25 April 2023

Introducing the New John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow

Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)

A headshot of Yaswant, wearing white button down with his arms crossed. He is wearing black glasses, and is smiling at the camera.

Hi! My name is Yaswant Devarakonda, and I am honored to introduce myself as your new John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow. I’m very excited to move up to Washington, DC, after spending the last 25 years of my life in Texas. I grew up near Houston, then completed my bachelor’s at The University of Texas at Austin, and I just submitted my PhD dissertation at Texas A&M on the ultraviolet and optical properties of Type Ia supernovae. The past few months have been a whirlwind as I wrapped up both my PhD work and all the furniture in my apartment, only to be immediately thrown into the 2023 Congressional Visits Day (CVD) in just my second day of work. But I am excited to tackle this opportunity, and I am proud to be advocating for the AAS and the field of astronomy.   

My journey into advocacy, like much of life’s journeys, feels like a series of happy accidents. What was meant to be a one-year term as the departmental senator in the Graduate and Professional Student Government at Texas A&M turned into three years as a senator and one year as the co-chair of the Advocacy Committee. That experience allowed me to apply my knowledge and skillset to challenges not traditionally found in academia, challenges that I found to be just as fulfilling as solving a difficult research problem. Then in the summer of 2022 I was faced with a new challenge: talking to Congress and White House offices about astronomy during the AAS CVD. In another one of life’s happy accidents, I was called up to participate after another Texas A&M graduate student had to drop out at the last minute. It ended up being one of the most exhausting yet rewarding events in my life (my PhD defense takes top place). It also opened my eyes to a whole set of career opportunities beyond the traditional academic route. Luckily, I happened to be in the perfect institution to switch paths. Several of my fellow graduate students at Texas A&M now work in science policy for various organizations in DC, and I had professors like Dr. Nicholas Suntzeff and Dr. Robert Kennicutt who were always happy to talk about their own experiences with science policy. Armed with my own army of advisors, I avidly applied to be an advocate for astronomy. 

Our field is at a fascinating point where it must grapple with its past and prepare for the future. Many of our great successes were achieved due to the exploitation of marginalized communities, who were then excluded from our accolades. As we move forward in our mission to enhance and share knowledge for all of humanity, we must remember to include all of humanity in our pursuit of knowledge. This will require dramatic shifts in our structures and difficult conversations with our peers. However, these changes are necessary; we have just one life to make a positive impact on our world, while the stars will shine for another day with or without our notice.  

There are many hurdles on our horizon that we must deal with as well. The rise of satellite constellations poses an existential threat to our field in the form of light pollution and interference. However, they also hallmark a new era of space exploration, one in which we will need to decide how to balance our scientific, cultural, and practical usages of space. Just as we take great care of our utilization of space, so too must we take great care of our home planet. Transforming our vision of the future into an inclusive and sustainable future will require significant time and effort, but as the new Bahcalll fellow, I look forward to working with the AAS and the greater community to expand our understanding of the universe and to improve our place in it.