Friday, March 27, 2009

the extended history of astropixie

i've been asked a lot lately how i got interested in astronomy, what motivated me to study physics, and what brought about astropixie. so i thought i'd share the stories...

my official science career began when i was eighteen and decided to change my undergraduate major to physics, only to discover i was the sole female among the physics majors! i guess i didn't expect there to be many girls in the field, but that never influenced my decision. i suspect the lack of female students gives more insight into our societal influences and expectations than to my aspirations to figure out how the universe worked.

my unofficial science career began when i was young, although i didnt recognize it as such.

i always enjoyed little logic puzzles. i didnt understand the significance of it at the time, but my curiosities were completely aroused by finding patterns and figuring out how things worked! electronics never really interested me - our VCR always blinked "12:00" - but i loved solving puzzles. i played the piano from a young age and memorized the music by recognizing the patterns in the notes and chords and feeling the mood. as a present one year, i received a set of small metal puzzles. you had to separate two twisted pieces of metal that seemed permanently attached together and impossible to pull apart without using brutal force!

i got really frustrated by such puzzles at first when i couldnt solve them... sometimes to the point of tears. but then i figured one out! DING! there were always little tricks involved in the solutions and once i found them, the "impossible" puzzle seemed simple and obvious to solve. once i learned one trick, i could attempt to apply it to other puzzles. sometimes old tricks worked, sometimes i was challenged to find new solutions. this is exactly the process with which new science problems are solved... you apply all the tricks you've acquired, and if you run out of tricks, you learn new tricks (or give up on the problem if you dwell in the doldrums too long).

as for school, i was a pretty good student. i had an older sister who did very well in school, so i felt that i could get good grades, it was just a matter of studying and thinking about things until i understood them.

i didnt really "like" math, but i got decent grades. my last teacher in elementary school decided i was an ok student, but not capable enough to be placed in the advanced math and english classes upon entering junior high (~12 years old). my mother was furious when she found out about this and fought with the school for several weeks to convince them to move me to the advanced classes. i felt indifferent. i thought i would do fine in the advanced classes, but they would require more work which wasnt something i wanted to fight for!

while she fought to upgrade my status, i started the school year in the regular math class. to my immediate fascination, i entered the class of the most influencial teacher i ever had!! he was a young guy who didnt teach a regular math class. we spent a lot of time during the class solving riddles and puzzles. he introduced our innocent minds to zeno's paradox by asking whether a thirsty grasshopper would ever reach water if he could only jump half the distance to the water, then jump half of the remaining distance, then jump half the remaining distance, etc...? the class seemed confused; i was enamored... with the word problems, and with my teacher ;) he continued to do these interactive puzzles during class, and i found that i was thinking about solving problems in new and interesting ways. i also found that i was pretty good at solving his puzzles, and i've always enjoyed "winning" at anything and everything!

my mom eventually won her battle, and i was moved to the "advanced" math class, where i learned all the proper ways to solve basic algebraic equations for x. i was bored, and felt completely uninspired by math. until a few years later, when a great teacher and his geometry class inspired me again! our class bonded so much while solving the proofs that most of us, even some "cool kids," applied to join the math club at our teacher's insistence! so there you have it, i was in the high school math club for three years. and i really enjoyed it. i traveled around the US taking math tests and solving logic puzzles because i liked the challenges and i liked the traveling, even though i never felt i was very "good" in math.

my interests were quite varied throughout my teenage years; i always had after school jobs, i ran cross country, i was in the french club, i played futbol until i had to have knee surgery, i sang in a city-wide youth chorus, etc... i always harbored a fascination with the stars, and made up my own constellations in the skies, but didnt think astronomy was a feasible career. i mean, i'd never met an astronomer, or even a professional scientist for that matter! when i entered college, i wanted to travel, and i was a bit tired of all the hard work, so i majored in french. i quickly became bored without the challenge of problem solving, and my fascination with the stars never diminished, so i switched my field of study to physics, hoping i could focus in astronomy (there was no astronomy program at my university, and in hindsight, i'm very glad i got a degree in physics!).

attaining a degree in physics was hard work, i won't deny that, but i happily managed to do all the social, political, personal, and philosophical exploring that suits a young person when she leaves home for the first time. when i was nearing graduation, i felt proud of my accomplishments, but unsure of what i wanted to do with myself. the newly-appointed female professor in the department insisted i apply for graduate school. i wasnt sure why no one else had made such a suggestion and felt grateful for her interest in my career and well-being! my curiosity of astronomy had certainly not been satisfied while studying just physics, and i couldnt think of anything more interesting to do with myself, so i entered graduate school in austin, texas the next fall, without taking more than the summer off!

many years into studying for my astronomy doctorate, i wondered if i really wanted to continue along the typical academic path post-phd, and realized that i harbored a strong interest in communicating science to a popular audience, as well as to top-level researchers. around that time, i started to travel internationally to work with collaborators all over the world. i had no idea at the beginning that doing astronomy would provide so many diverse opportunities to travel all over the world!! in order to keep my family and friends updated on my travels, and to practice science writing, i began the astropixie blog in 2006. i did not know many other online science personalities at the time, especially female students, so i felt excited to develop my ideas and writing techniques within the relative safety of online anonymity. i felt amazed at how the readers absorbed explanations for real-world physical phenomena and noticed no gender bias among the readers who consistently commented and provided feedback.

i took a non-scientific poll a couple weeks ago and the results show that in fact, more women visited the blog (and voted) during the 6-day voting period! i was (pleasantly) surprised at how even these numbers were, because i had no real idea who was reading this blog!

the issue we face is that while women make up ~50% of the population of humans, in the working environments of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), women make up only 8.0% of all professors in science, engineering, and technologies. there are many complicated reasons for this, and no single solution exists. i dont think the point is to seek an even 50-50 split in gender, or an even distribution of people of all types in the workplace, but i think we have a responsibility to stop biasing ourselves and our children about what they "should" or can do in their lives. our society influences children from a young age - first thru consumerism (vehicles, battle toys, and blue for boys; cooking sets, dolls, and pink for girls), and then thru education by encouraging girls towards social sciences and boys towards sciences and math. of course not everyone follows these behaviors, but we can all try to actively *include* everyone in all of life's activities, instead of participating (consciously or not) to *exclude* certain types of people from doing certain activities.

i'm happy to know that i'm reaching a broad audience with this blog, because the fact that there are so few women in the upper echelons of STEM working environments, means that there are few role models to observe! what i do isnt what everyone wants to do, but if one person is inspired or intrigued to do whatever their little heart desires in this world, regardless of what types of people have done that thing in the past, then i'm satisfied.

as for the name astropixie... it found its origins long ago on the appalachian trail. its a dream of many people to spend the ~6 months it takes to hike the entire trail - from georgia to maine. i traveled to north carolina one year with friends to meet up with some guys who were attempting the whole trail! we hiked with them for a week. while hiking the trail, its customary to go by a trail name, and the fellas donned me with the trail name "pixie." i thought it was cute! several years later, when i arrived in austin and started signing up for various online forums and whatnot, i decided to spice up the obvious nickname of pixie by adding the astro, in honor of my new field of study!

and there you have it. the extended history of astropixie!


Steve Huntwork said...

Women have held themselves back, because they have this concept that science and physics is something that only men do.

People like you have learned that the ability to think and explore how things actually work, is what counts and earns respect.

Amanda, this male was thrilled to see you enter into your desired profession. Each and every day, I learn something new from you.

Astronomy, music, funny cartoons, and England...

You have become one of my most important teachers.

Thank you!

Georgie K. Buttons said...

The Sterling Scholar this year at my high school is a girl, the second one in the school's history. Cool, isn't it? I'm not great at math (k, I'll be honest, I suck) but science is great. I like learning about astronomy from your blog. It's fun to read about.

Kudos! :)

Mario said...

You are my heroine! :)

Viewtiful_Justin said...

Thanks for the history lesson! I like getting to know the motivations behind the bloggers I follow.

And, as far as the outcome of your poll, did you factor in the fact that the moajority of bloggers who read and comment and post regularly are women? I think it's about three out of five who are women.

That might skew your result.

Jimmy P said...

Strange how life turns out. When I graduated school I joined the Navy and entered into their Nuclear Power program. My intentions were to finish my schooling in nuclear engineering and someday work on Project Daedalus which would send an unmanned probe to Barnard's Star using fusion rockets. Ah, the dreams of youth. Since then, I've been a DJ, an appliance repairman, a parts salesman, and now a blogger. Reading your post makes me wonder if I shouldn't jump back into it.

heroineworshipper said...

The ratio is more like 2 heroines for every 3 men in the working years. Heroines only begin to outnumber men in old age because of life expectancy.

sarahaskew said...

Ah that's a nice story - and if you adjust for geographical and cultural difference, not so different from my own....

astropixie said...

Viewtiful_Justin - i've never heard that statistic before. where did you come across it?

badmintonman said...

That statistic it's very amazing for me

I never hear that in anyware

Thanks for your sharing useful story

NiteSkyGirl Blog said...

I always say it now I can add your story to my list ..some people's lives makes a great book / story to read !

Kenno said...

I am a Cincinnati Geology Ph.D.(1992); I stumble upon your blog. I must say you're doing an admirable job with your blog. Thanks much for sharing your story of how you ended up with your specialty and became an astronomer. I found it absolutely inspiring. I also found your total experience from elementary school through post-graduate school and life very teaching,especially from the perspective of a female; This is so partly because I am a male. But your astonishingly efficient summary of your experience is the most complete story I have ever read of a US female; it therefore peaked my interest as a dad of a very bright 8-year old girl. My wife and I are always trying to find great role models to advocate many different fields, everything from arts to ballet, to zoology; and you, astropixie, and your story will provide just that for our little one, who could easily be nicknamed Ms. Curiousity:) Thanks again for sharing your exemplary rise to the ranks of space explorer. Bravo and best of luck!