15 March 2019

What the American Astronomical Society Means to Me

Megan Donahue

Megan Donahue Michigan State Univ.

At its very best, the AAS represents the best of us, its members. We celebrate the scientific highs. Gravitational-wave signatures of merging and unexpectedly massive black holes, electromagnetic signatures detected from merging neutron stars discovered in gamma rays and gravitational waves, Earth-like planets around stars other than our own — these are discoveries we can take great pleasure in, whether we are at the telescope, sifting through online data, or following the news in journals and social media. As members, we share in the joy of discovery, and we can toast the news of astronomical successes with our friends and the public. At our very best, the public shares our excitement and cheers at pictures of Pluto from New Horizons.

A vast amount of the AAS's work happens behind the scenes, out of the spotlight. It is hard work, done by peer reviewers of our journal articles, by our scientific editors, by our volunteer committees, and by the Board of Trustees. The actual number of people directly employed by the AAS is small. The AAS employs the Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, who leads 25 dedicated professionals in Washington, DC, and across the country. You probably also know that the Lead Editors and Scientific Editors of our journals are part-time AAS contractors (30 in all, except for our Editor in Chief, who is an AAS employee), but you might not know that the meetings are supported by a staff of just five people. The AAS Secretary and Treasurer receive small stipends for their labor, but the other officers, committee chairs, and committee members are uncompensated.

Even with these volunteers and a handful of committed employees and contractors, the AAS would not succeed as an organization without the time, energy, and contributions from its members. For every early career award, members take the time to prepare the nomination and write letters of support. Members encourage the candidate to apply or organize the nomination themselves. And members agree to be on the review committees, to read and carefully consider each nomination packet and make a recommendation. When this process works well, we are celebrating the extraordinary accomplishments of teams and individuals. It is not just about one person; it is also about the community that enabled the success of their endeavors.

An American Astronomical Society meeting to me is much like a family reunion, with all the joy, energy, and yes, even the discomfort and heartache that may bring. I love to see people I have known for decades, and by reconnecting with them, I'm once again sharing in their life journey, often one of transformation and success, but sometimes also setbacks and losses. There always seems to be something potentially new and exciting just around the next bend in the trail. I also love seeing our students sharing their exciting scientific discoveries, some of them for the very first time at a major meeting. Surrounded by other scientists, I want them to feel at home, among their science people. I want them to experience the support, encouragement, and mutual respect that arises from this community of encouraging scientists, because we all know that bringing your ideas and work forward for potential criticism is a scary thing. One of the best things we can gift a young student is our curiosity and enthusiasm about their work. Also at these meetings, I am reminded of the astronomers past who are no longer with us, either by chance reference in passing conversations or by their memorials, who gave that gift to me.

Our community is not perfect, and neither is our Society. But as members of a professional organization, we can define and express our highest aspirations and ideals, and we can hold each other to live up to those expectations. We have many challenges before us, from the deep work we need to do as a community to acknowledge and address past and current injustices in our ways of doing science, to the pressing existential threats to us as a species, including our relentless increase of Earth's greenhouse gases despite our knowledge of its dire consequences. As astronomers and scientists, we have a unique and privileged perspective of how we fit into the cosmos. As a community, I am optimistic that we have much to contribute: our science, our ways of creating knowledge, and our passion for sharing and advancing our knowledge of the universe. And it is my aim to take advantage of my relatively short time as AAS President to help us — the American Astronomical Society — do just that.

What Is the AAS?