn't seem right to discover things and dedicate your life and then not share it with the layman. But I have certainly seen astronomers looking absolutely worn out, and wished there were more posts so each individual did not have to practically kill him or her self.

Lunch was a hurried affair this time - but I had several lovely talks with women in astronomy, many of whom expressed their enthusiasm for Galaxy Zoo and my determination to reach the general public. I talked to one lady for quite a while about how the zooites have taught themselves spectra and SQL, but she had a sober warning. "You're singing to the choir," she said. "You've already got these people before they join. You're missing out on the others." I resisted that to some extent - many people join knowing very little astronomy, simply popping along because it looked so interesting, and find themselves welcomed. And in any case, why should I force astronomy on people who don't want to know? But she has a point. I am uncomfortably aware that to a large extent I am catering for the privileged: those with Internet access, free time, and the confidence to come along . . . I went into teaching because I didn't only want to reach the privileged. But that, as we all know, was not to be. I haven't given up, though. I'm only 28, and expect to be doing a great deal more with my life. That's all I can really say for now!

I also talked to Sotira for some time - she was terrific! She encouraged me to get some proper training for science communication - in fact, she named something that I thought of a few months ago, but hadn't yet dared apply for. Evidently I'd been making the very mistake that so many women do make: thinking "I've just been lucky, I can't really do this." I have had a major part in creating a very friendly forum where people can relax and do fantastic science together, and I want to carry on doing that sort of thing! Once I'd got some food on my plate, I went back to the lecture theatre for an interview with Marta Entradas, who is studying for a PhD on science and the public. She wanted to know my thoughts on what people think of space exploration (manned versus robots, for example) and many other things about which I had not a clue - and asked me many more questions about what motivates people to want to know astronomy, which made me think a great deal!

Finally it was time for a cup of coffee, from the machine for which you need a PhD to engineer. After a few wasted bags of coffee and trips to the RAS kitchen, one of the RAS staff rescued me. And as I was heading up to collect my things, I had one last lovely surprise. Helen called me back, and she had that calendar in her hand. She handed it to me.

"That was for the best poster, wasn't it?" I laughed. "I didn't bring a poster."

"For your talk," said Helen.

I blinked and probably spluttered that my talk hadn't been anywhere near the best. Helen assured me that I'd got the best reaction! It's a beautiful calendar - very colourful and original artwork, and a couple of paragraphs on 12 historical women who did crucial astronomical work. It's actually also a lovely thing for bedtime reading, as it takes just the right amount of time to relax you and distract your brain from everyday worries. You can download a copy here.

Sorry it took me such a long time to finish that conference write-up, but it was actually a week of surprises - I've been deluged with requests for guest blogging and for an article which hopefully should appear in a month or two. It still feels pretty unreal, especially when I go to work in a normal office or mooch around a rural garden. But there's a big world out there, full of important things happening - and I can be part of it, and so can you. There are a lot of stars and galaxies up there, too. And all in all, things are looking pretty exciting.

Related posts: She is an Astronomer Conference Day 1; My talk
PS The presentations can now be found on the She is an Astronomer website. Worth a read!

1 comment:

Sakib said...

Those female astronomers do have a point, there isn't enough time!!!!!! Its absolutely exciting being part of the universe and the neverending quest to share and explore everything we can find out about it. It is so gratifying being part of a wider astronomical network, I absolutely love this digital age we live in. Its amazing that anybody can talk to any astronomer anywhere in the world! Again outreach needs time and is secondary to research.
I stumbled on Sotira's Cosmic Diary last year while trying to get information on a galaxy group and she has such a wonderful picture of a disturbed spiral galaxy! There is so much astronomical media and material that it feels like a whole universe in its own right! Again where can you find the time?
You're right, there is a huge world out there and it feels good writing about the universe and sharing your knowledge. I think the worst thing is witholding information and not passing it onto the world or people that would find it relevant. Its quite annoying where life is nothing but zillions of juggling balls whose aerial momentum has to be maintained because that ends up affecting a certain part of your life, when all you want to do is focus on one single thing and get something finished rather than being a long and laborious process that is stretched out over an unnecessary amount of time.
Also I would love to turn your face into a mystical nebula!