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Working hard to improve inclusion in astronomy
by Staff Writers
Baltimore MD (SPX) Jan 06, 2017

Joni Clark Cunningham, a graduating senior from New Mexico State University and a participant in the SDSS FAST program. Image courtesy SDSS Collaboration.

Although nearly 30 percent of U.S. citizens are African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander or Native American, these groups make up only 4 percent of the astronomical community. This gap represents major lost opportunity, both for thousands of individual people and for astronomy as a science. However, increasing the participation of these underrepresented groups is a complex challenge, particularly as astronomy becomes increasingly dominated by large international collaborations.

At the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas, this week, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) highlighted three programs addressing the challenges of inclusion and equity in the SDSS collaboration. One of these programs is Faculty and Student Teams (FAST), a pilot program is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and designed to broaden the participation of underrepresented minority scientists in the SDSS through long-term, meaningful research partnerships with faculty who work with students from underrepresented groups.

Jesus Pando of DePaul University leads one of the pioneering FAST teams. Pando is a first generation college student and first generation American who failed out of the University of Texas, El Paso, with a GPA less than 1.0. Years later, he is an astrophysics professor and the chair of the DePaul Physics department.

"I work on ways to measure how the expansion of the universe leaves an imprint on the distribution of galaxies in space," Pando says. "Helping underrepresented students to the next stage of their careers is a responsibility, honor, and joy for me."

FAST is designed to address structural inequalities that often hinder students in underrepresented groups from entering astronomy and other sciences. For example, many students have little access to the training needed to be successful researchers, and the institutions that serve minority students rarely have the funds to buy membership in large surveys like the SDSS.

FAST attempts to address these barriers by providing free membership in the SDSS collaboration to FAST faculty and students, which advances the faculty member's research and gives real, hands-on experience to students.

The FAST program has been running for two years and has involved six teams and 23 students, nearly two-thirds of whom are underrepresented minorities. As testament to its success, fifteen separate science abstracts being presented at this week's AAS meeting by students or faculty involved in the program.

Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, principal investigator of the SDSS FAST program, explains "by recruiting faculty into the collaboration, you build a long-term partnership that will affect future students even after the award is over. Entering into one of astronomy's flagship surveys, full of collaborators all over the globe, can be very intimidating," Holley-Bockelmann says.

"There are the nuts and bolts issues of accessing the data, but a bigger issue can be navigating the 'collaboration-politics' to figure out how to contribute to the science. FAST eases the entry barrier for faculty and their students by working with an identified SDSS mentor/collaborator and start doing science together."

The impact on individual FAST students is significant. As Joni Clark Cunningham, a first-generation college student from New Mexico State University, explains, "This past year I was very close to leaving the field I love so dearly. FAST connected me with mentors who refreshed and rejuvenated my love of astronomy." Cunningham is now applying to graduate programs and wants to pursue a PhD in astronomy.

Olivia Weaver, a first-generation college student from Florida Atlantic University, is also applying graduate programs in astronomy this year and credits the program in solidifying her decision to switch from a theater career to pursue astrophysics.

Another FAST student, Muhammed Wally from Xavier University will be the first from his family to graduate college and now plans a career in astronomical instrumentation. Wally cites the FAST program as one of the greatest opportunities he has ever had, adding "It allows students like myself, who may not have the means to network with scientific professionals and other students, a chance to truly grow as scientists."

But FAST is not the only program working to build inclusiveness in the SDSS collaboration. This summer, the survey also ran a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The SDSS's REU program provided summer research experiences for underrepresented minority students from around the United States.

Nancy Chanover of New Mexico State University, who coordinated the REU program, explains how "we provided meaningful experiences for students who not only gained insights into the process of doing scientific research, but also learned about other important aspects of the profession such as applying to graduate programs, attending scientific conferences, scientific ethics, and the impostor syndrome.

The students emerged from this summer experience with more confidence in their own abilities to pursue and succeed in STEM career fields." Four of last summer's REU students are presenting work at this week's AAS meeting.

Programs like FAST and REU, which work to recruit underrepresented scientists into the SDSS, are an essential first step, but to ensure that minority scientists stay, the entire collaboration must proactively work towards fostering an inclusive environment. COINS (Committee On Inclusion in SDSS) was formed to ensure a good working environment for the entire collaboration, with a focus on the marginalized members of our community.

Members of COINS actively assist in the running of the FAST and REU programs, and are now developing a new member orientation program. In addition, COINS is working with the SDSS management council to write a code of conduct and work towards more inclusive and accessible collaboration meetings. With these three joint efforts, SDSS is working towards a better, more inclusive astronomical collaboration.

Developing a scientific community in the United States that is representative of the nation at large will unleash a store of scientific talent that is currently not fully tapped. By presenting the experiences of the SDSS in fostering this talent through the FAST and REU programs, and in developing a more inclusive collaboration and project, SDSS can pass along the lessons it has learned and the model it has developed to other large collaborations of the future.

Current SDSS Director Michael Blanton, says, "With the astronomical programs of the 2020s dominated by huge projects, there is a real need for them to 'build in' inclusive policies and programs from the very beginning. We believe that our efforts in SDSS can serve as a model for how to do that."

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