Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Minor Inconvenience of Early Pregnancy

(Note: this was written on July 24th 2009, but I've delayed posting until I told all my friends and family about the new baby, since my "annonymity" here is extremely suspect! And in fact this excuse is now a poor one too - what can I say - life happens!)

With both little one, and now little one number 2 (expected this spring) I have suffered from what most people would call minor morning sickness for most of the first trimester. First time around this started around week 7 and went on until week 14 or so, and comprised mostly severe sensitivity to smells (no malls, grocery stores, or takeout were possible, and walking down the street was exciting!), constant mild nausea, increased motion sickness, and vomiting 3-4 mornings every week (for 7 weeks!). I remember clearly being so miserable around week 8 that I begged the doctor to see me, sure there was something wrong. She had nothing useful to say, but showed me an ultrasound image of little one's heart beating, and told me that it was OK to live off potato chips for weeks if that was all I could keep down. The baby would take all the useful nutrients she said, and I could cope with a few weeks of poor nutrition! That all made me feel much better, and is something I'm keeping with me.

This time around everything started much earlier. Almost as soon as we found out I was pregnant the vomiting started. So far I've had less issues with motion sickness, but I had a couple of weeks when I vomited every morning, and occasionally during the day. I've been very worried that it's still so early too - imagining the horrors ahead of me. The worst of the vomit coincided with little one having stomach flu, so I may have had a bit of both - I think the only time I'll ever be even slightly happy that little one was vomiting! Things came to a head one evening of our recent trip away where I struggled through dinner and then vomited spectacularly outside the restaurant. Not good form! Since then I've been feeling much better. Yesterday (8 weeks exactly) was a bad day - vomit both in the morning, and evening (following a smelly bus ride home), and today I feel quite ropey, but no vomit yet.

The point of blogging about this though is to comment on the impact this has on my work. It's very hard to get the energy together to "mess around" with astronomy when all this is going on. I've been doing much better this time than I did the first time when it was all such a shock that being pregnant - before I was supposed to even tell anyone - would make be feel so bad. Most books describe all this as a "minor inconvenience" of early pregnancy. There is also in general very little sympathy. Either you hide it because you don't want people to know, or they're so happy to learn you're pregnant that the fact that you're green and can't eat isn't noticed. Somehow you're not supposed to complain because "it will pass", and after all you're making a baby. The only helpful reading I've found on the subject is in the book "Pregnancy Sucks" (Amazon Link) which I happened across by accident during this period in my first pregnancy. This book is funny, and will probably make you feel better.

After many weeks of dealing with this I can now also give my advice. Accupressure travel bands really seem to work. It might be in my head - but I'll take it. Also if I eat bread sticks (or crackers) and cheese before getting out of bed in the morning that seems to help a lot - and anyway vomiting recently chewed plain food is much more pleasant than vomiting on an empty stomach. I suggest avoiding crepes with nutella and banana, and cherry tomatos. These are not fun coming in other direction. In fact avoid anything acidic or with much of a flavour. And it will pass. Venting about it online might help too...

August 26th Update: I'm just now about 14 weeks, and this pretty much seems to have passed. I've actually even had a couple of mostly nausea free weeks (but not vomit free - this time I have had some odd spells of "stealth vomit" where without warning I just throw up. That was new!). I've even been managing to get a lot of work done. A couple of papers (finally) at the submission stage, and some other very interesting projects going well.

Jan 5th Update: Now just a few weeks from my due date and I have to say this pregnancy has been *much* more productive than the last one. I have submitted 3 papers (still working their way through the referee process) and have another close to submission. I'm really hoping for a few more weeks to finish stuff up a bit more before taking my leave.

And one last update: AstroMaman and AstronomyMommy are both busy with their adorable babies now roughly 6 and 8 months old respectively.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

She's an Astronomer Forum

Starting quietly (for now) is the She's an Astronomer Forum, part of the IYA2009 Cornerstone project. The project aims to raise issues related to gender equity in astronomy; the forum is the place they provide for us all to discuss those issues.

7 Depressing Strategies

How do you make the best of a bad situation? Women in the US often cannot afford to even take of the federally mandated minimum 12 weeks leave after the birth of their children. This article from the US News Money section cites that US women offered the federal minimum take an average of 6 weeks off after the birth of their baby (to put this in perspective, most women are not given medical permission to exercise until at least 6 weeks after this major physical event), while those with paid leave take an average of 10.5 weeks.

Never-mind say authors Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio, we'll tell you how to cope with going back to work with a baby who cannot yet hold their head up - they review their book in the article. Interestingly most of their suggestions seem to be completely at odds with the statistics quoted above them. They suggest you aim to be completely out of the loop for "several weeks", but to keep in touch towards the end of your leave. They advise you spend time during your leave finding good childcare, commenting that this can often take up to 6 months.

Monday, September 14, 2009

We're not the only ones

Kim Clijsters, belgian tennis player and mother of one, won the US open yesterday. With an 18-month old, she's only the third mother to ever win a major tournament. Talk about another profession where balancing work and family life is difficult! We astronomers don't have to stay in super physical shape post-baby to stay competitive in our field, but finally submitting that paper can certainly feel as good and rewarding (and be as exhausting!) as winning a major sporting event. I hope I win my own "US open" soon...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Amazing Picture of the ISS

Thanks to The Bad Astronomer for posting some amazing pictures of the International Space Station taken by Ralf Vandebergh (from the ground using just a 10 inch telescope, and manual tracking). I just had to share. Mr. Vandenbergh must have an amazingly steady hand, and huge reserved of patience! The one I reproduce above also shows as an inset the Space Shuttle approaching the ISS.

When I was hosting star gazing parties fairly often (as a graduate student) I would enjoy nights when the ISS was going to be visibly passing overhead. (You can find such information for any given location on Heaven's Above). I was always amused to see the many skeptics, some of whom clearly had trouble believing I could know such a thing. We would go out onto the deck just a few minutes before the scheduled pass - usually after much persuading on my part. Then came the waiting, and the doubting (on their part, not mine). Finally the ISS would appear lit up by the Sun as a moving bring spot, arc over the sky and disappear (when it passed into the Earth's shadow). After that I always got a lot more respect.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Paid Parental Leave in Different Countries

Thanks to Women in Astronomy for pointing out this work illustrating the different levels of paid parental leave guaranteed in 18 different countries. I wanted to reproduce the figure here. I think I've already made my opinions of the US federal minimum of 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave quite clear. This kind of makes my point for me I think!

I'm not sure why Canada was left of - 52 weeks of paid leave would put them right in among the Scandinavian countries! Way to go Canada!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Owl Babies - dealing with Mum being away.

The favourite book in our house right now is "Owl Babies", by Martin Waddell. We read this pretty much every night, and it never fails to produce smiles of delight in little one when the owl babies' mother flies home. It occurred to me while reading it last night that since this book is actually a great tool for helping children deal with time when their Mummy must travel for work I should share it here. (AstroMaman already posted one of the tools they use in their house when one parent has to be away in Counting Days.)

In the story the owl babies wake up to find their Mummy is gone. They think about where she's gone (probably out hunting to get them food) and they try to deal with their worries as they wait for her to come home (what if she got eaten by a fox). Just as they are giving up hope, in she flies (to the delight of both the owl babies and my little one). "What's all the fuss, you knew I'd come back" she says. The owl babies agree - and finish "I love my Mummy". At the moment we only have this as a library book, but I think I'll be buying it to keep soon.


This year is the International year of Astronomy (IYA2009). The project sponsors a number of cornerstone projects, one of which is close to my heart - She's an Astronomer. Another neat cornerstone project is the Galileoscope. This is a low cost, high quality telescope designed to make astronomy accessible to all. I've been meaning to get one (although a bit turned off by the high shipping cost to Europe, which for one telescope is more than the cost itself!), but I thought I'd write a quick blog post about it as a reminder to get around to doing this.

What prompted the post this morning is that I just noticed Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) just wrote a review about his Galileoscopes which arrived this week. He includes a useful link to simpler assembly instructions than are included in the box.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Breast Feeding is Offensive

Just wanted to share this blog post from Green Kiddos, which pokes fun at the whole "breastfeeding is offensive" argument.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Baby Gaps and Paying for Maternity Leave

A couple of interesting posts recently over at Female Science Professor which are very relevant here at present since 2/3 authors (not me!) are out on Maternity Leave.

In the first Baby Gap FSP muses on the impact a noticeable "baby gap" can have on your career. At some level this was something I worked quite hard to avoid when I had little one (early 2007). I managed to get both 2007 and 2008 first author papers out (2008 - just under the wire!). One of the comments mentioned the issue of a delayed baby gap, which I may be facing in 2009 (despite 2 first author papers *so close* to being submitted - the referee process can be so long I may miss the end of the year). FSP's post itself doesn't bother me, although her comment that
The lack of a baby gap on my CV is more owing to luck than to anything superhuman that I did

followed by a list of several superhuman things (in my opinion) including being organised enough to have projects close to finishing up, being able to persuade someone to give her a light teaching load, and finding ways to work while the baby was sleeping (instead of sleeping herself, which might have been my choice!).

But some of the comments (as uaual) are truly depressing reading. I do not explain that I had a baby in my CV, however I have recently put in several fellowship applications that ask for the number of years of full time research positions (excluding breaks) that I have worked since getting my PhD. In this case I can take off 3 months (oh lucky me) for the birth of little one making me eligible for some of the fellowships which have strict time limits for 3 months longer. I'm not sure what the right way to deal with it is. On the one hand I had a baby and I continued to be productive afterwards, which surely shows that I'm dedicated to this profession. On the other hand I had a baby - which clearly shows (see below) that I don't care about this profession....

In her second post, Paying for It, FSP debates the issue of who should be paying for maternity leave, particularly for students and postdocs payed (in the US) directly from research grants. In my opinion this is not at all tricky to determine. Society benefits when people have children, therefore society should pay. I truly believe the US is scandalous in having a "laugh in your face" 12 weeks of mandatory *unpaid* maternity leave. That's it. I was lucky when I had little one in the US that at my place of work I was considered a university employee, despite being a postdoc, so I did get 12 weeks at something like 75% pay (although a close friend in slightly different circumstances did not count and therefore got 12 weeks upaid - or nothing). I did later learn to my surprise that my maternity pay came out of the research grant, which ran out before the end of my contract resulting in a 3 month unpaid gap (some of which I filled) between jobs. So ultimately I paid for it later.

Again the post itself is pretty mild, but the comments get quite wild. This one is very eye-opening:
I would say that postdocs shouldn't get babies in the first place: they should work very hard in order to be able to compete to get that sought after job at a good university. Taking a maternity/paternity break as a postcdoc (or PhD student for that matter) is essentially saying that you don't really care much about your research.

Later he explains he's a 45 year old father of a toddler, and he appears to be based in the UK. I really hope he's not an astronomer. What an attitude.

I hear a lot that during the postdoc years is a bad time to have kids, but I've never seen it put so bluntly that clearly some people see it as not taking the job seriously. I really hope this guy is in the minority.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stomach Flu and a Well Deserved Break (not at the same time!)

Well it's been an exciting couple of weeks in the "Astronomum" household. Little one got an unprecedented 12 1/2 days off daycare! It started with some vomiting - resulting in the classic 48 hour ban from the nursery. Little one clearly was sick, although not seriously, so I decided that we'd just make the most of it, and we actually had a lovely day out visiting our city sponsored bunnies (still makes me smile!).

This "ban" of course ended on a Friday afternoon - the weekend before a (completely planned) week long break in another city. Little one and I hung out together (and some of the time with her grandparents) while my husband attended a scientific conference. It was a truly lovely break, and I enjoyed spending a lot of time with little one and seeing all the funny things she gets up to.

Now it's back to work, and serious paper writing. Unfortunately I have to be on the job market for serious yet again this year and I need to deal with my "poor" publication record (instead of griping about it). So I really shouldn't be sitting her writing this!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"But Aren't you on Maternity Leave?"

I recently submitted a proposal for a substantial amount of time on a telescope that I've never used before - so it took me awhile to put together. Combined with caring for Little One, it meant for some very busy days. My husband and family were supportive during the process, but somewhat puzzled at the whole thing; when I explained what I was doing, I got a nod and then the question:

"But aren't you on maternity leave?"

Then I explained that I was, but that one can only ask for time to look at this part of the sky once a year. "But why not wait until next year?" Then I explained that the people I was working with could work best on this together in the coming year. "So let me get this straight. You're writing a proposal on your maternity leave that will give you more work to do during your maternity leave?"

To this, I could only answer "yes".

I see two reasons why I keep having this conversation: either I am going about my maternity leave all wrong, or maternity leaves in academia are very different from those in the rest of society. I think it's a bit of both.

What would happen if I did wait a year to propose? I could go on about how the scientific community doesn't take a break when I do, or about how I'll need more publications to get that next grant... but all in all, not much would happen. So why did I do it? Part of me really does think that the sky will fall if I don't stay connected to my research. But part of me also craves the intellectual stimulation and community that were a big part of my pre-motherhood routine. I like being on maternity leave, but I miss my old life sometimes...

I think that I still need to work on balancing astronomy and motherhood.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Congratulations "AstroMaman"!

Congratulations to AstroMaman, who welcomed her second child recently. We wish her and her family all the best. Enjoy you new arrival, AstroMaman, and we hope that you'll share your experiences balancing astronomy and two little ones with us!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thank Goodness for Nametags

I made my first attempt at balancing work and motherhood: with Little One at about 6 weeks of age, I attended part of a conference. The most complicated part was timing feedings and arranging childcare while I chaired a session late in the day, when Little One is fussiest.

I had it all worked out... I had found a quiet place to nurse at the conference site, and my sister was to bring Little One there so that I could nurse during the coffee break before the session I had to chair. That would give me about 2.5 hours before I had to feed next, enough time to chair the session.

The execution of the plan was not as smooth as it could have been, though: it turned out that Little One was quite hungry (ergo upset) just before I fed her, and in my rush I decided not to take off my blouse (nursing tank underneath), but just to unbutton it. Little One fed enthusiastically, and finished about 5 minutes before I had to chair the session... leaving a huge milk stain right down the front of my shirt at chest height. What to do?

Then I remembered my nametag, which was on a lanyard for this conference. I shortened the lanyard a bit, and it covered the stain perfectly. I was able to chair the session without revealing my wet blouse and Little One slept until I got back. So all is well that ends well.

I can honestly say that this is the first time that I have been thankful for nametags at conferences. I also learned to always take off my outer layer when nursing at a conference, or else to bring a change of clothes :)

Looking like an Astronomer

I've been having my 15 minutes of (very minor) fame this week. I'm not sure how to blog about the details of all this while remaining anonymous. I might give up on that next week as it will all get much more interesting, but for now I'll remain cryptic and just tell you that for some reason there was interest in writing about me as a role model for women in science in the local and university papers - so I had to have my photo taken.

So obviously I made some effort to not look like the stereotype of a scientist. I wore a dress, and jewelry and even (shock horror) make-up. I think I did a good job. The photographer for the local paper commented that I didn't look how he expected. In his own slightly sexist way he went on to comment about how it was weird that his picture of a scientist was an old guy with white hair. He said I look nothing like Patrick Moore and that's a surprise according to him.

There was a builder in the kitchen/common room the day I was having my photos taken and he was obviously curious and asked the reason for all the attention. I explained to him and he looked a bit taken aback. "Women in science he said.... hmmmm.... you're not one of these doctors are you?". I said I did have a doctorate in astronomy. Obviously something he didn't expect either.

As women in science we are surrounded mostly by men who are quite used to our presence (in their own way). It doesn't take much to be reminded though that to the vast majority of the public the idea of women doing science is still totally alien.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Observations at the science museum

A couple of weeks ago, we took our son for a day trip to the national science museum of this country, which is not too far from where we live. Perhaps "museum" is not the best word, it's the kind of place that is filled with hand-on games and activities that teach you something about science. You know the kind I'm talking about. This one was very impressive, especially for the size of the country. It's also almost exclusively about physics and math, so Boyfriend and I were like kids at Disneyland. They had some of the usual stuff, but some very cool things too I had never seen before. We all had a really good time.

While I was there, I couldn't help to put on my "gender in science bias" glasses, and I saw things that surprised me. Mostly, there were a lot more boys than girls around. There weren't that many young children there, at 4.5 years Chatton was one of the youngest, mostly 8-16 year olds I would say. There were so many teenage boys, that it really made you wonder where they had put all the girls. Perhaps there was just a gigantic school group of boys (but again, where were the girls taken to, gender-separated schools are really not the thing around here), or is it possible that parents will tend to go to a place like that more if they have boys than if they have girls? I'm not sure what was going on, I'd like to go back another time and see if I observe the same thing. But wouldn't it be very sad if for some reason girls were on average deprived of such experiences, where science is just about having fun?

I also had the feeling that girls (and women) were more attracted to the math and geometry kind of activities than the more physics-related ones. But again, I would need more data to support that observation.

No matter what, Chatton had an amazing time there, we had to work hard to convince him to leave after more than five hours. He obviously didn't get much from the physical concepts behind the games, but still he was exposed to all of it and enjoyed every second of it. Isn't that what we should do to get people excited about science - and especially girls! I really hope then that my observation is wrong...

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I love Apple. I've actually never owned a PC, and have been a convert since buying my first laptop with my har won savings in graduate school (one year a laptop the next have my wisdom teeth out). Anyway I always thought the plugs Mac makes are quite ingenious. It's the same in any country apart from a neat little bit you can interchange which goes into the plug socket (and which I'm sure has a cool name). Great I thought - if/when I move country all I have to do is buy that little bit.

But Apple, ever after their "iMonopoly" only sell those little bits in packs of 6 including every an adapter for every region - and that pack costs something like $30. That's right - you spend money to buy again the same plug adapter that came with your computer (along with one for every other region in the world - but still). You can't buy them separately.

But postdocs - ever ingenious - have come up with a solution. We move around a lot - all over the world. And we buy computers often. After our transatlantic move I had 2 US plugs, but not the kind I needed.... I offered to swap (via dept. wide email) - and within minutes (literally) had 3 offers. You can't use more than one at a time I suppose. In the end the person didn't even want my spare US adapter. But recently another postdoc asked for it. Well not so recently I suppose, but I recently got around to finding it and giving it to her. And in return - I am to get a European adapter. Somehow this neatness and recycling has given me so much satisfaction I wanted to blog about it - plus I'm stuck on a plane going to a conference (without little one) so I have time on my hands!

Since moving I have bought a new computer - so now I have 2 UK plugs. I'm sure one day this will be useful and I will swap with a grateful postdoc just moving into the country, or perhaps a frequently travelling Mac loving astronomer.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Birth Survey and Pre-Natal Yoga

I don't think I have ever blogged before about how much I appreciated and valued my experiences with prenatal yoga. I attended pre-natal yoga classes once or twice a week throughout my entire pregnancy. Because we have moved since little one was born, I have not kept in touch with any of the women I met in the yoga classes, but their friendship was extremely valuable to me while pregnant and in the early weeks/months of little one's life. In fact I liked pre-natal yoga so much that now I find ordinary yoga a little too impersonal and rushed most of the time.

I found that pre-natal yoga was not only good for my pregnant body, but also my mind. Each session I attended started with each woman introducing herself, her stage of pregnancy and talking about the symptoms she was experiencing. The teacher would both start and end with helpful information about treating symptoms, and other useful hints. I credit pre-natal yoga (and Ina May) with giving me the strength and courage to go for a natural childbirth. It also helped me get through the rough weeks of morning (and all day) sickness at the beginning of my pregnancy.

My favourite pre-natal yoga teacher has a blog which I still keep up with. On her blog this week she featured The Birth Survey which just seems like such a good idea that I also wanted to mention it. The idea is that women (in the USA) can input their experiences with prenatal and childbirth providers. The eventual aim is to have a database of experiences which pregnant women can then use to inform their choices over where to deliver and who to have take care of them during pregnancy. It is quite a long survey, but you can save and return to it later.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Handbags in Space - What?

I'm really not sure what to make of this one. Handbags in Space. Luis Vuitton is featuring astronauts Sally Ride, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin in his latest handbag adverts. Huh?!

Silence is the Enemy

Just wanted to support the "Silence is the Enemy" Campaign. Lucky for me I have no personal experience, or even know of anyone with any personal experience of the horrifying crimes of rape or sexual assuault. I find it difficult to even think about - let alone talk about, and that's the point of the campaign.

It's all written much more eloquently than I could manage in other places.

For example:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Postdoc Life from the Other Side

Quite a lot of this blog so far has been about the postdoc experience - fairly natural since two of us are postdocs, and our newest member only recently stopped being one.

Over at Female Science Professor today is a post about the new NSF rules which require a statement on how postdocs will be mentored to be included in any proposal including a request for postdoc funding.

I appreciate that NSF is trying with this list, but I don't think it'll change anything. I bet FemaleScienceProfessor is a great postdoc supervisor, but her comments about the new list hi-light for me how this will be taken by the vast majority of profs - just another hoop to jump through, and not really important at all.

Her comments on Item 2 are particularly annoying to me - I hear this all the time - that academic staff just don't know how to help their students find jobs outside of academia. Yet they are willing to (passively or otherwise) support a system that will dump the majority of young scientists out of academia into this situation.... hmmm. You must all have past students and postdocs who've been through this experience before - why not connect them with your current students and postdocs to help in the mentoring process. It's not only in parenting that it can (and arguably should) "take a village".

I think the postdoc system has to change, and will in the coming years. How it will happen and what can be done to help the change come smoothly I do not know. I can't even figure out how to get myself out of it at the moment! But it'll be interesting to see what the research scientist career path looks like 50 years from now (I'll be 80 - not totally unrealistic I hope). At least it's better now - except perhaps for some of the well connected young white males - than it was 50 years ago!

For some suggestions for change I recommend you look through the State of the Profession white papers from the Astro 2010 review process which you can find here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is it hopeless?

Over at Women in Astronomy they posted in the weekly STATUS newsletter a review of a seminar given by Prof. Katheryn Johnston last week summarizing some results from the social and psychological science research along with her personal perspective on why women progress so slow in science. I recommend you check out her slides which are posted here:

I actually think I've seen this presentation before, but something in it really hit a cord this morning and I'm feeling pretty down about the whole thing.

Check out these two figures below taken from Prof. Johnston's presentation.

This first one is used to illustrate one depressing point - if the spotlight is not kept on the issue then no progress is made. I believe we're in a phase in which the vast majority of people think the problem is fixed. The graph in fact supports that. At the American Astronomical Society meeting this January the Women's lunch was given over to a panel discussion on the topic of if the women's group was even needed any more (the answer thankfully was yes). I also think most people are well intentioned and believe they know about this problem and are sensitive to it. But they also think that as scientists they should objectively pick the best person for the job.... funny how that's so often a man....

This second excerpt from Prof. Johnston's presentations illustrates that point. The figure is from a Nature commentary on why so few women (compared to the number of applicants) were winning a prestigous medical fellowship. The authors of the paper tried to objectively rate young scientist's impact score (based on number of papers, citations etc.). They then plot this against a peer reviewed measure of the scientist's competence. Only the very best of the women (measured by the "objective" impact) were rated as competent as any of the men.

This is something I've worried about for a long time. Obviously women succeed. Even women with children succeed. But I suspect they are only the best of the best. Most of us cannot hope to compete with them - and shouldn't have to.

Why did this hit a cord this morning. Well I think it's because I'm beginning to develop a "reasonable suspicion" that this has happened to me.... but it's so hard to judge when it's you personally. It's so hard for me to say "I'm as good, or better, than that person" in any objective way..... I don't want to look (or be) bitter, or self serving. However there are some objective measures.... I can look at my citation index. Lately I keep hearing (generally as friendly advice on how to get a job) that my publication rate is not "good enough". I agree it could be better, but I'm proud of the impact I've had in terms of some significantly cited papers, and I have 2 almost complete papers in the pipeline I should be working on now (instead of blogging about this I suppose!). Anyway my anecdotal evidence is that I applied for a job recently, and since I know people close to the hiring committee I got some inside information. My "average publication history" was the reason I was given for not being on the shortlist. Those interviewed apparently had "fantastic" publication records, and "several more years" of experience than me.... This all seemed very reasonable, until I found out who they hired and looked him up. We have comparable citation indexes, and I have slightly more experience. If I'm fair he has a few more papers than me - but a lot of them are large collaboration papers while most of mine are first or second author......hmmm.... OK so maybe I was being told a "kind" reason for my failure in this case, but it does make me wonder what I actually have to do to get a job....

Friday, May 22, 2009

A very good week

This may sound trivial, but I'm very excited about this and have to share it: it's 2pm on Friday and I have actually managed to cross off everything from my "to do" list of the week! I've been making these lists every Monday morning for a few years now, to get my mind back into work mode after the weekend, and this is the first time I ever accomplish everything I was planning to do by Friday.
This is exactly the kind of productive, successful weeks I need right now - hurray! So I'm giving myself a pat on the back, and will reward myself by leaving work earlier than usual to do a little bit of much needed baby shopping :-)

Famous Astronomoms: Venetia Phair

The second entry into my Famous Astronomoms series feels a bit like a cheat, since she's not very famous, and also arguably not really an astronomer. But I check - she was definitely a mom, and I think her story is interesting so I wanted to include it.

You will be forgiven for not knowing who Venetia Phair is, especially as her only contribution to astronomy was made almost 80 years ago under her maiden name of Venetia Burney. Venetia Burney, in March 1930, was an 11 year old Oxford school girl who was the first person to suggest the name "Pluto" for the recently discovered planet. She benefited from making this suggestion to her grandfather, who happened to know an Oxford Professor of Astronomy (Herbert Hall Turner). I'm not surprised that Venetia's grandfather thought her idea brilliant enough to put it in a quick note to Turner which he dropped at his house on the way to the library (my little one's grandfather has already suggested she's a genius), but it is perhaps surprising that Turner also thought the idea good enough to merit telegramming it to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and that the staff there (including Clyde Tombaugh - the discoverer of the planet) liked it enough to adopt it.

This picture shows Venetia Burney age 11 around the time she named Pluto.

Venetia got widespread fame at the time for her suggestion, and a prize of £5 from her grandfather (a lot of money in 1930). Even before the recent fuss about the demotion of Pluto from a major planet there was some renewed interest in Mrs. Phair's story, with some BBC press. She also has an asteroid named after her (6235 Burney) and an instrument on board the New Horizons spacecraft (currently enroute to Pluto).

In 2006 the IAU voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet (rather than risk having to make perhaps dozens of outer solar system objects planets). Venetia Phair was quoted on this of saying "At my age, I've been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet", and also commented on the slight irony that interest in Pluto seems to have gotten larger after it was demoted.

Venetia Phair did not become a professional astronomer, but she did go on to work in a STEM field - studying Mathematics at Cambridge University. For a while she worked as a chartered accountant, and then as a teacher of economics and mathematics at a girls school (first in London, later in Sussex). It appears that she continued to work after her marriage in 1947, switching to teaching only in 1950. This would have been relatively unusual in the UK at the time. She only retired as a teacher in the 1980s, which is consistent with her working until past the UK state retirement age of 60 (for women). It is not commented at which point during this her son was born, but clearly she was a working mother for at least part of the time.

Venetia Phair passed away on April 30th this year, age 90. There is a more extensive obituary of her in the Daily Telegraph Science Obituaries. She is survived by her son.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gro Baby Diapers

OK - so it's odd to blog about diapers right after blogging about our adventures in potty training, but I really want to try these "Gro Baby" diapers either with little one or with (hypothetical) next baby. The beauty of cloth is that you can re-use them with future children, or even pass them down (well cleaned of course) like other baby stuff, so it doesn't really matter that we're nearly done with diapering (fingers crossed). Some people even sell their used cloth diapers online recovering much of their initial cost. But I digress.

Gro Baby are having a giveaway for people who blog either their opinions about these new diapers, or that they'd like to try them. So I apologise for using the blog in this way, but I really do want to try these diapers.

They look quite similar to the bumGenius one size we use, but the thing which really intrigues me is that you don't have to wash the whole diaper every time. The absorbent part lies on top of the outer shell (instead of in a pocket) so you can remove just that bit to wash. When I first learned about pocket diapers that's how I thought they worked, and I was disappointed to find out you had to wash the whole thing each time. Now I'm used to that system, and I wonder if having the absorbent bit right next to the skin will cause the same kind of nappy rash we got with prefolds. I like that the pocket liner acts like the outer layer in a disposable nappy - moving the wetness away from the skin.

So basically I'm intrigued to try these out and see. Let's hope the Giveaway they are having isn't too good to be true and I actually will now get one to try!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adventures in Potty Training

Little one is almost 27 months and we have decided to start potty training. This is all helped by her desire to wear the "big girl pants" (cloth training pants) which I got for her on a recent trip to the US (much cheaper over there than here!).

Transitions always seem to be more work that I expect. I remember my delight at starting to feed solid food quickly souring on the realisation that this was just an extra thing to be fitted into every day. Of course now she's weaned and can feed herself it's all much less work - but it was a long trip from there to here. Transitions to crawling and walking were much the same - initial delight at the new skill changed quickly to a realisation that life would never be the same again and would involve a lot more running around on my part!

These transitions also seem to happen when they happen - regardless of how much you do or do not want them. Little one decided for herself when to stop nursing luckilly before the point I thought she was too old. She also just switched to a big girl bed one night - and never looked back.

So I'm approaching potty training somewhat cautiously. I'm not really sure that anything I do will help much. I do not want to spend much dealing with nappies (diapers), but I'm very anxious about what it means to take a potty trained toddler out for the day - or on a long car journey....

So far the entire experience has been a huge roller coaster of success and failure. Had I written this post last Thursday I would have been saying how hopeless it all looked. At that point little one had been in the training pants for 3 days straight with absolutely no success at using the potty - although some impressive stats on how long she hold in her pee at nursery! If it wasn't for her insistence on wearing pants (and the fact that since we cloth diaper at some level a dirty diaper or dirty training pants and clothing are about equal) I would have given up for a while. But Friday was a huge success - no "accidents" all day, and both pee and poop in the potty. She got a lot of stickers on Friday night! Then came a weekend of peeing and pooping in her pants, followed by a successful day at nursery again on Monday. This led to a lot of wondering if maybe she'll get it at nursery (perhaps because of peer pressure, and a much more fixed routine) but not at home.... and then she used the potty at home! So Monday night I was thinking we almost had it. But then yesterday was completely unsuccessful altogether. Who knows what today will bring! It's adding a whole new dimension of excitement to life, along with many more conversations about wee wee and poo poo than I would have thought possible.

We really do live in a galaxy!

I saw this wonderful time lapse movie over at Bad Astronomy and just had to share.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Spectacular! I'd love to see this, but I'd never have the patience to sit out all night to do so.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Will I really get a maternity leave?

Technically, yes. My institution gives me 16 weeks at full pay, and nobody is taking that away from me. But will that mean that I can put work completely on the side and focus on baby during these 16 weeks? Well, that's another question...

I am now about a month away from my due date, and still desperately trying to finish off a couple of research projects. It's not so much a countdown until the moment when I will get to meet my daughther, but more like keeping track of how much working time I have left. This could very well be the last time I'm ever pregnant, so I'm starting to be frustrated to be so obsessed with work deadlines, rather than focussing on the little person inside me. Something has to change soon though, because at this point we have no name for baby, not a single baby item in the house, and obviously haven't even thought of starting to pack a bag for the hospital!

On the other hand, I've been telling myself it's okay to be focussing on work right now, because when baby comes, I can put all of that aside, and focus on her for the next 3.5 months. But I'm really starting to wonder if that will be possible. I'm sure that throughout my maternity leave I'll keep finding in my inbox papers to review, problems to address, data to deal with, etc. And I know I will feel guilty if I don't deal with these things, because this is really a kind of job that never stops. Even though I would be in my right not to do anything work-related for 16 weeks, I know I won't be able to do it. Because it would feel so unnatural after so many years never really taking a break and because, as understanding and supportive as my colleagues/collaborators/friends are, they are in that set of mind too and will expect me to still be responding to work requests.

So I'm sad and conflicted about this. This is my one chance to have a little break from work, which in itself would be wonderful. But it's also a very special time when our family will grow from 3 to 4, a time we should spend together making memories, free of any nagging work problems. Even if I dared shutting off my email and tried ignoring work problems, I know they would keep running in the back of my mind nonetheless. This is why I say that I doubt I will get the real carefree maternity leave I'm dreaming about, in good part by my own twisted fault.

This all makes me again so glad we had Chatton mid-way through our PhDs when we were comparatively so carefree, and so admiring of women who have children as young faculty, when responsibilities and worries must be even worse that mine right now!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh you're an Astronomer - that's interesting!

One of the things I love about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this gives a real opening to educate about science, and frankly it's just fun to have a job everyone thinks is "cool".

One of the things I hate about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this has led to some very sticky airplane/taxi ride conversations about why Einstein is wrong, or how my science education has closed my mind to alternative theories etc. etc. Also I'm a bit scared of the effect on hairdressers who I do still want to make me look nice - generally an area I try to stay away from when getting my haircut!

These kinds of conversations have come up a lot recently as I've just got back from a long trip - there's nothing like long airplane/taxi rides to stimulate conversation with strangers. I would say I had two of the first kind, and only one of the second, so that's not bad.

On the first long plane ride my neighbour was clearly dying to ask a question after he got out of me what I do. I managed to be unfriendly enough that he waited until almost the end of the flight (showing great tact on his behalf - I needed to get some work done and enjoy my "alone" time) and then we had a nice conversation about the Big Bang and how Physics can't explain things right back to it yet since we can't yet reconcile quantum mechanics and strong gravity. A risky area, but I think it went well. Also I broke some misconceptions by working on my latest crochet project during the flight - he seemed unreasonably impressed that astrophysics and crochet are not mutually exclusive.

The second conversation did not go so well. Probably didn't help that it happened right at the end of my journey when all I wanted to do was collapse in my hotel room. I had a taxi driver with probably the smallest amount of tact I've ever seen in a person (and that's saying a lot given how much time I spend with astronomers) who really wanted to educate me about how my science training has closed my mind to the fact that Einstein must be wrong about gravity. I don't actually remember much about the conversation - except that it left me wanting to remind myself what Einstein had to say about time dilation in gravitational fields and learn more about experiments on Earth which try to test this. His complaints has something to do with that and involved spouting equations to me at midnight local time while I struggled to stay awake.

Proving that not all taxi drivers are tactless was conversation number three. Also at the end of a long journey - but one in which I slept much more - and was on the way home to little one, already putting me in a much better mood. We had a nice conversation about how the size of the Milky Way makes it unlikely that aliens have actually visited Earth, even if they (in my opinion) are quite likely to exist somewhere. I think I managed to confuse him with my "oreo cookie", western Europe size comparison (if the solar system is an oreo cookie, the Milky Way is the size of western Europe - or North America if you prefer), but he seemed happy with the conversation and complemented me on my clear explanations. That taxi ride ended very amicably - and I learned that in his opinion I could sell electronics, and probably even "cheeky stuff" like extended warrentees (his other job was as a manager in an electronics store), so I'll think about that as an alternative career!

Congratulations "AstronomyMommy"!

Just wanted to post congratulations to "AstronomyMommy" who I happen to know just had her baby - a little girl - on the due date I believe! I don't expect we'll be hearing much from AstronomyMommy for a little while, but once she gets settled in I look forward to reading her insights in the journey of motherhood. Welcome to "the club" AstronomyMommy!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

One Crazy Toddler Filled Morning

I'm sure I'm not alone among parents in sometimes having mornings which tax my energy to the limit and leave me wanting a nap by 9am. Today was one such morning.

Lately mornings are fringed with uncertainty about when little one will decide it's time to get up.... generally the range is about 6-7.30am which isn't too bad I suppose.... the beginning of the range is much sooner than I or my husband would like to get up - resulting in one of us getting a "lie in" while the other one gets up. But these morning do leave more time to get ready. If I get a lie in little one is usually dressed and has had breakfast by the time I am up and going leaving much more time for all the other details. Or if I get up I get an extra 1 1/2 hours to fit everything in. When little one gets up later we get more time in bed which I always appreciate, but we do tend to rush around a bit to get out the door by 8.25am (my goal to make it to nursery by 8.45am).

This morning little one got up late. At some point in the night she made her way into our bed and kicked my husband out - and waking up when I was ready next to a sleeping toddler was quite pleasant... The first hint of trouble was her not wanting breakfast. By the time I persuaded her to toast and jam my husband got up and was in the shower. I ate my breakfast with little one - while the cat proceeded to wee next to her litter box. Had to tidy that up, and make a mental note to clean the litter before leaving - presumably this was a "hint" from the cat that the litter was a bit smelly. Went to have my shower while husband took little one for a change of diaper and clothes. Next problem - as I get out of the shower I hear screams of "want red trousers.... want red trousers..." (little one's pyjamas).... get dressed and emerge as husband gives up the battle - little one dressed in only a T-shirt she says she "not like" and a clean diaper.... try to persuade her to the pink trousers husband picked out. No go. Offer alternatives (as husband has already done). Refuse "red trousers" on principle (even though they could be either play trouser for pyjamas). Try "new" purple trousers which seem like a go (so I go upstairs to retrieve them) but by the time I'm back they're no good either. Notice laundry basket of little one's clothes not yet put away and suggest she pick something while I make our lunches. Make lunches - little on comes into kitchen with purple dress which I'm allowed to put on her. Continue making lunch while little one comes into kitchen with AquaDraw mat and spreads on the floor. Demands I play with her. Now it's about 8.10am. Suggest little one help me by putting lunch by the door while I clear up - she prefers AquaDraw. Draw round her as she lies on the mat. Clean up. Put lunch by door. Husband puts laundry in washing machine and turns it on. Little one demands raisins I'm putting into container for her going home snack. I say no. She gets it off counter while I'm not looking and eats it anyway. Clean out cat litter. Now it's time to go. Suggest little one would like tights (it's not that warm). Find pink tights in laundry basket - no go. Find red tights - no go. Give up and put pink tights in little one's bag for nursery. Clear at this point this is all delaying tactics to avoid going to nursery for the day. Put on my coat, and try jumper and/or coat for little one. She lies on the sofa and demands she wants to be "cold". Put on my shoes and pick up bags. Little one gets hint - doesn't want to stay in the house alone, but wants to "walk" to nursery (instead of going in the pushchair). Won't put on shoes. I tell her shoes or pushchair. She allows us to put on her shoes (but still no tights). Finally get out of the door (about 8.30am). Have forgotten to clean teeth yet again. On street little one in sandals and bare legs - sunny but a chill in the air. Says goodbye to husband who drives to work. As usual little one (who is only 2 after all) does not walk in the right direction, or at any kind of speed. She wanders aimlessly as we all would like to sometimes. Tells me she doesn't want to go to nursery (as if I couldn't guess). Feel guilty as I would like to do a bunk and play with her too - but couldn't possibly give in after all this fuss. Give her a hug and tell her she has to - she likes nursery anyway. List all the fun things she will do and names of all staff and kids I can remember. No go. Give up and wrestle her into the pushchair - works if you can snap the snaps quick enough. Wondering if neighbours will come out to see who I'm torturing. Husband driving past pulls over to see if all is OK! Finally little one strapped in, so I push her (screaming) down the street. 10 minutes later (well after 8.45am) we get to nursery. Many stares along the way at toddler with bare legs and no coat on slightly chilly morning. Loadly and repeatedly ask her if she'd like tights and/or coat. She almost agrees at one point. She's fairly calm as we get to nursery, but as we go through gate again demands not to go. Ring doorbell and collect stuff together while holding little one who demands "cuddle". She clings to me in her "ladybird" room full of exciting new toys. I point them all out, and explain to staff why she has no tights on. She allows us to put her tights on. She screams and clings to me until we find her "baby" (favourite toy at nursery) then is all smiles and barely notices my exit... It's not yet 9am - but later than it should be and I still have to walk 25 mins to work....

I now this is all typical toddler "terrible twos", but wow it's exhausting sometimes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All

I recently had my attention drawn to Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All (pdf download) which is a Royal Society publication made up of one page career/family timelines and profiles of 64 different mothers in science.

The idea behind the book I think is a great one - that we spend a lot of time with depressing statistics about women in science, and often "blame" the disproportionate burden of childcare women often face for the lack of women at the higher levels of science. This has given young women the idea that if they want children they cannot have a science career, or that they must have children at only very specific times to succeed (I cannot count the number of times I have heard that having babies as a postdoc is a death sentence for your career). This book then presents a random selection of women with children who work in science as a move towards "dispelling these myths" and being more encouraging (it's all written a lot more fluently in the introduction to the book).

I encourage you to read these profiles, and if you're based in the UK you can request your department to be sent a hard copy (let me know and I'll send you the email address of the person to ask).

I'm always very uncomfortable to be put up as a role model for mothers in astronomy. I think this is because there seems to be so much uncertainty still over my continuing career in research (by the way I have funding until Sept 2010 - my post on my disappointing funding news was about a chance to stay here basically permanently.... I probably got a bit over dramatic - should remember not to post on days I get bad news!). I also feel that it's cheating a bit - I think I look a lot more together on the surface than I feel on any given day, when I'm quite often absolutely exhausted and working at the absolute capacity to get everything done. On the other hand it is clearly important for students and younger girls to see women in science who have "normal" family lives.... and only by having an increasing number of mothers and truly involved fathers will the culture of research change sufficiently to make it "easier to have it all". I think it'll never be easy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tables Turned

Today I had the mother/supervisor tables turned on me: at T-10 days (likely) from being a mother myself, one of my "highly qualified personnel" (HQPs; what our funding agency calls students, postdocs, staff hired through research grants) told me that she was having a baby in the fall. Fresh off figuring out maternity leave for myself, now I'm trying to work it out from the perspective of a supervisor...

I am fortunate to live in a country with very good maternity/parental leave laws, and am even luckier to have a permanent job that lets me take advantage of them without forgoing my salary. But HQPs don't have that luxury: so while I feel very strongly that my HQP should have a nice long leave like I will, I am also faced with the reality of my limited research budget. Could it be that she will be back to work before I will despite delivering 6 months later?

Surely I can work this out, or at least arrange it so that my HQP gets the most "bang for her buck" benefit-wise. I just hope that I can get the ball rolling before I need to take advantage of similar benefits myself!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's Never Too Late?

This YouTube clip has been in the news a lot lately on my side of the Atlantic. It's worth a few minutes of your time. It's never too late to dream. I love the incredulous smile on Simon Cowell's face, and the moment she sings
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed

.... breathtaking.

Had some pretty bad news on the funding side this week. As a result I'll be on the job market for serious again this fall. :( On the other hand I've on strong pain killers this week for a mysterious and very painful neck pain (no idea what I did), which include the muscle relaxant diazepam - better known as valium. So I've been in a pretty carefree mood about everything to be honest. At least the bad news had good timing! And if I need a new career - well I'm only in my early 30s. It's certainly not too late for me. :)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I hope that I am not breaking the rules by making my inaugural Astronomoms post before I am actually a mom, but with the university semester winding down here in Canada, the fact that motherhood is 3 weeks away is starting to sink in...

I have been an assistant professor at a small university for a little over a year now, and teaching still takes up all of my time during the semester: with Junior on the way to boot, I have been very focussed on just making it through. Now that it's winding down, I have some room to breathe... and stare at the huge list of things to do before the big day. I can't help but focus on the work-related list: there are those 4 projects that I figured I could finish (or at least get under control). There is my graduate student, who will need to function independently for the few weeks/months before his first conference appearances. There are the proposals to referee, the thesis to read, and that research money to spend, too...

But in the back of my mind I have this nagging, unnerving feeling that for the first time since entering graduate school, none of the things on my work-related list are going to matter for a long time after the baby is born. I can't fathom what that will be like. I also can't fathom how I'm going to make it all work in the busy, exhausting post-delivery world that I'm about to enter. My comfort at the moment is that women everywhere make careers and motherhood work somehow, and that hopefully I'm no different. In the meantime, I'll start slogging though my to-do list and enjoy uninterrupted nights of sleep...

Friday, April 10, 2009

A shocking picture

Wednesday, my son brought back home a folder full of drawings and art projects he did at kindergarden over the past few months. We had fun going through it together. One picture caught my attention, it was especially well drawn. I could recognize our living room, and three people in there, but I asked Chatton for extra explanations. At the middle was him, playing legos on the floor. Then I asked "And daddy and me are there playing with you?". His answer left me speechless for a few seconds: "No, you are both working on your computers".

How concerned should I be about this? I do think Chatton receives a lot of attention from the two of us, we really don't work that much around him. But we do spend some time with our laptops out, if only to catch up on email, read the news, or entertain ourselves a little bit after coming back from work. I don't think this is something he suffers from at all, when we are home there is usually one of us playing with him, and he has never made any comment to the fact that we were working too much on the computer, or expressed some frustration. So I don't really think we have a problem. But yet to see it on paper, it's a good reminder that we should be really careful not to let this become an issue.

With each our own work laptop and our "family" computer at home, there are a few times when I've caught the three of us all playing/working on a different computer at the same time. Is this the way of the future? If it is, I find this a little bit scary! And how soon after my second child is born in a couple months will we need to get a fourth computer??


We're about to welcome a new contributor to Astronomoms, "AstronomyMommy". She's not quite a Mommy yet, but will be soon, and I know she'll be a great one! She's going to be quite busy in the next few weeks and months, so I expect she'll be an infrequent contributor at first, but I hope she'll add a fresh perspective to the blog. Unlike AstroMaman and I, AstronomyMommy isn't a postdoc. She's a young faculty member at a small institution. Hopefully that will add a different twist to the challenges of juggling Motherhood and being an astronomer - less about the ongoing uncertainty and job search, and more about the unrelenting rounds of committee meetings, teaching, etc. that fill the days of a young faculty member.

I'll leave it up to AstronomyMommy to introduce herself further.


Much to my surprise I seem to have got too relaxed about deadlines lately, and it is starting to come back to bite me a little. I think it's a symptom of my being ever so slightly overwhelmed with everything, but that's not a good excuse, so I just need to suck it up and keep track a bit better.

It's interesting because I used to be super picky about deadlines. I was one of those kids who would *never* hand in homework late, and in fact would be completely confused why anyone else would either..... we had a week's notice, it wasn't that hard to do the work in that time. Even through graduate school I kept this attitude - deadlines were a fixed thing which must be met. My graduate adviser helped with this - she was also an early deadline maker.... then along came my first postdoc adviser. He wouldn't even look at anything until right before it was due, so I evolved into doing things closer and closer to the deadline. Then I missed a couple, and it was OK - rules were bent etc etc. So I came to learn than many deadlines are quite bendy.... often you can break them and it'll be OK. So in a situation where I either deal with things right away or forget them lately I have been missing some deadlines. And it turns out that they are still bendy, but this isn't always appreciated. Clearly I need to learn a middle ground. And I think I need a better to do list....!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why "Lads"?

One of the science blogs I sometimes read is the Physics ArXiv blog (reviewing papers posted in the open access Physics ArXiv which is heavily used by the astronomy community). I like this blog as a way for me, at a low level, to keep up with major developments across physics, and to see what astronomy research catches the eye of a typical physicist.

I was interested to see today a nice review of one of the April Fools Day ArXiv papers about Galaxy Zoo discovering a new class of galaxy cluster. Check out the paper and don't miss the figures.

But why - why, did the author have to end the post reviewing this bit of scientific humour with:
"Keep up the good work lads."


The paper is "authored" by Marven Pedbost, Trillean Pomalgu and the Galaxy Zoo Team. Quite apart from the many (OK handful of) women on the Galaxy Zoo team itself, Trillian is quite clearly a woman's name.... Has "lads" morphed to be gender non-specific recently?

By the way I liked the Galaxy Zoo April Fools paper, but better still in my opinion was Time Variation of a Fundamental Dimensionless Constant. How come we never noticed that before! ;)

Now that's not so hard is it?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Famous Astronomoms: Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin

I read about Ada Lovelace Day on Thesis with Children on March 25th. Ada Lovaelcae Day is March 24th. It's a day when bloggers are asked to blog about women in technology who have inspired them. So I missed it by over a week, but better late than never....

I decided anyway to take a different twist on it - so here is my first article in what might turn into a series on famous women astronomers who also happen to be mothers.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin (1900-1979)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin is famous for the work she did in the early 1920s at the Harvard College Observatory on the classification of stellar spectra. For her PhD research under Harlow Shapley she used ionization theory to re-order the then alphabetical (based on the strength of the Halpha line) stellar classifications into the famous OBAFGKM which orders star types by temperature. Incidentally she also proved that the Sun was mostly made of hydrogen.

She was born in the UK on May 10th 1900, the daughter of a London Barrister. However her father died when she was only 4 years old, so her mother raised her (and her two siblings) alone. She won a scholarship to attend Cambridge University (Newnam College) in 1919, reading Natural Sciences. During her time in Cambridge a lecture given by Eddington (on his 1919 expedition to Africa to test the gravitational deflection of light by observing stars near the Sun during a solar eclipse) inspired her to study Astronomy further. At the time Cambridge admitted women, but would not grant them degrees, so doctoral studies for her in England seemed out of the question. However things were opening up more in the US, and she had attended a lecture by Dr. Harlow Shapley (the Director of the Harvard College Observatory) in 1922. She wrote to Dr. Shapley asking if it would be possible to study under him at Harvard (under the advice of Eddington). The Harvard College Observatory had just started a graduate program in astronomy, and even had a special fellowship to encourage women to study. Then then Miss Payne became the second student to win this fellowship and travelled to the US in 1923. She was the first person to be granted a PhD. in astronomy from Harvard (in 1925) - although this was because the Physics department refused to grant a PhD to a woman so the Department of Astronomy was created to get around this!

She met her husband Sergei Gaposhkin while on holiday in Europe in 1932. He was a Russian Astronomer in Nazi Germany and having a very difficult time, so to help him out she found him a position at Harvard. They were married less than 2 years later in 1934. They had 3 children together, Edward, Katherine and Peter. Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin continued to study astronomy her whole life, remaining at Harvard. She was a technical assistant to Shapley from 1927-1938, and became frustrated at her low pay and status at the university. Shapley persuaded them to give her the title of "astronomer" in 1938, but it wasn't until 1956 (when Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin was 56 years old) that further intervention from the Observatory Director (then Donald Menzel) persuaded Harvard to make her a full-professor, and in fact the first female professor of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin was a trail blazer for women in astronomy, and only incidentally was also a mother (although presumably that's not how her children saw it!). I researched this article only online, but I'm now inspired to try to read her autobiography - The Dyer's Hand to learn more of the details, in particular about her life after having her children. Her career progression was incredibly slow and frustrating, even after her seminal early work - without which she clearly would not have been able to stay in Astronomy at all. She wrote in her auto-biography "I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal."

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Broken Career Path, or "What She Said"....

A great post this week over at Women in Astronomy on what the current "Decadal Review" process in the US Astronomy Community ought to be addressing with regard to the career path in Astronomy. I especially relate to the quote:
Considering how I feel about being a postdoc right now, I'm not really looking forward to the future, if this is as good as it gets.
I said a couple of weeks ago (in this post) that I was starting to see the good side of postdoc life - but actually I think what I was starting to see is how much worse it will get if I ever manage to become faculty. Is that really what I want in life..... I'm starting to think not.

Hannah says:
it's a wonder that much astronomy gets done in the winter.
- I think it's a wonder any gets done by any postdoc! Perhaps this is the advantage Australian astronomers have and why there seem to be so many of them relative to the population of Australia (can't explain Holland though...).
Sometimes I think that the ones who get the jobs are the ones who are stubborn enough to just keep applying rather than the ones who are the best scientists.
This could have come right out of my mouth. So reassuring to know I'm not the only one thinking this!

Hannah goes on to suggest some solutions to the problem including:
to simply decrease the number of PhDs being produced to match the number of jobs. And now I hear all the department chairs out there laughing. Given that the number of students a department attracts is a measure of its success, I don't see that happening any time soon.

This I don't think is the answer at all anyway. I think Hannah's next point is much more important. My friend at the Visible Universe (who is too busy being a big TV researcher now to blog) put it very well in response to one of my very first posts here:
I don't believe that money is wasted if a student doesn't pursue a research career. There are many fields where individuals with real, hands-on science experience are desperately needed--science policy, science journalism, education--and having scientifically trained people in those positions can only be a good thing for the field.

I now firmly believe that the more science PhDs there are out in the world the better. But they need to be educated in such a way as to see the value of their training outside the narrow limits of academic research. There ought to be stipulations on funding for graduate students that they spend a certain about of time being educated about all the fun, exciting and worthwhile things they can do after graduate school. And the research faculty either need to be trained to do this, or forced to involve non-academic astronomers in the process. I shouldn't be sitting here today, a relatively successful scientist, with a PhD and lots of great skills wondering if I could get any job at all if I decide to "give up" on Astronomy. Who killed my confidence? I know it died in the last couple of years of graduate school.... was that my fault, or do I claim to be a victim of a broken system....

Hannah says again:
Now I hear all the professors grumbling, "why should we bother investing our time and energy to train graduate students in astronomy if they aren't going to continue in astronomy?" To which I can only say, "why are you training them for jobs that don't exist?"

Couldn't put it better myself.

Sorry for a slightly down post on a Friday. It's been one of those weeks.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

11am is the New 3pm

My productivity has taken a dive lately (or maybe it just feels that way). I came to a realization as I walked home on Friday - most of my day is before lunch now. It used to be (before baby) I started work around 10am, had lunch at noon, then worked until 6-7pm. I was used to the normal mid afternoon lethargy and has adjusted to a 3pm tea break. However now I start work at 9am, eat lunch around 1pm (because of a change in country and lunchtime culture), and leave for the nursery at about 4.45pm (or a little later - I'm always running late for little one's pick up time!). Instead of 2 hours before lunch and 5 after it, I now have 4 hours before lunch and only 2.75 after it. So 11am is my new 3pm. Accordingly the past few mornings I had a coffee and snack at 11am (traditional elevenses even). Let's see if I suddenly get a lot done....

Friday, February 27, 2009

Stop Trying To Get "X" and Start Trying To Enjoy Yourself

I was lucky enough to attend a large university for graduate school which had enormous numbers of science graduate students. At some point a group of students set up a series of events about academic careers for scientists. This series brought Rick Reis in to talk - and as a result we all got signed up for his "Tomorrow's Professor" mailing list. Now I get emails from this list about once a week. Sometimes they're interesting, sometimes I delete them. Every once in a while I find one that's very useful and really strikes a cord. That happened this week with the posting on Stop Trying to Get Tenure and Start Trying To Enjoy Yourself. Not that I'm in a position to worry about tenure since I'm still just a postdoc - but I think the principle applies to me - in that I should "Stop Trying to Get a "Permanent Job" and Start Trying to Enjoy Myself". I'll see how that goes. "Trying to Get a Permanent Job" clearly isn't working out that well (another chance bites the dust...).

Related to this, I think I have just recently realised what a nice job being a postdoc is. (Apart from the uncertain future and the stress associated with that - especially in an era of job cuts and lowering funding). I can mess around doing research and for the most part not worry about faculty meetings, teaching when I don't want to, being nice to the university administration (or even meeting them), reading job candidate letters, calling prospective graduate students and all the hundreds of other non-research related items I see the staff doing. In a permanent position I know I won't be expected to do any less research, I'll just have all that stuff added on top of my already hectic life. I actually can't see where I would fit it all in.

So I think "Stop Trying to Get "X" and Start Trying to Enjoy Yourself" is probably good advice for us all in our jobs and throughout life.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Counting days

Like everybody else in this business, Boyfriend and I have to travel a lot; conferences, workshops, seminars, observing runs... Within a reasonable limit, we have tried not to let the fact that we have a child change that too much. Of course I didn't travel in the first few months, and there's the occasional heartache of missing some important milestones that goes with this. But overall it's been going well. I think part of the key to that was to get Chatton used from the start that maman and papa were going to be away from home sometimes. He's never made a fuss about it, and actually behaves extra-nicely with the one parent that stays behind to take care of him!

But now that he's older, he started missing us more and more when we are gone. I'm surprised by this, I thought if there would have been problems, they would have come up when he was smaller. It's not really a problem, he's still mostly as happy as usual when one of us is gone, but he mentions often (especially at night) that he misses us.

So we have come up with a trick to help him with that. Whenever one of us travels for more than a couple of days, we take a large piece of paper and make a calendar for Chatton, with one blank box for every day that Boyfriend or I are gone from home. Then each morning he gets to draw a picture in that day's box. This way he sees clearly how much time has gone and how soon the missing parent is coming home. Since time is a vague concept for young children, we find that this helps him a lot to keep track of what is going on. He can see that there are still X days left, so he's not asking us and himself all the time "when is mummy/daddy coming back?". Being aware of what is going on seems to make him feel more secure about the whole thing. Of course there's also iChat or Skype to keep in touch, much better than just the phone for small kids.

I was just away for almost three weeks on a work trip (the longest either one of us has been away from home since Chatton was born), and though he obviously missed me, everything went very well. He even found an idea for an Astronomy-related thing to draw each day on his calendar, so I now have this really cool set of drawings for my office wall!

If anybody has other tricks or ideas of things to do to make being away from home easier on the little ones, please share!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Designed to tempt me?

I haven't met a mother who's totally happy with her body image. I'm definitely not - although mostly I do nothing about it, even objectively I know I could use to lose 10 lbs or so. If found this Chocolate Blog today. which seems totally designed to tempt me. What is it about chocolate - why do I feel such a physical drag towards it....?

Friday, February 20, 2009

My 10 random things about being a mother

So I finally got around to tackle Astronomum's challenge of coming up with my list of 10 random things about being a mother. Here it goes:

1. I love reading stories to my son, and getting new books for him. I can spend a lot of time in the child section of a bookstore, and I probably spend more money than I should on that...

2. I both like and dislike always being the youngest mom out of all the parents of my son's friends. It makes me feel young and cool, but it's annoying because I often don't have that much in common with these people which are 10-15 years older than me.

3. One of the things I like the best is to watch my son and his dad play together. I'm amazed by how Boyfriend can get totally into these games, and give them his undivided attention. I wish I could do that too!

4. If I could magically change one thing about my life as a mother/scientist, it would be to get to live closer to family. With two careers and a child, I often wish we could get help from family once in a while, it would make things much easier I think.

5. I'm currently expecting a second child, a baby girl. I was so relieved when we found out, there was something about the idea of having two boys that was giving me nightmares.

6. Boyfriend and I have a tendency to spoil our son, not with sweets, toys or other things like that, but with our time and attention. I thought there was nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I'm afraid he will come to expect that kind of attention all the time and from everyone. Hopefully this won't be a problem when his little sister shows up.

7. I'm not much of a baby person. I'll gladly go through the first year with baby, but mostly because I know how fun it will be after that when she grows up a little.

8. Sometimes I get bored at the playground, which makes me feel guilty: shouldn't I be enjoying every single moment I spend with my child?

9. Like most women, the deadly sin I'm most guilty of is pride: I think my son is the most incredible person I have ever met, I can't even begin to explain how proud of him I am.

10. I'm glad I had my first child while in grad school since it gave me the chance to prove some people wrong (think older male faculty): it's possible to be a good mother and a successful young researcher at the same time! Actually, that's another thing I'm very proud of :)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Warming to my new Town...

Moving to northern Europe in winter was never going to be easy. OK, coming from the North East US it's not that cold here, but it's really dark and grey most of the time.

When you move (and as postdocs we get some experience of this of course) I think you go through 3 phases. To start with everything is exciting about your new town. Then everything sucks - you want your old favourite restaurants, and your old friends - and you can't have them. Finally you get used to the place, and it becomes home. The dark damp winter moved us quickly onto stage two... I think we might go back to stage one once the spring comes and we can actually do stuff, but for now we're right in stage two.

However, I did manage some exploration last week, and in walking for the first time through one of the city parks I discovered an aviary of parrots, budges, and bunny rabbits. This is just in the middle of a city park. This city can't be all that bad if it looks after bunny rabbits. :) I'm looking forward to find a chance to take little one to see them.

Sorry - did I just break your mental image?

Last night I gave a talk to a local Astronomical Society. I haven't done this too much before, preferring to spend my outreach time talking to school kids in general. However the Astronomical Society asked (well they asked my boss, and he passed it off to me) so I said yes.

In general it was actually an OK evening. I'm a fairly comfortable speaker, especially when I'm sure I know the subject better than my audience (it's only those department colloquia which make me nervous now), and they all seemed to enjoy it. I got a lot of very relevant questions which I enjoyed answering. However the audience was depressingly homogeneous (in the old white guy sense)... I'm pretty sure I broke most of those people's mental images of an Astronomer. I think that's a good thing.... but it surprises me. This is an Astronomy Society which invites professional Astronomers to come and give talks once a month. Can they really have never invited a young female astronomer before?

Still, dealing with their frank disbelief that I was the speaker (and even more disbelief that I will be the speaker at a large national amateur astronomy meeting in April - a fact I couldn't persuade them to believe!) gives me a amusing anecdote to write about here!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

10 Random Things about Me as a Mother

Well I have mixed feelings about the "25 Random Things About Me" fad which is flying around Facebook, but I quite liked the idea of the shortened version for mothers suggested by "Mama", and which I also found on Two Women Blogging" done by Jay, so here goes....

1. Unlike Mama and Jay I love playing with little one on the floor. I especially like "colouring" with her.

2. I think I should want to keep everything which little one makes at nursery and is sent home, but I don't. I recycle quite a lot of it.

3. I'm absolutely the soft touch, and I think my husband is going to be a bit too strict. This worries me a lot as I think kids of parents who are too strict don't turn out well.

4. I love watching "Kung Fu Panda" and "Totoro" with little one, especially when she asks for "Kung Fu Panda" by collecting all her panda toys first. "Ni Hao Kai Lan" I want to toss out the window sometimes. "Elmo's Potty Time" is also starting to get a bit old, but I wish she'd get the idea so we keep watching it...

5. Sometimes I wish I had kept breast feeding past 15 months. I stopped because little one was no longer interested, but I think I might have enjoyed being a "militant breast feeder" of a toddler.

6. I still haven't let little one have any candy/sweets, except a tiny bit of chocolate when my husband wasn't looking.

7. I wonder sometimes if we should have waited a bit longer to have kids. I wouldn't change little one for the world, but I think I would have enjoyed a couple more years of pre-child married life and I still would have been having my first child in my early 30s (instead of late 20s).

8. When I see pregnant women part of me wants to warn them what they're in for, and then I remember how fun it was to be pregnant and play with newborn baby clothes and enjoy the anticipation. They'll figure out how hard it is for themselves, so I'll just leave them to it.

9. I wish little one would grow some hair so I could put it into pigtails etc. I tried for the first time this weekend, and it looked pretty ridiculous still!

10. I love watching little one "put her Dad to bed". "Lie down Daddy" she says with a surprisingly authoritative tone... if he doesn't obey she pushes him over, then she covers him with a blanket and jumps on him.

I hereby tag any mothers reading this post (that includes you AstroMaman), and if you are an "Astronomom" I would again encourage you to get in touch and join us - you can make it your first post here. :)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Do I Still Have a Baby?

Little one is fast approaching her second birthday... and I'm starting to wonder how long I can call her a baby... She walks, talks in 2-3 word sentences and recently started sleeping in a bed instead of a crib. However, she still has "baby hair" (ie. not much - little enough that she's often mistaken for a boy) and likes to be carried around. The Oxford English Dictionary defines baby,n as: "An infant, a young child of either sex. (Formerly synonymous with child; now usually restricted to an infant ‘in arms.’)" So by their definition I seem pretty safe with my "baby".

Friday, January 30, 2009

What's the big deal with maids?

Recently I hired a maid for the first time. This seems like a very sensible move to me. She'll come into the house every other week and clean the bathroom, kitchen, vacuum the floors etc. All the basic cleaning stuff that otherwise gets done much less often - basically only when the mould starts growing around the bathroom sick, or the colour of the carpet changes. In fact I'm surprised I haven't done this before now it comes to think of it.

So why do I feel a little bit guilty about it. Why, for example, am I hiding it from my mother (well not mentioning it at least). I use lots of other time saving devices. This morning I put a load of laundry into my brand-new washer-dryer, and when I get home it will be "cupboard dry" according to the instructions (although admittedly this gives me some pause each time I do it after having read last year the washing machine flood "adventures" of Mother of All Scientists - at least we don't live in a 3rd floor condo... ). I also have an iRobot Roomba - which rocks (well when the battery isn't old and worn out and lasts only 15 minutes - another thing I have recently sorted out), and I'm recently very much enjoying the pre-prepared vegetables that are so ubiquitous here.

As pointed out by Veronica in her article "I Have a Maid! What Professions are more important than others?", I wouldn't blink an eyelid at hiring a professional to cut my hair or change the oil in my car or do numerous other things I really could learn to do myself given time. I also spend close to half my salary paying other people to look after my child - so paying someone to clean my house seems very reasonable.

So what's the big deal about hiring a maid?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More Great Blogs

The people at the American Astronomical Society Committee for the Status of Women recently started (well restarted) a new blog, which so far has been pretty interesting reading.

I've also recently been following The Motherlode at the New York Times.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Kids and germs

How is it that kids always manage to get sick at the worst possible times? I think this is a classical complaint of parents, especially the working kind, but I still can't get over it. Our son is almost never sick, and when he is, he has lightning-fevers that last never more than 24 hours or so, and then he's back to normal. So I know I shouldn't complain too much, but it's how he "picks" these moments to get ill... it's usually when:
(a) one of us is out of town,
(b) one of us has a major deadline at work, like a telescope proposal to turn in, or some experiment time in the lab,
(c) we have to travel and/or have major commitments as a family,
(d) two or more of the above.

I think this time is especially ironic. After two weeks of Christmas vacations where we did not much else than relax at home, all three of us, it's today on the eve of our going back to work/kindergarden that Chatton comes down with chicken pox... talk about great timing. This means 7 to 10 days at home. What a way to start the new year at work, there goes one of my new year resolutions already!