26 April 2023

An Interview with AAS President-Elect Dara Norman

Ashley Walker Howard University

Dara NormanEarlier this year, AAS members selected Dara Norman to be the next AAS President, and she will begin her term as President-Elect this summer. Ashley Walker, a planetary science PhD student at Howard University and member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), sat down with Dr. Norman to discuss the path that led her to astronomy, the mentors who influenced her, and what she aims to accomplish during her term as AAS president.

This interview has been lightly edited for content, clarity, and length.

Ashley Walker: First of all, I want to say that I am so proud of you and congratulations on your historic win. We’ve worked together quite a few times. I remember formally meeting you at the Seattle meeting in 2019. We were introduced by Dr. Kim Coble. I will never forget that day when Dr. Coble said to me, “Did you meet Dr. Norman? She's also from Chicago.” Every time I see that you’re from Chicago, I get so excited.

The CSMA and the Black in Astro community are extremely ecstatic about your presidency. Since we're both from the south side of Chicago, I want to know more about your upbringing and how that impacted your trajectory.

Dara Norman: Growing up in Chicago, I was always interested in being a scientist. I'm not entirely sure why. But my mother was always very interested in the sky. She was used to seeing a dark sky, and so she was really interested in the space program. So I just became really interested in astronomy and the stars, and I didn't necessarily want to be an astronomer. I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to do science. But what really influenced me in Chicago was the fact that we'd be sitting around outside on a Saturday and for the price of a bus ticket we could just get on the bus and head over to the Museum of Science and Industry. I'm not going to say that we went there with the idea of learning science or anything, but just being able to mess around with the exhibits and hang out there was really influential.

Growing up in a single-parent household, we didn't have a lot of money. So being able to go to these museums, to go to the Adler Planetarium, to do these kind of things in the city, that was huge. And it was a really good way to be introduced to different ideas of science. I fear these days that kids with the background that I came from don't have that anymore, because everything costs a bunch of money to go, and even if you have free days, it's usually in the middle of the week. So I worry about the opportunities especially for folks from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to be able to get interested in science in the way that I did.

Walker: When you were a budding scientist, who were some of the people that you looked up to as you were becoming the scientist as you are today? And who do you currently admire?

Norman: I know this is maybe a little later than you were thinking, but the two people [were] my undergraduate advisor and my mom. My mom grew up in southern New Jersey, in a more rural setting, and she grew up with a dark sky. Now, in Chicago, the sky is not dark; you can see the Moon, maybe you can see the Big Dipper, but you don't see a whole lot of sky in Chicago. In fact, my dad even had asked me how I got interested in being an astronomer, and it really kind of all falls back to my mom and my mom's interest in the space program. When the shuttles would launch, she let us be late to school if one was going to launch in the morning where we could watch it on TV. So, just that kind of interest.

So my mom for one, but then my undergraduate advisor. I was an undergraduate at MIT, and I had a perfectly fine freshman year, and then sophomore year I had such a hard time that I was on academic probation the first semester. But the second semester I decided that I was just going to take classes that I really wanted to take. I took my first astronomy class, and that was actually the first time I had looked through a telescope. The professor for that class was Jim Eliot, and he became my advisor when I declared Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science as my major. He was just so helpful and so considerate, and so interested in helping me succeed. That semester I only took classes that I really wanted to, I did really well, but so, the next year, when he was my advisor, it came time for me to get my schedule signed by him, and he said, “Okay, it's a pretty heavy schedule. I want you to think about which of these classes you're going to drop, and I want you to think about that now.”

My parents both went into the Navy, and I didn't really have somebody to show me how to do college. And Jim was a guide and helped me figure out how. Having him as a guide, someone who actually supported me and cared about where I was going, and how I was doing to the point where, when I moved off campus, he loaned me a bike. I mean just all of it, the whole person, making sure that I would be helped. So those two folks have been the biggest influence in my life as far as going into astronomy.

And then now I would say it's not so much that I admire a single person, but I really admire how our community, especially the up-and-coming minority folks in the community, have really taken on this idea of trying to make the field better for people coming after them, trying to improve the culture in the field. I really admire and appreciate the way that the community of folks have banded together to try and do that. So that's what I really admire about my peers and the folks who have come after me, and how you all, and others like you, have moved the needle forward.

Walker: Looking at your trajectory as a whole is really empowering. You talk about how you didn't know how to move through college, and that’s something that I do notice with a lot of Black and brown people that are first-gen or nontraditional. Your journey has been amazing, especially for a lot of Black women in the field in seeing that you are the first African American woman to receive a PhD at the University of Washington in astronomy, and you worked for NASA Goddard as a post bacc. So seeing that you’re still breaking barriers with this win, becoming the first woman of color to lead the AAS and the first Black person to do so as well, do you see any changes in the field in comparison to previous years?

Norman: It's a funny thing. I remember when I really felt like the field was changing. There are a lot of changes over the course of my tenure as an astronomer, and I remember the meeting, I think it was in Long Beach, and there being more Black folks than I had ever seen before at an AAS meeting. The funny thing was I noticed this when I went to one of the sessions and there were, I think, three other Black people in the session besides me. But the thing about it was not just that they were there. I didn't know two of them. That was huge — there were Black people there that I didn't already know. And that's when I was like “Oh, wow! Something's going on,” and then with all the up-and-coming students and the Black folks in the room, I literally was going to my colleagues and asking, “Have you seen all the Black students here?!”

And of course they were like, “We don't know what you're talking about, Dara.” I'm like, “Are you kidding? There are so many more people here than there have ever been!” and I know they thought I was crazy. But it was so striking that I had to even comment to my friends about it. That moment, I really remember, and then it's just been progress after progress after progress on that front, as far as having minorities be involved in the AAS and involved at meetings and presenting, and it's been so nice to have a community. The CSMA meet and greets that Adam Burgasser and I started — it's so great to go there and see everybody and have an opportunity for everybody to have a community, of being able to network with each other. So yeah, it's really different from when I went to my very first AAS meeting in Boston back when I was an undergraduate.

Walker: This past Pasadena meeting was really exciting, because I never had seen that many people of color at a single AAS meeting. Me and KeShawn almost had tears in our eyes, because we were just like, “Who are all these beautiful people, where did you come from?” In fact, I felt like I was on a campaign trail, seeing so many beautiful students just coming in and saying how they're interested in astronomy. I was like, “Hi, how are you doing? My name's Ashley Walker.” And now I hope that we're able to improve and retain them because it’s fine to recruit, but the problem is the retention.

Norman: Absolutely.

Walker: In the moment that you found out about winning the presidency, what were you doing and how were you feeling?

Norman: The funny thing about it was that the way that I found out was that the person who I was running against, who I have known for many, many years, emailed me to congratulate me on my win. And I was like, “Oh, did I miss something? What happened?”

I was, as usual, at my computer working, and I got an email. That's how I found out, and I will say in the same way as when I was even asked to run, I was like, “Yeah, this would be great,” and “Oh, no! What was I thinking?” So, you know, it's a congratulations, condolences, kind of a victory. I've been involved with the AAS for so long that I'm really looking forward to coming in and finding out what needs to be done. The AAS is doing some amazing things, frankly, and some things that are really in advance of other sister societies. I'm really looking forward both to us improving on those things, but also helping our sister societies move along with us, because I think we've done a lot of things that the rest of the community doesn't really know about and could be beneficial to them.

Walker: What changes do you hope to improve within the community of astronomy, and is there something that you look forward to doing during your presidency?

Norman: I am very interested in data access. It's really where I have put a lot of my professional work these days, trying to make sure that folks that are at smaller places and astronomers of color have access to facilities, access to data, access to data products. We have a lot of data out there, and it's become clear that people could achieve a lot of their scientific goals if you make that data available to them in a way that it is really useful, not just sort of throw it over a wall and say, “Oh yeah, the data is public, good luck!” But that you make it useful. And so, advocating for making sure that that data is available to people, I think, is really important.

I think the AAS has been doing a much better job than when I was younger in promoting workforce options and workforce opportunities where you can go with an astronomy degree. The things beyond the usual professor route you can do, but also the usual professor route, and how to work career development in that route, and all routes. And I do think that having some additional sort of mental health-type of opportunities that we help people just be aware of, that they can get access to in this career development space is also good.

I've seen some really good lectures at the AAS meeting recently on mental health and thinking about how to keep yourself sane as you're moving through this career, and I want to make sure that we really are devoting some effort to workforce development across the board, and in all of the things that we do, both as people — as scientists and researchers who are doing the science — but also just in being people and making sure that the culture values all of us and our work.

Walker: Those are extremely important topics that I am looking forward to seeing you execute, because those things are really needed. Especially with me going to an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and having access to data, I have to go through my advisor who's at Carnegie. We were just on a call, me and some colleagues, and someone was like, “Hey, I just got us this software, this data analysis kit for the institution just in case you all need it.” And the fact that we have to do these things, it kind of limits our capacity of what we can do. So I'm so grateful that these things are being brought to attention.

You've done so much for the community! I didn't want to list everything that you've done, but... you were on the CSMA, you were the NSBP [National Society of Black Physicists] Co-chair, and we were on the NSBP astro committee together. You were on the IGEN Advisory Board. You were the AAS Ethics Task Force chair, and so much more. How do you envision your legacy, and how can the community begin putting efforts towards your legacy?

Norman: So this is a funny question, because I do what I do because I want people coming up behind me to have a better time than I did in the field, and I feel like I've gotten to a point in the field where I'm very comfortable with my role. And, you know, maybe I don't write the most papers, or have the biggest H value, or whatever. But I feel like there are a lot of ways to be an astronomer, and I've charted a path that I think was good for me, and also, again, that I hope that I'm helping the people behind me, and the community, and the culture to be more welcoming of the various pathways that you can be an astronomer, and that you can make a difference in astronomy.

A legacy I would like to see is basically that there's not one way to be an astronomer, and that there are opportunities available for people who decide that they love astronomy, but writing a bunch of papers is not where they want to be. What they want to do is communicate to students, or they want to communicate to the public, or they want to help other astronomers get their data and get their research done. Or they want to go into policy, and they want to make sure that there is funding and opportunity for the people who do want to write a million papers. But I really think that there are a lot of ways to do this, and the more credit we give to all of the people who are making it possible for all of us to do this kind of work, the better the field will be, and the more accessible the field will be. So hopefully that will be part of the legacy that I leave behind.

Walker: Do you have any advice for those folks who want to follow in your footsteps?

Norman: First, don't try to follow in my footsteps. Be true to do what you like to do and what you want to do within this field. If becoming an astronomer eventually takes you beyond or in[to] a different path in the field, be okay with that if that's what you want to do. I think there's not one way to be an astronomer, and there's not one way to be to make a mark in this field, or to be credible as an astronomer. I really would stress to people to be self-aware and be true to yourself.

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