Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

science: it's a human thing, and it needs your help

i woke up in australia one morning this week, ate breakfast, drank my coffee, and found that my twitter feed had exploded overnight with the unfamiliar hashtag of #sciencegirlthing, and that i had been identified by several people as one of the #realwomeninscience.  it's true, i'm not fake.  i'm a real person. 

i quickly discovered that the european commission recently kicked off an initiative to encourage teenage girls to get excited about science.   i'm all for addressing this important issue, as i've written about many, many, many, many, many times before!  the EU commission hosts a nice website with a lot of interesting information. 

but the thing that sent twitter aflutter was a trailer video for a project called "Science: It's a Girl Thing."   the title of the project is already a problem, in my opinion, which sarah kendrew nicely explains.  the video is... disappointing.    i'm not showing the whole video in question here, but what i show below has a sufficient amount of clips from the original, and shows meghan gray discussing why it fails to achieve its important goals. 

the video is disappointing because it's condescending to send the generic message to girls that as long as youre wearing high heels, lipstick, and do magazine model-type poses, you can be whatever you want!  in this case, a scientist, apparently.  i know i'm not the target audience for the video, and maybe i'm over-simplifying the marketing strategy, but seriously...  

science is exciting because you participate in the process of figuring out how the universe works!   

who cares what you wear while you do it?  although, one tweet particularly made me laugh.  it was something like:

i have two problems with this video.  (1) you would NEVER be allowed to wear open-toed shoes in a chemistry lab.  (2) everything else.  

anyway, it doesnt matter what your personal style is or who has done science in the past - everyone should feel welcomed and encouraged to participate in the effort NOW, and all human beings should support any other human being who wants to share that achievement.

so how do we get young people (any people) excited about studying science and contributing to our growing understanding of how the universe works?

that's where i need your help. 

in a couple weeks i'll be attending .Astronomy 4 in heidelberg, germany.   these events bring together some incredibly capable and clever people to develop "web-based projects, from outreach and education to research tools and data analysis." 

during last year's hack day, we produced the "pluto, the previous planet" music video. it was a fun, relatively spontaneous project.

for this year's hack day, i've suggested a project to create a version of a #realwomeninscience video, or even better, a real people doing science video.   any ideas for what we could do (in a day)?   i have a couple ideas, but i thought i'd ask you creative folks for your help.   what do you think?  what do you find most fascinating about science?   what do you want to know about scientists? 

i cannot guarantee that this project will be accomplished, but i'll do what i can to make it happen!

meanwhile, the EU commission has removed the video from circulation and created a list of female scientists on twitter.  they should be releasing a statement about all the commotion they've caused soon.   who says social media cant be effective?
and if you are curious, this is what a scientist looks like.  

real life hot wheels loop

just learned that my uncle's company did the structural design for this giant "Hot Wheels Double Loop Dare."  whoa!

i like high-intensity activities quite a bit, but don't sign me up for this stunt!  no thanks.

Monday, June 25, 2012

giant marbles

its almost hard to believe that these rocks live on earth.   the whole scene feels other-worldly:

Photo Credit:  Marcus Haid

the rocks are moeraki boulders and strewn across koekohe beach on the south island of new zealand. they remind me a bit of the much smaller martian blueberries discovered by the robust little mars rovers

the photo was one of last year's winners of the national geographic traveler photo contest.  they are still accepting entries for this year...!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

slow-mo slinky

i did not expect the slinky to behave this way when dropped!   they give a nice explanation as to possible reasons why...

Friday, June 22, 2012

southern ocean sky

i've recently discovered another master of timelapse astrophotography: alex cherney

in the video below, i love how the clouds become characters in the story, and how gorgeous the southern hemisphere's night sky looks.   you can clearly see the smudges of the large and small magellanic clouds in the sequence that starts at 00:44.

Ocean Sky from Alex Cherney on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

more and more planets

there are between 580 and 778 planets known, as of june 2012, that orbit around stars other than our sun.    xkcd has cleverly shown them all to scale in this beautiful graphic. 

an exciting time, indeed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

galaxies of the leo triplet

a recent APOD image showed 2 parts of the galaxy trio known as the leo triplet.  shown at the upper left is messier's 65 catalogued galaxy and the bottom right is Messier 66.

these images were taken by bill snyder in california earlier this year.  below is a focused view of M65.  the distinct dust clouds throughout the spiral arms are striking, as is the little dust lane feeding into the central region of the galaxy!


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

transit of venus video

i find this video from NASA of the transit of venus as viewed in several different wavelength filters completely mesmerizing. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

early career researcher mentoring

recently, the australian astronomical community invested in holding a two day early career researcher mentoring workshop.   the workshop brought together a dozen of the most successful and influential astronomers based in australia to talk candidly to ~60 post-docs about:

1. Planning a Career
2. Building a Network
3. Writing a Successful Proposal
4. How to Effectively Hire and Managing People
5. How to Present Research to the Media
6. Time Management
7. Getting a Faculty Job
8. Work/Life Balance
9. Government and Science Policy
10. Leadership and Vision
11. What Every New Faculty Needs to Know

(L to R) Warrick Couch, Geraint Lewis, Brian Boyle, Karl Glazebrook, Rachel Webster, Bryan Gaensler, Kate Brooks, Sarah Madison, Helen Sim

i came away with loads of good information and enthusiasm, which i've needed in the build up to my next round of job applications. 

as anyone following the twitter #ECRmentor hashtag must have gathered, the participants of this workshop had a lot to say.   there will be official summaries of each session posted online in the coming weeks, which i'll be sure to point out when they are available. 

in the meantime, i'll highlight several points here, mostly in their twitter form, that will hopefully be useful for anyone wanting to move a career forward.   also, there are some links listed at the bottom.


developing a "career" is a process of managing life, learning, leisure activities, and work.

managing a successful career requires self awareness, opportunity awareness, decision making, and implementation of those decisions!

to be any good, you have to know what good [science] is.  follow your passion, not the flavor of the month.

you need to make your mark - become a known expert in one or two specific areas, publish and talk about them! 

to broaden networks: be visible! introduce yourself, send emails, ask questions at conferences, do talk tours, publish.

keep people informed, because your network, once established, can work for you behind the scenes.

beware the anti-network: disrespectful comments, drunken behaviour at conferences, childish online presence, unfavorable google results. 

networking and collaborations are important for research, learning, creating new opportunities, supporting career breaks!

at conference, wear your name tag.  wear name tag high on the right so people can easily read it while you shake hands. 

good mentors aren't just more experienced than you.  they can see more talent & ability in you than you see in yourself.

(read more about overcoming the imposter syndrome and recognizing unconscious bias: HERE )

the advantage of this workshop was that it put us early career researchers in a very good position to talk face-to-face with senior members of the community.   creating that opportunity is always a networking challenge. 


key is to work efficiently and effectively when working.  recognize when you are most productive and take advantage. 

set manageable goals.

learn when to say no. recognize what is important. prioritize. stop making excuses - just shut up, sit down, and do it! 

do not agonize too heavily over the last 5% of a paper - get it out and published and move on/forward!

Understand your calendar for the next month and pace yourself accordingly. Stay sane!

when you call a meeting - end it ON TIME no matter what.

measure your work by achievements and not clock hours.


day two of the workshop started with an early morning run - in the rain.  i was surprised that so many people were willing!

Photo Credit: Kate Brooks


Job ad: “Applicants are encouraged to contact Prof X for more info” is code for “You must contact Prof X if you’re serious”

always write a cover letter when applying for a job, even if not requested. avoid personal info, but show personality.

when scheduling a job interview, ask who will be on the panel.

rehearse answers for typical questions:  achievement you are proud of?  a weakness?  how do you deal with stressful situations? give specific examples!   also, highlight special skills you bring.

know about the organization (at least look at their website before the interview!).  prepare questions to ask them!  deflect personal questions.

science phd skills for any job: modelling, problem-solving, managing large datasets, presenting, advanced computing, writing, teaching 

people remember a good talk and insightful plots. they also remember awful talks. practice talks and spend time on slides. 

(there was a lot of discussion about CV and job application specifics.   hopefully the summary will shed light on these details, or ask in the comments and i'll elaborate...)


we have to be responsible for setting the boundaries we want in our lives, or someone else will do it for us. 

what are the characteristics of a good job?  reasonable hours, satisfaction and fulfillment, control over situations, flexibility... you choose.  

in my experience, no place i've ever worked in the world has acknowledged the existence of a work/life balance as openly as in australia.  friends from within academia and especially outside of it talk about maintaining a work/life balance with pride, and i have found it absolutely refreshing since i've been working and living here!  in fact, it has helped me work more efficiently and effectively. 

annual performance and development goals should include work/life components.

don’t plan your career, plan your life. don’t separate, integrate. 

surviving career breaks: have mentors, students, support networks, solid collaborations, be on committees.


Everyone needs to be a leader in some context.

leadership is a skill and something you can get better at with practice. 

leadership traits: vision, decisiveness, delegation, courage, reliability, commitment, creativity, determination, etc...

the best leaders delegate responsibility to others and trust them to carry out their tasks.

"Diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your own way" - Brian Boyle

as a manager: be a role model, set reasonable goals, acknowledge achievements, motivate, assign responsibility, maintain future vision


get mentors, network, think big, plan, take control of work/life balance, have fun, and use spell check! 

find an opportunity, engage your strengths and vision, and try!

you never know what can come from just asking.  rules can be changed.  challenge them!  but recognize that there is always a level in an organization where the rules can be changed. Too low, they have no power; too high, shouldn't be bothered. 


another very interesting aspect of this workshop were the 15 minute "blasts" held between the official sessions.  during a blast session, one senior person stood up and informally told us something they learned in their career that they thought especially important to share. 

many used the time to tell their "career story," and it became obvious very quickly that there is no simple solution to the mystery of having a successful career.  people have partners who might have careers of their own, there is no "best time" to have kids, luck plays a role, accidents happen, health issues are inevitable, travel can be a huge burden, it's hard to relocate every few years, and on and on. 

it was also acknowledged that not all of the early career researchers in that room would land another job in research astronomy, and it wasn't forgotten that the people not in the room, who had chosen a different path for their career for any number of reasons, far outnumbered those in attendance. 

at one point, after listening to the panel members discuss the array of difficult measures they've taken to manage all the requirements of having a permanent faculty position, one participant asked "so why do we want to have your jobs when they are so competitive and difficult to handle once achieved?"  the comment got laughs from the crown, but it made a good point.

the panel members described the satisfaction of progressing long-term, large-scale projects, developing new technologies and techniques, leading large research teams, training new generations of scientists, broadening research interests, feeling satisfaction in accomplishments, meeting new and different challenges.  fulfillment, despite or because of difficult decisions.

contributing to our understanding of how the universe works, and sharing the knowledge with others - sounds like job satisfaction to me!  so, i'll keep working to make it happen, and i think this experience has definitely helped my chances.

finally, a quick shout out to the sponsors of the event:  Astronomical Society of Australia, Australian National University, CSIRO, Swinburne University, CAASTRO, ICRAR, AAO.

and of course, a big thank you to darren croton for initiating and organizing the whole thing!


OmniFocus for mac - organization tool
toodledo - to do list manager
arxivsorter - to help keep up with literature
twitterdoc - document twitter events
astrobetter - tips and tricks for professional astronomers

Monday, June 11, 2012

ISS star trails

astronaut don pettit has taken some incredible photos from the international space station, but these are a step above anything i've seen before!  long-exposure photos from the ISS, capturing star trails and lights on earth as it rotates below the space craft.

mister rogers

i resisted watching one of these mister rogers remixes, but i have to admit, this harbours a very nice message.  if you didn't grow up with the tv series, mister rogers' neighborhood was a popular american show that targeted very young audiences.

i still hate the sound of those auto-tuned vocals though.  pop stars, please stop using them!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

tiny black spot on the sun

here's a photo of the transit of venus taken by a colleague, aaron robotham, who is with me at this multi-wavelength surveys conference in the hunter wine valley, australia.    he made a filter for his camera, and here captures not only venus near the beginning of the transit event, but also a handful of dark sunspots scattered across the sun's surface.

Photo Credit: Aaron Robotham

rainbow transit

another shot - the sun is out in full!

transit of venus

astronomers in australia watching the transit of venus, in the rain, with a rainbow!