Monday, November 20, 2017

Retaining People of Color in Astronomy: A Video Guide We Should All Watch

Astro twitter was abuzz for days about this talk given by Dr. Nicole Estefania Cabrera Salazar at UT Bash Fest on how to retain minorities in astronomy. I was delighted to see that was videotaped and is now available on YouTube. It was an hour long, so I listened to it podcast-style as I worked on non-writing tasks.

At minute 7:00 she starts going through the various hurtful things she heard as a women of color pursuing a graduate STEM degree. Many (if not all) of these things were said to her in the spirit of genuine helpfulness by her mentors. I had two major realizations while I was listening to her describing how they hurt her instead:

1.) As a white disabled woman, I recognized many of these hurtful things. As a graduate student, I heard them, too. I understood the damage each one does to the psyche intuitively, even before Dr. Cabrera Salazar went on to explain it. I also suffered that damage at one point. The damage added up, compounded itself with mental illness, and it was profoundly career diverting.

2.) Imposter syndrome is something that is done to us. In science it also happens to white men, but it happens more to women, to people of color, to disabled people, and to QUILTBAG folk. It is much more likely to happen to scientists who occupy more than one of these identities, and with such prevalence that it nearly becomes a certainty. This litany of well-intended, harmful things that were said in an honest attempt to help the student is the mechanism by which imposter syndrome happens.

Bullying and abuse has recently been an active topic of discussion in Astronomy, due to the recent spate of very public sexual harassment scandals and one spectacular, department-destroying bullying case. But bullying is a grayer area then sexual harassment: I will continue to argue that most of the people who bullied me in academia were trying to help me, albeit in some self-centered, non-listening way that avoided actually asking me what I needed or wanted and denied my agency. If we simply tell academics that bullying is bad, they will categorically state that they are not bullies-- "I am the most supportive advisor!"-- and continue on their way.

But all of us do it. All of us.

Bullying is embedded in the sociological, cultural fabric of astronomy and physics. We all believe too much in the meritocracy, and in weed-out culture, and in the pre-eminence of Nobel prizes and the need to live up to Einstein and Curie. Even those of us who are actively trying to stop bullying (and yes, of course, that is a prerequisite) aren't going to stop unless someone tells us how.

I've been trying to put together a guide to avoiding bullying on the side, but actually, Dr. Cabrera Salazar has already done a big chunk of the work here. At minute 23:20, she starts talking about what she needed from her mentors as a woman scientist of color. A lot of it is just straight-up active listening. As always, believing people when they talk about their experiences is the primary stumbling block. But actually believing is not a passive task; it takes a little more than simply saying "I believe you".

And believing in someone is even more critical (minute 28:19).

I hope all scientists (and aspiring scientists) will also find time to watch or at least listen to this lecture, because it contained many ah-ha moments for me. We won't succeed at making astronomy more inclusive for scientist of color (and other minorities) until we've learned this stuff and begin teaching it to each other.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

2017 UMD physics graduate mental health survey results

Our guest post today is written by Zach Eldredge. Zach is a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute where he studies quantum information theory. He also serves on the University of Maryland Physics Graduate Student Committee. 
Today's post is a summary of a recent survey conducted at the University of Maryland regarding physics graduate student mental health- Zach can be contacted at for access to the full report and data.

Graduate school is hard. I imagine that’s not news to any academic. Graduate students move across the country or across the world to spend at least five years taking difficult classes, engaging in high-stakes qualifier processes, and producing a thesis of original, worthwhile research. They do all of this in an environment of bad pay, few labor protections, and in an academic culture with an infamously poor sense of work-life balance. Students from marginalized backgrounds have it even worse than those of us from more privileged settings, facing a culture that meets them with hostility both active and passive.
In 2016, the University of Maryland’s Physics Graduate Student Committee, along with our colleagues in the Access Network, decided to start an initiative to address mental health concerns among the graduate population. What became known as the Mental Health Task Force included Abhinav Deshpande, Gina Quan, Steve Ragole, Erin Sohr, and myself -- all graduate students. We soon realized that when it came to mental health, we had a lot of guesses and rough ideas and not so many facts. If pressed, what sort of mental health concerns would we say were most serious? Did we know what people were suffering from, or were we just guessing or extrapolating from our own experience? It was hard to get a handle on the contours of such a private problem.
We decided to start with a survey, to allow people to tell us what their experience was like and what they felt was harmful to them. We would ask people what mental health problems they had experienced, what they’d seen colleagues struggle with, and how they had responded to the stressors in their lives. That way, when we went to department leadership with requests, we would be able to demonstrate the very real phenomena that made action necessary. In this, we were greatly inspired by the Berkeley Graduate Student Well-Being Report, a comprehensive report on graduate mental health undertaken by the Graduate Assembly at UC-Berkeley.
The survey, administered mostly online with a few in-person paper responses, mixed a few different questions: some Likert-scale responses on statements ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” others allowing free responses from respondents. We promised from the start to preserve confidentiality: no individual response would be reported on, only aggregate data.
Our first survey was in May 2016, and then in the 2016-2017 academic year, we had two events focused on raising awareness of mental health concerns. In one event, the head of the University’s Mental Health Center came to speak to our graduate students. We encouraged attendees to break down into small groups and have discussions about what changes could be made.
This May, we repeated the survey, now armed with experience. The 2016 survey had collected very little demographic data – we were skittish about our abilities to analyze it and were worried that asking students with non-dominant identities to share their experiences would run the risk of de-anonymizing their survey response. In 2017, we decided we would ask for more data on respondents’ gender and allow them space to share “other issues raised by your identity,” which we believed would allow people to volunteer information that they wanted to disclose without pushing for information that they didn’t. We also decided to inquire more about not just whether or not people had experienced issues, but whether or not these issues predated their entry to graduate.
All of this allowed us to produce a much more comprehensive report about our 2017 survey than we had in 2016.  The top-line patterns were not too dissimilar between 2016 and 2017; it turns out we hadn’t solved the mental health crisis in the interim. We asked what conditions respondents had experienced, and found that many cited stress anxiety, and depression.
By asking about identity, we also learned a bit more about the particular experiences of marginalized populations, especially women. We received many non-quantifiable stories of harassment, social isolation, and general stress caused by trying to thrive in a department which overall is less than 20% women. It’s impossible to try to analyze our struggles as graduate students with mental health without considering each student’s individual identities—we also heard many stories from nonwhite and non-American colleagues about their feelings of exclusion. The most recent survey made it clear to me that acting on our mental health problem in academia also requires a whole-hearted commitment to equity in physics graduate education. (And, of course, the inverse – creating an inclusive department requires addressing these mental health concerns.)
We also asked respondents, after identifying their mental health issues, whether or not they had been suffering from these before graduate school began. We felt this was an important question: is graduate school attracting those with pre-existing mental illness, or is it creating mental distress? Many of our respondents fell into the second category, specifically saying that their issues arose or worsened during graduate school. We believe that graduate school is specifically worsening mental health outcomes in our department.
Throughout this process, we have been blessed with a supportive departmental leadership which was interested in talking/understanding. This gives us great hope in our efforts to improve mental health, as change in the underlying conditions can come only with their participation and support.  The causes and contributors of the mental distress we saw are deeply ingrained in academic culture, but I believe that at the University of Maryland we are taking the first steps in recognizing and addressing them.
What can be done about problems so pervasive? My first recommendation is to keep doing the survey. We would also love for those at other institutions to carry out similar inventories like ours, so that different institutions can be compared against each other and the conversation can continue to spread in academia. (To that end, please contact me at if you would like to use our survey or analysis code.) In truth, the conversation in academia is still at such an early stage that simply spreading what has already been done to more faculty and departments would be a great step forward.
Beyond that, it is time for faculty to take a hard look at an academic system which has been generated through centuries of tradition. How much of it reflects our knowledge about how best to train and nurture young scientists?  How much of it reflects the reality that most students will not become academics? In general, I have come to believe that apprenticeship is failing our graduate students. We depend heavily on their advisors for job security, research advice, career development, and much else. Even wonderful, well-intentioned advisors cannot necessarily serve every mentorship role that a young scientist needs, especially since faculty receive little training or guidance in how to serve as mentors. Many of our recommendations call for diversifying the pool of people who have a stake in a graduate student’s education. A greater role for non-research advisors can allow for mentorship from someone besides their employer, and established rules of conduct for graduate student labor can lessen the immense variability in working conditions between advisors. Dedicated resources and offices should exist that can mediate between graduate students and professors when disputes or abusive working conditions arise. Graduate students must not be viewed as a source of cheap labor – they must be a part of the academic community, treated as whole and valuable humans. It is our sincere hope that our survey helps light the way toward that future.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Amplifying: Statement on Charlottesville at AiC

The following statement on recent events in Charlottesville, VA, was posted at the Astronomy in Color blog. We at Access: Astronomy add our voices in solidarity. Additional links and resources are included after the statement in the original post.

Dear fellow astronomers,

[Content warning: violence, racism] 

    Two days ago a group of armed white nationalists disrupted the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, with a message filled with racism and hatred. This message was accompanied with deadly acts of violence. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of the media continues to avoid calling this for what it is: white supremacist terrorism. Sadly, the POTUS failed to unambiguously reject these hate groups - many of whom inspire the very base that elected him. These instances confirm to astronomers of color that the executive may not have their safety and interest in mind.

    These acts of violence are used to cause fear amongst people of color in this country, especially Black folks. These acts are not carried out in a vacuum, but rather they are a part of centuries of orchestrated oppression -- a continuation of colonization, slavery, Jim Crow laws, extrajudicial murders by the police and mass incarceration. They are a reflection of a crisis of spirit that this country desperately needs to confront. 

    Within our field these acts hurt members who already feel isolated and excluded, including but not limited to astronomers of color, especially Black students. The mental, physical and emotional toll experienced by them is damaging to their ability to travel freely, to engage in creative scientific work, and above all, to feel truly safe at their home institutions -- especially if those institutions are over-represented by white folks and where a culture of equity and inclusion may not be exercised with intention.  For these reasons, it is critical for astronomy departments around the country and astronomers in leadership positions to do their part to ensure safety and well being.

    As members of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), we unequivocally denounce the acts of violence that took place in Charlottesville. We also resist the historical and systemic reasons that allowed such events to take place. We reject white supremacist narratives that mask hate toward people of color as “freedom of speech.” We urge all astronomers, especially white astronomers, to renew your commitment against racism[1] in our discipline and in your communities. 

    We extend our solidarity to every astronomer of color, especially Black astronomers, during these difficult times. We will continue to do everything we can to protect you and we will fight for you.

Prof. Jorge Moreno
Charee Peters, Ph.D Candidate
Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. Keith Hawkins
Prof. Kate Daniel
Prof. Jillian Bellovary
Prof. Adam Burgasser
Prof. John A. Johnson
Dr. Lia Corrales
Prof. Alyson Brooks
Prof. Kim Coble

The above signatories are private citizens exercising their constitutional right to express their personal views. This is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS and should not be construed as such.
Links and Resources 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Anxiety and Friends: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

We continue our Access Astronomy spotlight on mental health in academia (part1, part2). Today's guest post is written by an anonymous contributor and carries on the anxiety disorder theme to shine a spotlight on OCD. It includes personal anecdotes and the author would prefer to not be identified. Content warning: description of panic attack onset. When not working and writing in support of destigmatizing mental health issues and identifying how to provide support for mental wellness in academia, the author works as an astronomy postdoc.

As in previous posts, this is not intended to be medical advice. Please seek the assistance of a therapist for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

Today, I almost had a panic attack while attending a talk. It’s the first time it’s ever happened at work, and I’m considerably shaken. The speaker was delivering a very casual overview of a project in development and spent some time sharing anecdotes regarding a recent personal health scare that interrupted this work; this particular health scare happens to be the focus of fear and preoccupation whenever I experience a panic attack because the panic attack symptoms mirror those of this medical event. As pictures of the very ill astronomer in the hospital and then their scars while recovering from major surgery appeared on the screen, my stomach dropped to the floor. I began to feel nauseated, light headed; pain began to radiate down from my left shoulder and my chest and back muscles tightened as I drew my shoulders high in some futile effort to protect myself from the incoming tide of dread and sense of impending doom. I tried desperately to talk myself down: “I’m going to be ok.. just breathe, think of something else.. going to be ok.. breathe.. no, definitely not ok. I need to get out. Now.” I left the room, found and took the xanax in my bag. I then sat and waited at my desk, head between knees, for the blessed pharmaceutical to take effect and squash the spike of panic back into the quiescent level of anxiety that I generally am able to live with, taking the other alarming symptoms with it. I’m ok now, very tired and trying not to cry at my desk, but it’s over.

While this particular episode was understandable given my primary trigger was front and center in this talk, generally, panic attacks are not at all predictable. Panic attacks live in the diverse panoply of anxiety disorders, which can include generalized anxiety and specific anxiety-driven conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many of these disorders are comorbid, meaning the likelihood of having one increases if you have another; this makes sense as their root causes lie in anxiety itself, which can manifest in many different ways.

Obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, is an anxiety disorder that centers on discomfort with uncertainty. Since our professions involve so much uncertainty, I’m not surprised to also have this in the list of my brain’s unique specializations. OCD is a distinct condition from Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, OCPD, though they share many traits; I’ll focus here on OCD as it is classified as an anxiety disorder and it is my diagnosed condition. While OCD manifests in many ways, the stereotypical picture that immediately comes to mind is of repeated hand washing. The act of hand washing is referred to as a ritual, and in OCD, rituals are patterns of behavior that sufferers establish and maintain as a means to eliminate or manage the negative thoughts and emotions surrounding sources of uncertainty. Intrusive thoughts, including things like fears that you may harm yourself or someone you love, that you’re a terrible person and going to hell, doubts about important relationships, fears of uncleanliness or impending catastrophe, spur on ritualization. Rituals tend to escalate in their frequency and complexity as eventually the calm they initially brought wears off. If the sufferer does not act to mitigate the effects the intrusive thoughts suggest, it can bring about a sense of despair, panic, despondence, fear, anxiety. A person with OCD lives in a near constant state of fight-or-flight as the amygdala is convinced something bad, as suggested by the intrusive thought, will happen if you don’t act somehow, and that action is ritualization. An OCD sufferer feels they cannot stop, and simply being told to stop doing it causes pain and further anxiety because believe me, they wish they could just stop!

Sometimes the connection between the uncertainty feared and the ritual established in response are relatively clear: my fire phobia rituals include making sure small appliances are unplugged before I leave the house and being extraordinarily cautious with household fixtures that produce fire (wood stoves, candles) or that could somehow cause a fire (clothes dryer, hair dryers, toaster, oven, anything with a pilot light). This also applies to the office- I’ve been known to walk back to the building from the parking garage to ensure I unplugged things in my office. I’ve turned around mid-commute and driven home, upwards of 5 miles, to make sure my hair dryer was unplugged (even though I know I checked before I left the house, “what if..?” haunts and compels me to check yet again even as I argue with myself that I know it's fine). For me, experiencing a house fire was the clear genesis of this particular phobia and set of preventative rituals to cope. Being robbed led to my ritual of visually checking, then touching locks and deadbolts multiple times to ensure their security. For other rituals, their origins may be unclear. Fears of harm coming to you or loved ones could be calmed by tapping door frames in a pattern, left-right-right-left-left, repeatedly, upon entry and exit. The OCD sufferer is aware it doesn’t make sense in a cause-and-effect way, but is compelled to do it: the intrusive “What if?” dominates behavior patterns. As rituals escalate, they take time to perform and increasingly interfere with basic life functions; this is the hallmark of a mental illness.

There are many facets of OCD and ritualization, but a lesser known OCD behavior that can manifest in academic contexts is a cognitive distortion called scrupulosity. Scrupulosity can often refer to moral or religious contexts, with the fear and attendant intrusive thoughts that you will be punished for sinful thoughts or behaviors or that you are an inherently "bad" person. In the academic context, I want to focus on the facet of scrupulosity that is rooted in a fear that you aren’t telling the truth in the most whole, full, complete way possible. Some may dismissively call it perfectionism, but it’s a little more complicated than that- it involves compulsion to keep working on the same problem, even beyond its resolution, just so you can be *sure* that it’s really, really, resolved. What if I forgot something? What if that fit could be better? “What if...?”

For me, OCD-driven scrupulosity manifests in a few primary ways: communications with others (e-mail and giving talks) and data analysis. E-mails take a very long time to compose as I do back research to ensure what I am saying is not redundant, unclear, a waste of the reader’s time, or betraying a fundamental lack of knowledge on my part (this is where OCD and impostor syndrome can meet and amplify). Talks also take a very long time to prepare, as I feel compelled to provide the most in-depth, well-cited picture of the subject I’m presenting. These may sound like simply best practice, and indeed collaborators tend to enjoy working with me, often praising my thoroughness. But what they don’t recognize is the disruption it represents to my daily life, the delays it causes in getting other things done, and that I’m watching others in the field pass while being able to direct their efforts in more productive ways.

In data analysis, scrupulosity leads to re-doing analyses over and over- directories filled with duplication of work: version 1, version 2, 3; versions 10, 11, 12... The cycle of doing and re-doing is generally only broken when a colleague intervenes and reassures: yes, this is fine. You did a good job, I think it’s great. The external verification and validation can end the death spiral of re-re-re-doing. In the meantime, my publication rates have suffered, and if you try to explain that it’s a real, legitimate mental illness, people think you’re joking. OCD has become so trivialized, made into a meme for people who find patterns being broken distasteful (“Oh, that floor tile is in the wrong place for that design- omg I’m so OCD because that bothers me!”) that the very real suffering of people with OCD goes ignored, turned into a joke, robbed of its legitimacy and the acknowledgment of the power it has to disrupt lives and careers. Please, don’t joke about “being so OCD;” it is painful for sufferers to hear, to see the meme lists of pictures of “N things that will trigger your OCD,” and to effectively not be able to talk about it openly because it’s assumed the sufferer is using the term in jest.

One does not need to be diagnosed with OCD for it to be recognized that they manifest OCD behaviors; these behaviors may or may not be destructive to the individual’s well being or disrupt their ability to engage with life as fully as they wish to. There are a number of avenues for treating OCD, including therapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD generally focuses on a technique called Exposure and Response Prevention, which aims to eliminate the response to obsession-triggering stimuli through careful, guided exposure to those triggers. Treating scrupulosity with therapy involves cognitive restructuring: the sufferer is made aware of their obsessive thoughts, identifying the distortions that drive them, and then trying to confront the distortions with more reasonable arguments or interpretations. If you are concerned about escalation of ritualization, seeing a therapist to discuss is highly recommended. There are excellent books on OCD, but I would strongly recommend reading them under the advisement of a therapist, especially if it’s a certain book that provides worksheets to be filled out as diagnostic aides- a therapist can help immensely in going through the worksheets and helping you focus your efforts on handling the issues most immediately impacting your daily life. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

AAS 229 Information

Hi, everyone! 

As AAS 229 gears up, we wanted to post a few notes about access and WGAD. First, WGAD will be there! From the coordinating committee, Alicia, Jackie, and Jason will be at the meeting. We have space at the AAS booth (317) and will be presenting poster 157.01 in the Wednesday evening poster session. If you are unable to attend, we've posted an audio version online at:

The venue has posted online their accessibility features:
If you have any comments on how the hotel can improve, please contact them; if there is anything we can do with the AAS to improve meeting accessibility, please comment on this google form (linked here).

Lastly, you can follow along on twitter with the hashtag #aas229 and any comments for WGAD specifically, please use #aaswgad.

Have a great meeting!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living with Anxiety Disorders in Astronomy

Today's guest post is written by Angela Zalucha, Principal Investigator at the SETI institute (website, twitter: @plutoprincessz). When Angela isn't using general circulation models to study planetary atmospheres, she is actively working to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health discussions to make our community more inclusive.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about what one astronomer has learned while dealing with mental illness (click here for part 1). It not be a substitute for help from a professional therapist or physician. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

In a few hours, I have to get on an airplane. I'm afraid to fly. Right now, I am logical. You can give me statistics about how flying is the safest way to travel, teach me the physics of lift, familiarize me with the safety protocols of the Federal Aviation Administration, or show me how a jet engine works, and I will think these things sound quite reasonable. But once I'm on the plane, I lose all rationality. Scientific reasoning in my brain shuts down. This type of anxiety is what would be classified as a “specific phobia” below.

The American Psychological Association1 defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)2 further explains, “Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.” Interference with daily activities, whether physiological or psychological, is a flashing sign that some form of professional help should be sought.

The NIMH states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, as well as other disorders that are closely intertwined with anxiety. People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms2 (3.1% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom2 (2.7% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others2 (6.8% of the U.S. population; equally common among men and women, typically beginning around age 13)3. Specific phobias (such as fear of heights) affect 8.7% of the U.S. population (women are twice as likely to be affected as men; typically begins in childhood; the median age of onset is 7)3. Other conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a significant anxiety component in their symptoms3.

Back to the airplane example: my anxiety about flying was at one time more than just a minor inconvenience where I couldn't work or sleep on a plane like some people can, thus not making the most efficient use of my time. Before my my anxiety was managed, I would be looking at weather maps days in advance and worrying about atmospheric conditions. When I got off the plane I often hadn't eaten because I was so scared, and I had to spend the rest of the day in bed because I felt sick to my stomach. This anxiety was intruding into my work and personal life, which was a signal that I needed to see a mental health professional.

Like any profession, astronomy is stressful. Exams, a PhD thesis, job applications, proposal deadlines, public speaking, travel, and socializing in the workplace and at conferences are things we must do to advance in the field. For some people, any of these things alone can cause an anxiety disorder or compound a preexisting condition. Here I'd like to point out some anxiety-causing situations that I have encountered both personally and as an anonymous third-party that are associated with the profession of being an astronomer (in no particular order).

Graduate school can be a high anxiety situation, with the large teaching and research workload, comparatively low pay and insufficient benefits, high cost of living near a university, perhaps living far from family, pressure from other scientists (“so, you're in your fifth year, shouldn't you be graduating soon?”) or family (questioning your career choice), tensions between advisor or other people, intense qualification exams, writing the thesis document (dauntingly large for some), preparing for the defense, the defense itself, and post-PhD job search stress. My psychiatrist in grad school often asked me if I felt depressed (not technically anxiety, but related) after I successfully defended my thesis, because even if writing a thesis is a high anxiety event, when such a major aspect of your life is over, feelings of emptiness can occur (e.g., postpartum depression).  I also remember many fellow graduate students being immensely emotionally burdened during the uncertainty and competitiveness of post-PhD job search.

Conferences are another high anxiety event for two reasons: those associated with research itself and those associated with social anxiety. It seems that most of us work in a frenzy to get our presentations or research done right before the conference (or at the conference itself). Few people are comfortable with public speaking, and I feel the level of preparation (e.g. formal training) varies widely due to everyone's different educational and workplace background (it may or may not get better with time). On top of the stress of traveling to a conference (which might leave us jetlagged or not on our normal eating diet and schedule), socialization is necessary to build collaborations or make yourself known to employers. For first-time conference-goers or when at a conference outside your field (or a very specific case for me, where my PhD advisor and I are not in the same research field), trying to mingle with strangers, especially a group of people who have been great friends for 20 years, is frightening. We also have a societal pressure to drink alcohol (leaving some who abstain uncomfortable), but not to drink so much so as to lose professionalism.

Preparing job applications (including undergrad research positions, graduate school, postdoc positions, and faculty positions) and writing grant proposals are very time-consuming. Depending on the institution, your current position may not pay you enough or at all to write these applications, so you are trying to them on top of your normal work. For me personally, rejection leaves me so devastated that I experience a panic attack. People experience panic attacks in different ways, but the way I experience them is I feel like the room is spinning, my life is out of control, and I have to lay down and stare at the ceiling fan. Sometimes they are a result of a specific trigger I can point to, sometimes they just seem to hit out of nowhere.  If I fall asleep, I wake up feeling calmer, but I've just wasted two or three hours that I could have been working, doing chores, or having fun.  I would say more often than not, I need a “panic-resolving nap” in the afternoon.  I usually feel groggy the rest of the day. On a non-panic attack day, my anxiety increases as a function of time of day, so that late at night I am completely wired (coffee is off limits for me at any time of day). Even if I'm sleepy, I need medication to calm me down in order to sleep.

Not everyone may feel anxious in the situations, and I have probably left some out. Like other mental illnesses, we don't talk about anxiety disorders in the open, and so people do not get the support they need. When members of the field suffer, the productivity and potential achievements of the field as a whole suffers, and we need to recognize it. Anxiety disorders are not a mere inconvenience, but detrimental to our well-being. Like many mental health conditions, they serve as a barrier to access and engagement with our science.

1. American Psychological Association, Accessed 4 October 2016,
2. National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed 4 October 2016,
3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed 4 October 2016,

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Standing Rock Solidarity Statement

We stand in solidarity with the Native American tribes who oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As members of the AAS working group on Accessibility and Disability, we recognize that a truly inclusive and equitable science community cannot be achieved in an American society that ignores when people of color and other marginalized groups face brutality at the hands of the police. We support the indigenous astronomers in our community, and accept the challenge from our colleagues at Astronomy in Color to advocate for our indigenous colleagues, and to work actively and with a continued focus on intersectionality to advocate against systemic racism in our field and in our communities.

Elisabeth Mills
Nick Murphy
Jacqueline Monkiewicz
Karen Knierman
Andria Schwortz
Wanda Liz Diaz Merced
Alicia Aarnio
Sarah Tuttle
Lauren Gilbert
Jennifer L. Hoffman

Lists of places to donate for the legal fund, representatives to contact and their contact information, etc.:

Contact the 17 banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline:

Standing Rock Syllabus, for background on the whole situation:

--Cross post from the Astronomy in Color blog---

Solidarity with Standing Rock

Dear fellow astronomers,

Protests against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have been met with unacceptable levels of brutality by the authorities, and unsurprisingly limited coverage by the mainstream media. These disturbing events are yet another reminder that people of color, particularly Native Americans*, continue to be treated as second-class citizens in this country. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of the Bundy ranchers, a predominantly white armed group who were acquitted after violently occupying a wildlife preserve in Oregon, and whose actions included the bulldozing of sacred grounds. We hereby express solidarity with the Sioux Tribe Nation, and any other Native American tribes facing threats to their sacred lands, resources and livelihood. 

Similarly, we wish to reassure every astronomer who identifies as indigenous that they can count on our unconditional support. The field of Astronomy has faced similar situations, in relation to the construction of observatories in Mauna Kea and Atacama. During such crises, astronomers have a choice: to react in hateful ways that alienate indigenous astronomers, or instead to reject our shameful history and present-day oppressive structures, and support the few indigenous astronomers in our community.

We invite all astronomers to educate ourselves and reflect on the reasons why the underrepresentation of Native Americans and indigenous people in US astronomy is so severe, and to challenge our preconceptions on systemic racism and colonialism. Although these ideas might be new or seem foreign to some of us, they have real life consequences on many of our colleagues. Lastly, we invite you to get to know, to reach out to, and advocate for the advancement of the few indigenous astronomers in our field. The undersigned value scientific discovery. However, we value our fellow astronomers more! We reaffirm our commitment to ensure the inclusion, support, and safety of every indigenous person in astronomy. 

We support Standing Rock! No DAPL!

Prof. Jorge Moreno (Indigenous: Southern Texas and Northern Mexico)
Charee Peters (Indigenous: Yankton Sioux)
Dr. Lia Corrales
Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. Jillian Bellovary
Prof. Kim Coble
Prof. John Asher Johnson
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Dr. Jackie Flaherty 
Prof. Adam Burgasser

The above signatories are members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). This statement reflects our own personal views, and is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS.

*We adopt the term “Native American”, in lieu of “American Indian”, to avoid recognition of that first European colonizer who mistakenly assumed that he had reached south Asia. This terminology follows recommendations by the North Carolina Humanities Council.


The petition to stop DAPL:

A list of actionable steps for people to take: 

Decolonising Science Reading List:

SACNAS Column on the TMT:

CSWA TMT Statement (and links therein):

CSMA Spectrum Article (Why so few Native American Astronomers?)

Mahalo No Trash Blog (Mauna Kea and Atacama):

Native American Persistence in Higher Education

Indigenous Education Institute