1 January 2013

Report on the National AAS Department Chairs Meeting

Debra Elmegreen Vassar College

The biennial AAS Department Chairs Meeting was held in Chicago on Saturday, 3 November 2012, with about 35 chairs attending from around the nation. The meeting was sponsored by the AAS and organized by Jerry Sellwood (Rutgers) and David Kieda (Utah), with assistance from Jeri Cochran (U. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). AAS President David Helfand and Executive Officer Kevin Marvel represented the Society.

Jim Ulvestad gave an update on the NSF response to the Portfolio Review report on the Astronomy Division, explaining the thorough process and difficult decisions required in the current fiscal climate, and reviewing the implications and details during a lengthy discussion afterwards. Bill Smith from AURA circulated the AURA response to the NSF Portfolio review, which expressed concerns regarding the rapid pace of facility divestiture outlined in the NSF portfolio review, and the need to allow sufficient time to explore the formation of potential private consortia to run facilities on behalf of interested parties.

David Helfand discussed some new ideas for the AAS, including soliciting feedback on ways to increase AAS reach and visibility in astronomy departments across the country.

These ideas will be detailed in upcoming Newsletters. Debra Elmegreen highlighted the current status of the AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program, due to launch with a workshop at the Long Beach meeting in January and a website for sharing ideas, outreach experiences, and resources.

The chairs discussed mutual topics of interest, such as the development of new partnerships and consortia to manage telescopes that may lose federal funding, growth and attrition of astronomy faculty positions, changing demographics, qualifications and numbers of graduate school admittees, increased challenges in supporting graduate students through the duration of their degree program, the requirements and training in graduate school, outreach efforts, and meeting the needs of astronomy students who face increasingly wider-ranging jobs after graduation. Some of the major points are summarized below so that everyone can benefit from the useful information exchange.

Discussion on master’s programs
The chairs discussed the potential advantages of master’s programs, which provide advanced training either for eventual Ph.D. pursuit or for future astronomy-related jobs. Bill Herbst noted that Wesleyan’s Master's Program continues to seek committed students of high promise who might benefit from the extra time and assistance their course of studies provides. In addition to course work, each student writes an M.A. thesis. These students go on to Ph.D. programs or to careers in research support, education, outreach and other science-oriented fields. Women and minorities are particularly encouraged to apply. Phil Kaaret noted that Iowa also has a Master's program in Astronomy. Recent Masters of Astronomy have gone on to careers as varied as research scientist in electro-optics, officer-instructor in the Navy, and video game programmer (see http://astro.physics.uiowa.edu/).

Kelly Holley-Bockelmann discussed the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to- Ph.D. Bridge program, which was initiated to give underrepresented students with undergraduate STEM degrees, but who require additional coursework or training before beginning Ph.D. -level work, the preparation needed to earn a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy. By completing an MA degree at Fisk University under the one-on-one guidance of faculty mentors, Bridge students develop the strong academic foundation and research skills that will foster a successful transition to the Ph.D. The program, which usually requires two years, is flexible and tuned to the goals and needs of each student. Courses are selected to address gaps in preparation, and students delve into research that develops and demonstrates their full scientific potential. Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted over 50 underrepresented minority students (55% female), with a retention rate of 92%. Since Bridge students began earning their degrees in 2010, the program has led the country in awarding Ph.D.s to underrepresented minorities in physics and astronomy, and is making a vitally important contribution to the astronomy workforce (see http://www.vanderbilt.edu/gradschool/bridge/).

Dave Kieda briefly discussed the Professional Science Master’s of Science program (PSM, http://www.npsma.org/), which has developed joint programs in Science and management of Technology with an emphasis of integration into business and industry. The University of Utah has offered a PSM degree (http://pmst.utah.edu/) since 2000, enrolling about 20 students per year in the two-year degree program. Students choose a particular emphasis such as computational science, science instrumentation, nanotechnology, environmental science, or biotechnology, and complete a formal internship as part of the degree program. Students pay full tuition to complete the degree program; this allows the program to cover its management costs. The PSM program has graduated over 100 students to date, providing an alternate career path to students interested in the career benefits of a graduate degree in the sciences, with an emphasis on application to business, industry and government, rather than academia.

Mitch Begelman noted that Colorado has discussed the establishment of a joint master's program on instrumentation for space and upper atmospheric platforms in collaboration with the Aerospace Engineering and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences dept. The idea is that aerospace companies would pay for employees to do this degree. However, the department decided not to proceed because they felt that they would need to offer a new layer of courses between the undergrad and Ph.D. level courses (the Master's students would not have adequate physics preparation to take the sequence of fluids and plasma courses) and they don't see a way to get the additional faculty needed. They were also skeptical that an adequate market exists.

Discussion on graduate school admissions
Criteria for graduate school admission were discussed in order to compare practices among different departments, and to help inform chairs from primarily undergraduate institutions. Danny Dale remarked that at Wyoming, a student with a threshold of 30% on the physics GRE is likely to do well on both the qualifier and in the Ph.D. research. Below that, it is hit-and-miss. The department frequently does accept students below 30%, especially if someone comes from a good liberal arts college but didn't necessarily receive a full suite of undergraduate physics courses. Similarly, Tereasa Brainerd noted an historical review of Boston University Astronomy Ph.D. candidates, which showed that as long as a student's GRE Physics score was higher than about 25% to 30%, there was little correlation with the student's success in the program. When the GRE Physics score was lower than 20%, students tended to struggle in the program and were frequently unable to pass the department's written comprehensive exam. BU's acceptance rate for graduate applications is about 15%.

Dave Kieda commented that using the GRE as a proxy for the common exam may have unintended consequences. Using the Physics GRE to select both physics and Astronomy graduate students in a common admissions pool tends to handicap admission of students with astronomy undergraduate backgrounds since the typical undergraduate astronomy curriculum is not as strongly aligned to the Physics GRE exam content. There is a known gender and minority bias with the exam. Several other departments echoed these sentiments about physics GREs; some are considering dropping the GRE requirement or counting it as the qualifying exam. Many emphasized the importance of other indicators such as a proven ability to be engaged in research.

Discussion on departments
Several departments discussed telescope consortia partnerships such as with DCT, WIYN, MDM, ARC (APO), SALT, SMARTS, and SOAR. Tereasa Brainerd announced that Boston University has recently become the first permanent scientific partner with Lowell Observatory in the Discovery Channel Telescope. Other partners (currently with shorter term commitments than BU) are the University of Maryland, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Toledo. Lowell Observatory is currently seeking additional partners, with a preference for that partner to be a single university.

Jonathan Williams reported that the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii is a large research institute spread over three islands. The tight budgets of recent years have affected the Institute in several ways, most notably with the potential closure of telescope facilities on Mauna Kea, but also through delays in replacement of retiring faculty and the size of incoming graduate classes. More positively, the Institute is expanding its instrumentation program on the Big Island, looking forward to the ATST on Maui, and beginning an undergraduate major at the main Hawaii campus on Oahu.

Many physics or combined physics and astronomy departments are recognizing the usefulness of having separate astronomy tracks. Jerry Sellwoood reported that Rutgers has a single Physics & Astronomy graduate program, but with separate options with different course and degree requirements. The astronomy curriculum has just been revised. The candidacy exam is based on a review of an active area of research and is designed to lead in to an early start to research. Rutgers has recently expanded its faculty with several younger very active members who are keen to take on new students. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann noted that Vanderbilt has begun the process to offer a separate Ph.D. in astrophysics within the Department of Physics and Astronomy. This Ph.D. would still require physics courses such as Math Methods, but would implement a more rigorous astronomy curriculum by requiring the five current astronomy graduate courses to earn a Ph.D. Students seeking admission into the astrophysics Ph.D. program would be evaluated on the potential to do meaningful research, with only a minimal focus on the GRE score. If approved, the program should officially begin to offer admission to applicants as early as Fall 2014. Phil Kaaret announced that the University of Iowa offers a new sub-track in Astronomy for the Physics Ph.D. The majority of required course work is in astronomy and the qualifying exam can be passed via the Physics GRE.
Snezana Stanimirovic noted that the Department of Astronomy at Wisconsin has a policy for astronomy grad student medical and family leave, and are discussing a similar policy for postdoctoral researchers:

Discussion on undergraduate education
Joel Bregman reported that the Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan has established an interdisciplinary astronomy major and minor, designed for students interested in astronomy, but who do not intend to continue to graduate school. It is designed for students seeking to develop the kind of broad understanding of astronomical principles and practice ideal for technical positions in astronomy or for careers like teaching, science writing, and outreach. It does not require the full math and physics sequence, and students can take a limited number of courses on topics such as the philosophy of science, the history of cosmology, or physics for educators.

Mitch Begelman noted that the Colorado undergraduate major, started only a decade ago, now has upwards of ~175 students. Part of the attractiveness is that we offer two tracks, an Astrophysics track for students intending to do a Ph.D., and an astronomy track aimed at students interested in careers K-12 STEM education, science writing, image processing, etc. The difference is mainly the level of math required and a couple of advanced physics courses.  Many students in both tracks are interested in an Honors degree and in doing a senior thesis, as well as research projects earlier in the program. One challenge is to try to match up students with research projects, and particularly whether we can offer worthwhile research experiences for students who are not at the straight-A level.

Debra Elmegreen (Vassar), Bill Herbst (Wesleyan), and Karen Kwitter (Williams) noted that the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium of 8 East Coast liberal arts colleges, which originally started with funding from the Keck Foundation and now is an NSF REU program, has had over 250 undergraduate summer research students (about 50% female) since its founding in 1990.

Discussion on outreach and efforts beyond the department
Many departments are very active in local outreach efforts. Dave Kieda noted that the University of Utah has been building a very successful Public Education and Outreach program through a combination of state and private funding. The University of Utah Astronomy program recently received a $100K grant from the W. L. Eccles Foundation to upgrade their on-campus observatory for weekly public star parties, public use of the Frisco Peak Observatory, and special events with national coverage (e.g., Venus transit, annular eclipse, Curiosity landing on Mars). These events have each attracted 1000+ people from the general community, and have substantially increased undergraduate student enrollment in astronomy classes and astronomy majors.

Mitch Begelman noted that the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences collaborates with the Physics Department on a seminar series for undergrads and grad students, exploring career opportunities outside academia. The speakers are typically alumni who have followed various career tracks. This program was started as the outreach/educational component of an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship but has been taken over by other postdocs who have volunteered their time.  The interdisciplinary research institute JILA, which includes astrophysics, physics and chemistry, has a similar program.

Snezana Stanimirovic (Wisconsin) noted that there is also an ACS-sponsored Chemistry Ambassadors program, designed to provide community outreach in chemistry (like the AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program):

Future chairs meetings
The departmental chairs and representatives enjoyed the lively discussions and exchange of ideas and department insights during this meeting. However, many expressed the desire for more departments to participate in future meetings so that we have more complete geographic and large university representation. Mark your calendars to attend the next meeting in late fall 2014!