27 April 2021

Professional Development Through Access to Diverse Viewpoints: Creating a More Inclusive Career Panel

Daina Bouquin Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The John G. Wolbach Library at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) combines the collections of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, forming one of the world’s preeminent astronomical collections. Wolbach is unique in that its staff provides access to these collections and other shared resources to an exceptionally broad community including Smithsonian researchers and staff, Harvard faculty and staff, students, postdocs, the international astronomy community, and the public. Wolbach librarians believe that the resources they provide should include professional development opportunities that support their community’s rapidly evolving research, teaching, and learning needs, as well as foster physics identity1 among people who have been traditionally underrepresented in the field. Indeed, one of Wolbach’s guiding principles aims to acknowledge this very human aspect of astronomical pursuits stating that:

“Astronomy is a human endeavor, and the Wolbach Library sees people as the most valuable resource at the CfA. The Library therefore prioritizes people and astronomers’ human needs when making decisions about our collections, services, and projects.”

In keeping with this principle, in 2017 the Wolbach Library requested funds from the AAS-EPD Mini-Grant Program to host a career panel that would reflect not only the diversity of career paths astronomers take, but also the diversity of the community itself.


In 2014, a professional development survey at the CfA revealed that members of the community ranked data management and software development among the most important skills that professional development at the CfA should support. To further understand the community’s goals, Wolbach librarians also completed in-depth interviews with postdocs, graduate students, staff scientists, and Harvard faculty throughout 2015 to identify more precisely what additional resources the library should focus on trying to provide for the community. These interviews and survey results not only highlighted the need for technical training, but also showcased the great value of presentation skills development and professional networking opportunities like career panels. At the time these findings had been further supported by multiple studies focusing on women in astronomy with one study concluding that “networking and human support are among the most important factors for success” in astronomy careers.2

The feedback received through these assessments led Wolbach Library to seek and obtain ad hoc support from CfA leadership throughout 2016 and into 2017 for training sessions in the library on skills like managing research software more efficiently and scientific data visualization, as well as ways to take full advantage of tools such as AstroPy. Wolbach also obtained funding for training sessions on science communication and public speaking, in addition to hosting a small career panel made up of local volunteers. Feedback gathered through short follow-up surveys after these events had been extremely positive, however, it was abundantly clear that additional resources would be needed to host a more inclusive and representative career panel to support the community. The first panel, while well-attended and well-received, was predominantly made up of people who identified as male, white, able-bodied, native English speakers, who did not represent many of the early career researchers present at the CfA who would benefit from access to a more inclusive and representative panel of speakers. The costs of supporting travel, lodging, and honoraria had hindered Wolbach’s ability to improve on this situation, and internal funding was not made available, which led the Library to seek support from the AAS in 2018.

Help from the AAS-EPD Mini-Grant Program

Wolbach Library’s request to the AAS for resources to organize a more diverse career panel made it possible to support a new cohort of panelists who traveled to the CfA in November 2018 to discuss their work and share their experience with the community. The goal in compiling potential panelists was to more adequately represent a variety of career trajectories and many different identities and perspectives from people whose careers began in astronomy. Developing a list of potential panelists relied heavily on resources developed by groups that advocate for underrepresented people in the field (e.g., Astronomy in Color), as well as community outreach and input from early career researchers at the CfA. Because our proposal could not be fully funded, it was necessary to reach out to panelists one at a time to determine both their willingness to participate in the panel and their availability. Invitees who in the end were unable to participate were incredibly gracious and often were willing to make recommendations as to potential panelists who could take their spots. In the end, we were fortunate enough to develop a fantastic list of panelists. Members of the community could sign up to meet with them both after the event and throughout the day.

●    Regina Jorgenson 
CfA career panel       Director, Maria Mitchell Observatory, Maria Mitchell Association
      Regina is the Director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory. She uses quasar absorption line spectroscopy to study galaxy formation and advocates for underrepresented groups in STEM.
●    Kelly Lockhart 
      Back end software engineer, NASA Astrophysics Data System, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
      Kelly works with the NASA Astrophysics Data System, focusing on microservices and pipeline development, community outreach, and user support.
●    Cara E. Rakowski 
      Primary Examiner, US Patent and Trademark Office
      Cara studied Physics and Astronomy and as a post-doc conducted X-ray and optical studies of supernova remnants. Cara is now a patent examiner at the USPTO focusing on "optical elements'' like holograms.
●    Alejandro Soto 
      Research Scientist, Southwest Research Institute
      Alejandro is a planetary scientist and engineer who studies the atmospheric dynamics of planets and who develops instruments to study these atmospheres.
●    O.J. Tucker 
      Research Space Scientist, Planetary Studies NASA Goddard
      O.J. develops numerical models to study rarefied atmospheres in support of Goddard mission science and data analyses. The goal is to understand the evolution of solar system bodies.

One other aspect of planning for the 2018 career panel was compiling questions and structuring the event. With input from volunteer graduate students, postdocs, and CfA staff, we decided to have panelists introduce themselves, including their background in astronomy and current job, and to then answer these complete-the-sentence statements:

  • The hardest part of getting a job was…
  • I wish I’d done this to prepare…
  • The biggest mistake I made was…
  • I could have been more efficient in finding a job if…
  • I agreed to be on this panel today because I want you to know that…
  • If you hear nothing else I say today, remember that...

Learning from Experience

The panel was a success on many fronts. First, the feedback Wolbach received from attendees was positive and specifically appreciative of the efforts we made to bring new people and perspectives to the CfA. Wolbach also received encouraging messages simply thanking us for organizing the event, and requesting that we stream future events so more people could participate and ask panelists follow-up questions. Second, it gave Wolbach staff useful, practical experience when it comes to things like administering reimbursements (both for participant travel and for the administration of grant funds) and estimating the expenses inherent to executing such events. With the resources on hand, it was not possible to invite international participants, and in 2018 we had not been considering ways to run a fully remote panel, but the suggestion that we stream future events, the issues we had to address with reimbursements, and the realities now imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, all suggest that we may want to pursue international participation through virtual panels in the future. Wolbach staff also gained useful experience when it came to compiling lists of potential invitees and collaboratively developing prompts for future panels, which was surprisingly complex and challenging. These aspects of planning required more time and discussion than previously anticipated, but we believe the attention we gave these tasks resulted in more effective and constructive outcomes.

These lessons learned have greatly influenced how we plan to build on what we were able to accomplish with AAS-EDP funds. Specifically, the panel’s outcomes were incorporated into a proposal presented to the CfA leadership to establish designated funding for similar professional development opportunities in the coming fiscal year. Although some of the funding outlined in that proposal was allocated for the federal fiscal year 2020, the global disruption caused by the pandemic forced a reassessment of the types of opportunities that Wolbach could provide throughout the year and temporarily stalled progress. This spring, Library staff have been undertaking a new planning process for professional development that will build on what we learned from this past year and our previous panel to make sure early career researchers have the opportunity to learn from diverse viewpoints as we move forward. 

 1 Irving, P. W., & Sayre, E. C. (2013). Physics Identity Development: A Snapshot of the Stages of Development of Upper-Level Physics Students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(4), 68–84.
 2 Fohlmeister, J. and Helling, Ch. (2012), Career situation of female astronomers in Germany. Astron. Nachr., 333: 280–286. doi:10.1002/asna.201211656

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