Search form

C. Megan Urry
AAS President
Yale University
Meg Urry

As Incoming President of the AAS for the past year or so, I’ve been asked what major initiatives the AAS should undertake. Here’s one of the most important: building better links between the academy and industry. I would like to see the AAS connect students and professors in universities with astronomers across the world who are employed in other places — in aerospace, computing, finance, Internet start-ups, wherever. Many astronomy alumni have found interesting, rewarding work outside the academy. Let’s celebrate their contributions and tap into their wide-ranging expertise; connect employers with young people looking for a challenge; and (as needed) reconnect alumni with the American Astronomical Society, which will be better and stronger with a broader membership.

The skills we acquire in training to be astronomers are incredibly valuable. The CEO of a data-mining company once told me his hiring priorities: first astronomers, then physicists, then economists. Astronomers and physicists, he explained, understood statistics and had strong quantitative skills, and astronomers had a slight edge because they were more familiar with "big data." A former postdoc who worked with me on blazars and who now works in government consulting said his current job is similar in many ways to his astronomical research: to answer a complex question he had to figure out what data were needed, find and analyze those data, determine the answer, and write it up in a report. He said he loved the challenge and the variety. Indeed, I have yet to meet an astronomer employed outside academia who doesn’t enjoy his or her choice.

Of course, professors love their jobs, too, so it’s not surprising they encourage their students to consider becoming faculty. I know I do. But even with strong growth in the number of astronomy faculty positions over the past 20 years (in part because physics departments are hiring astronomers), there is not a faculty job waiting for every newly minted PhD. That’s kind of obvious: unless every professor educates on average only one student per 40-year career, she has over-reproduced herself. Every first-year graduate student can do the math: for every PhD graduate to obtain a faculty position, the field has to support exponential growth.

In my view, however, this is not a crisis, and decreasing the supply at the front end (i.e., in graduate-student admissions) would be a mistake. It’s a feature, not a bug, that we give students the opportunity to learn and to grow and, as postdocs, to demonstrate individually what they can do. During this process, plenty of students decide that the academic life is not for them and look for other options.

The problem is, we don’t currently give students enough information about alternative careers. (The AAS Employment Committee, chaired by Kelle Cruz, does a terrific job of disseminating this kind of information, but she and I are eager to do more.) This is mostly because professors know about their own paths, so that is what we teach our students. Some of us bring alumni back to talk to students about alternatives, but that’s not enough.

The American Astronomical Society exists to serve its members. A large fraction of its members are young people. Young people are concerned about employment. We simply have to do better, to create a network linking young astronomers-in-training with the vast array of astronomy alumni currently working outside academia.

These astronomers have a lot to offer the AAS, far beyond giving jobs to newly minted astronomers. Can we tap the enthusiasm that brought them to astronomy in the first place? Astronomers constitute a small, friendly community. It’s ideal for a tight network.

And it’s unfortunate when we give our students the impression that a faculty job is the only satisfactory endpoint for an astronomer-in-training. It’s understandable  we know the path we trod and are relatively clueless about employment outside the academy  but there are many other important and interesting jobs well matched to the astronomy skill set.

For example, leading Internet companies created the six-week Insight postdoctoral training fellowship to bridge the gap between academia and a career in data science. It’s highly competitive (only 20 of ~500 applicants are accepted to each session), and so far, 100% have been hired by those same companies at the end of the program. A recent Yale astronomy PhD, Nhung Ho, returned to campus to give a professional development seminar about her experience in the Insight program. Interestingly, she noted that about 40% of the Fellows were astronomers, compared to ~20% from engineering, 20% from biology, 10% from math/statistics, and 10% from social science.

Just talk to the chief operating officer of MediaMath, Ari Buchalter, formerly a postdoc in theoretical astrophysics at Caltech. He loves his job. Last January he told Congressional staffers, as part of an AAS-organized briefing on Capitol Hill, about the valuable skill set he learned as an astronomer, the number of jobs he has created, and how contemplating the universe informed his approach to business.

Wouldn’t it be great if we linked alumni like Ari (who I am happy to report is a current AAS member!) with astronomy students and postdocs who would love working on some of the challenges facing companies outside astronomy?

This is one of my prime interests as AAS President. Let’s explore how the AAS can connect to and serve members whose career aspirations take them outside the academy.

So, to astronomers whose training led you to a career in industry: please stay with us or, if your membership has lapsed, come back! We want your input, we want you to mentor younger astronomers, and we want to understand your astronomically informed experience of the world outside universities.

To young people looking at alternative careers: we will be doing more to inform you about converting from the career path your professors know about (being a professor) to the world of other opportunities out there. I’ll say more about this in future columns.

To corporate members of the AAS: tell us how we can partner with you to create better linkages. After all, where else can you find such concentrated, high-level talent as in the AAS?

To every AAS member: I’m interested in your thoughts. The AAS is a society that exists to serve you. Tell me, tell your Council representatives, tell our Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, what you think. We want to hear from you!

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer
American Astronomical Society

If you're a fan of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of 11-12 August, you might be excited by the new Moon shown on 10 August in the 2014 AAS Wall Calendar. After all, it implies dark skies all night, making for prime meteor-watching conditions.

Sadly, though, the 10 August new Moon is a misprint. The symbol for a full Moon should be shown on that date instead. In fact, the Perseids will occur this year in full moonlight, which will wash out all but the brightest meteors.

We apologize for the error and look forward to next year's Perseid shower, which really will occur without interference from moonlight (new Moon occurs on 14 August 2015).

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer
American Astronomical Society

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) recently announced its 2014 class of Fellows. This honor is given to individual AGU members who have made exceptional scientific contributions and attained acknowledged eminence in the fields of Earth and space sciences.

Since the establishment of the AGU Fellows program in 1962, and in accordance with AGU bylaws, no more than 0.1 percent of the total membership of AGU is recognized annually.

Among the 62 individuals elected as 2014 Fellows are two AAS members:

  • Alexander G. Kosovichev, Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, Stanford University, California
  • Thomas N. Woods, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder

They and the other new Fellows will be recognized during a ceremony on Wednesday, 17 December, held during the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 62,000 members in 142 countries.

Adapted from an AGU press release dated 29 July 2014.

Bruce Balick
University of Washington, Seattle


There comes a time in the lives of some academics when they wonder whether they are a happy fit into their department (or similar professional unit). To quote from an article in Status by Meg Urry, "Many of us have worked in unpleasant environments. What happens? You spend a lot of time thinking about the sources of friction, complaining to yourself and to others about the bad things that have happened, trying to calm distraught colleagues so they won't leave."

Frustrated department members must wonder whether they or the larger unit are to blame. Then they ask whether there are some objective standards that are useful for answering this question.

Yes, there are.

A report (PDF) developed over several years of interviews for the ADVANCE project is a thoughtful 3½-page effort to describe the attributes of an ideal department and its leadership. The document serves other useful purposes as well: it provides (1) useful standards of good behaviors that can assist people who are evaluating the quality their working environment and (2) some appropriate talking points for discussions with their academic leaders. The report touches on the characteristics of vision, resources, leadership, student learning, scholarship, collegiality, environment, and spirit that are found in happy units. However, the document is more a description of characteristics than a recipe for action.

I received this report a decade ago from the ADVANCE program when I chaired our department. To this day it's posted on my office wall. As chair I used this report to set agendas. Today I quietly use it to chart our progress.

Another very useful document, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) 2010 Executive Summary, summarizes the responses of a well-designed multi-university job-satisfaction survey whose outcomes are highly specific to the the entire faculty at a major research university in late 2009. The main sections cover tenure practices and expectations, the nature of work responsibilities (especially teaching), support for childcare and the family, and institutional climate/culture/collegiality. The report's conclusions consist of priority areas needing improvement; the report doesn't identify steps for making change. (Look for the five-page executive summary in the middle of the document.)

One vital topic that isn't covered in these documents is the way in which a concerned department acts in order to nurture the careers of its newest members. A vintage (1993) but timeless article by Marjorie Olmstead, written at the start of her career in the Physics Department at the University of Washington, provides suggestions to chairs about best practices for mentoring young faculty. The four categories of her report are (1) clarifying expectations for tenure, (2) facilitating resources to meet these expectations (with subsections on research, teaching, and service), (3) providing frequent and accurate feedback, and (4) expediting progress toward promotions.

"The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life."
       — Hubert H. Humphrey

"There is no substitute for caring leadership."
       — Edmund Bertschinger, MIT

These are little more than platitudes unless and until we actually commit to drinking the right medicine. Any such effort must derive much of its energy, enthusiasm, engagement, enterprise, and perseverance from younger, busy stakeholders who will be tomorrow's departmental leaders.

Crystal M. Tinch
Communications Manager
American Astronomical Society (AAS)

The current deadline for submitting observing proposals to the National Solar Observatory is 15 August 2014 for the fourth quarter of 2014.

Information is available from the NSO Telescope Allocation Committee at P.O. Box 62, Sunspot, NM 88349 for Sacramento Peak (SP) facilities ( or P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726 for Kitt Peak (KP) facilities ( Instructions may be found at A Web-based observing-request form is at Users' manuals are available at for the SP facilities and for the KP facilities. An observing-run evaluation form for the SP facilities can be obtained at

Please note that NSO will conduct cycle 3 of the Dunn Solar Telescope (DST) Service Mode Operations in October at Sacramento Peak in preparation for Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) operations. Cycle 3 will be dedicated to the observation of solar flares. Only November and December 2014 will be available for regular scheduling at Sacramento Peak.

Proposers are reminded that each quarter is typically oversubscribed, and it is to the proposer's advantage to provide all information requested to the greatest possible extent no later than the official deadline. Observing time at US national observatories is provided as support to the astronomical community by the National Science Foundation.

Lisa J. Storrie-Lombardi

Key Dates:

  • Large & Exploration Science Letters of Intent Due: 28 August 2014
  • Proposal Deadline: 29 October 2014, 4:00 pm PDT

On behalf of NASA and the Spitzer Space Telescope project, the Spitzer Science Center (SSC) at Caltech is pleased to announce the release of the Cycle 11 call for proposals (CP). Both the NASA Astrophysics and Planetary Science Divisions are providing support for Spitzer operations. The Cycle 11 CP solicits Exploration Science (ES) General Observer, regular General Observer (GO), and Snapshot proposals. Cycle 11 programs will execute in the February 2015 - September 2016 time frame. We expect to select 6,700-9,200 hours of scheduling priority 1 programs and 1,000 hours of priority 2 snapshot programs.

Major changes in the Cycle 11 call for proposals, compared to previous cycles, are summarized in the Executive Summary.

Priority in the selection of Cycle 11 will be given to programs that highlight:

  • Astro2010 science themes
  • Planetary science programs observing targets in our solar system.
  • Investigations that concentrate on developing the scientific landscape that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will explore, or that will help maximize the JWST scientific return.

In this cycle proposers are especially encouraged to consider compelling planetary science campaigns (long-term/multiple observations) that focus on the changing nature of solar system objects over time. Many of these objects are possible future mission targets as outlined in the most recent planetary decadal survey. Proposers should identify how these observations contribute to the body of scientific knowledge needed to help refine objectives for future missions and aid in the understanding of the origin or evolution of the targeted body. These major observing projects should be of lasting importance to the broad planetary community with the Spitzer observational data yielding a substantial and coherent database that can also be used by subsequent planetary researchers.

All programmatic and technical information for Cycle 11 is available electronically from the Proposal Kit section of the Spitzer Science Center website.

Investigators worldwide from all types of institutions are eligible to submit proposals in response to this CP. Joint Hubble Space Telescope or Chandra observations can be proposed as part of a Spitzer Cycle 11 proposal.

All proposals must be submitted electronically using Spot, the SSC proposal planning and submission software. The S19 version of Spot is available from the SSC website and via the auto-update feature in Spot. Proposers must use this version of the software to submit their proposals. The required Cycle 11 proposal templates will be available at the Proposal Kit website in late August, and the proposal submission system will also open at that time.

Any questions should be addressed by email to the Spitzer Helpdesk.

Daniel Wolf Savin
Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory

The AAS Laboratory Astrophysics Division (LAD) Prize Committee seeks nominations for the inaugural Laboratory Astrophysics Prize. If you want to honor a mentor or colleague, the LAD officers encourage you to follow the nomination guidelines given below by the deadline of 29 August 2014 for full consideration this year.

The Laboratory Astrophysics Prize is presented, normally on an annual basis, to an individual who has made significant contributions to laboratory astrophysics over an extended period of time. The prize will include a cash award, a citation, and an invited lecture by the recipient at a meeting of the Laboratory Astrophysics Division.

Any nominees not selected for the award will be automatically considered by the next two consecutive Prize Committees. The award recipient for 2015 will be announced in Fall 2014, and the presentation will be made at a future LAD meeting.

The nomination must include a one-page narrative description of the significant aspects of the nominee's career, a curriculum vitae, a publication list, and any other material the nominators think will be helpful. Nominators must also request two additional supporting letters from knowledgeable colleagues. All nomination material should be sent by the deadline directly to the LAD Secretary (

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer
American Astronomical Society

Some of science's most powerful statements are not made in words. From Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man to Rosalind Franklin's X-rays, science visualization has a long and literally illustrious history. Illustrations provide the most immediate and influential connection between scientists and other citizens and are the best hope for nurturing popular interest. They are a necessity for public understanding of research developments.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Popular Science are cosponsors of the long-running Visualization Challenge, now called The Vizzies. The competition, which runs through 30 September 2014, aims to recognize some of the most beautiful visualizations from the worlds of science and engineering.

Visualization Challenge participants can submit their entries in one or more of five categories:

  1. Photography
  2. Video
  3. Illustration
  4. Posters & Graphics
  5. Games & Apps

The Experts' Choice winner in each category will be awarded $2,500, and a People's Choice prize of $1,000 goes to the best overall entry.

Expert judges appointed by NSF and Popular Science will select a winner in each of the five categories.

Contest results will be publicly announced in Popular Science and on in March 2015, and Popular Photography will recognize the winning photo. NSF will also publish the names of the winners on its website.

We urge you and your colleagues to enter the competition now! If you have questions, please contact

NOTE: NSF previously cosponsored the competition with the AAAS journal Science. The competition was formerly named the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge (SciVis).

Adapted from the NSF website.

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer
American Astronomical Society

The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science announced on 28 July 2014 new requirements for the management of digital research data. The new requirements, outlined in a Dear Colleague letter from Patricia Dehmer, acting director of DOE's Office of Science, are in response to a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy directive.

All proposals submitted to the Office of Science for research funding will be required to include a data management plan that describes whether and how the digital research data generated through the course of the proposed research will be shared and preserved. The new requirements will appear in solicitations issued on and after 1 October 2014 and will apply to proposals from all organizations including academic institutions, DOE National Laboratories, and others. The requirements do not apply to applications to use Office of Science user facilities.

More information and guidance is available at

Adapted from an announcement received from Kate Bannan, DOE Office of Science