Monday, January 27, 2014

You Want to Study What?!

I'm four weeks into the new year and there are already signs that it will be a big one for me. The logical place to begin, I think, is the end of last semester, around the start of my winter break (which I largely spent at my parents' place with my family).

On various nights at home, I had a bit of trouble sleeping. One reason is pretty simple; my sleep schedule gets REALLY screwed up when I'm on break. I also had a lot of things running through my head that I previously haven't really talked about much, largely self-doubt and other things that could be associated with impostor syndrome. At least, I'd probably call it impostor syndrome if I was listening to someone else describe these same feelings, but being on the impostor end makes things look very different.
My grades haven't been great so far. I mean, I'm above any GPA cutoffs, but I've really just scraped through my classes while watching my other classmates get grades multiple standard deviations ahead of me (fellow third years, if you're ever wondering who that was at the low end of the test score distributions, it was probably me). In a specific case last semester, I spent the two days preceding the Astro 542 final studying like a madman and was still significantly (>10 points) outscored by someone who had gone to the midnight Hobbit showing that same morning. It's really difficult to convey how thoroughly disheartening that is. I see others excelling at research while I haven't had a single research adviser last any longer than a year. Others are writing complex computer code for all sorts of things and are at least competent in multiple languages while I still struggle with the basics of Python!

I know some of these are things I can personally fix, like sticking with a single adviser for an extended period of time and working harder to learn programming. But it's true what we're told in TA training; it's hard to feel like you can ever become good at something when it's so thoroughly ingrained from personal experience that you're just no good at it. And despite my excitement about Eric Ford joining our department, I once again just lacked the enthusiasm for the research being done when faced with the long-term prospect of doing it. I had no new ideas or really useful skills to bring to the table. All project ideas seemed dull and entirely uninspiring. (Nothing against Eric of course; I think he's awesome. I'm just clearly nowhere near his level.)

I realized I'd started seeing research in astronomy as jumping through hoops to do what I really wanted to do all along: teach. Pretty much anyone who knows me in my department (and a lot of people outside my department, for that matter!) knows of my interest in education and public outreach (usually grouped under the acronym EPO). I could never see myself being a hardcore researcher because, again, it would feel like I was doing a lot of stuff I didn't really care about to do the little about which I did.

I'm not the kind of person who likes to go through life with tremendous uncertainty looming. I like to have a plan (the Joker would get a kick out of me). Better yet, I like to have a decision tree with multiple possibilities thought out. Basically, all of my late-night (early morning, really) thinking came down to two options.
1) I end up on a good project, enjoy what I'm doing, and stick it through to my PhD (weighted as being rather unlikely).
2) I find out what the requirements are to graduate with a Master's, and get my high school teaching certification (I was very strongly leaning toward this option, to the point where I was talking about it to certain people at AAS).
I knew who I needed to talk to in what order to get things figured out and who to ask about the things I didn't know. So far, so good.

Enter the Winter Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. For those of you reading who are not astronomers, the Winter AAS meeting is THE big annual conference in astronomy. There are big talks, small talks, town hall meetings, and massive poster sessions on pretty much every topic in astronomy (though a large percentage of the meeting in the past few years has become exoplanets). On Wednesday nights, there's also the party (organized by the amazing duo of Gina and Jake), which is way more fun than you'd expect a party entirely populated by astrononerds to be. The part I personally love about AAS meetings is the combination of seeing old friends and meeting entirely new ones (typically friends of friends). On Monday night of this past meeting, for instance, I joined a group of mostly strangers to play Cards Against Humanity in the middle of one of the hallways of the hotel/convention center. But I digress.

Prior to the meeting, there are also workshops on various topics. Last year, I was in the inaugural class of the AAS Ambassador's Program, a group created to organize and share resources for astronomy public outreach and provide some training in the workshop setting itself. There's also a Python workshop which I would very much like to attend one of these days, as some formal instruction in a programming language would probably be good for me. This year, however, I attended the Center for Astronomy Education Teacher's Workshop, which is focused on best practices for introductory-level college astronomy teaching. After doing the Ambassador's Program workshop, I knew I had to attend this workshop as well, even though I had nothing to present at the meeting. So I paid my own way for this AAS meeting (registration, hotel, etc.) with no external funding. Expensive, but definitely worthwhile.

In short, the workshop was great. I was at least somewhat familiar with most of the methods that were discussed, but I feel like the main thing I gained directly as a result of the workshop was the confidence in using those methods for teaching and more of an understanding regarding how to best implement them. More importantly, I think, were the people I met. As with the AAS Ambassador's Workshop, I love being around other people who share my interest in astronomy EPO, some of whom are even more passionate than I am!

My best memory of the workshop, however, definitely comes from dinner on Saturday night. We were in National Harbor at the same time as MAGFest, so finding a place for a large group of people to eat together was basically impossible, so we ended up driving out to a buffet/hibachi place maybe 15 minutes away (fortunately two of us had cars!). This turned out to be easily the most ghetto place I have ever eaten dinner. Food was plenty edible, but featured not only some wonderful food labels such as "Grarlic Shrimp" and "Blue Carb" (crab), but also the best fortune cookie I have ever encountered. I had to take a picture of it just to prove I wasn't making it up.
You're god damn right they are!
Ok, so why is this relevant? It's not so much, just immensely entertaining, so back to the real narrative here. A few people I talked to from the workshop actually did astronomy education research within astronomy departments.
Suddenly, a whole new option opened up to me. I know for a fact that two of the faculty members in my department (Chris and Julia, both of whom are among my favorite people in the department [don't get a big head if you guys read this!]) did some education-related work, so it may well be an option worth exploring. Of course, a grad student in the department writing a PhD dissertation on astronomy education is completely unprecedented at Penn State, so I had something else I needed to ask about upon my return.

The rest of the conference was spectacular as well. Mark Krumholz of UC Santa Cruz wins for the best talk of the conference with his absolutely stellar (no really, it was stellar astrophysics) plenary session on massive star formation. However, my personal favorite sessions were the two on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons on astronomy education and public outreach programs. The sessions were shunted off to some tiny room way far away from everything else, and the room was completely packed both times. All seats were full, people were standing along the side and rear walls, and on Wednesday, a few of us (myself included) were even sitting on the floor in the front of the room. This alone completely blew me away. The content of the talks was also awesome. I have outlines for a fair number of the talks in my live-blogged post for Wednesday, so I'll not go over them here. Rest assured, I was even more encouraged by the number of people at these sessions.

Overall, I'd say this was my best AAS yet. I made a number of great connections, caught up with old friends, made plenty more new ones, got way too little sleep, and spent entirely too much money on coffee and beer! (Under the circumstances of being at a conference, one basically necessitates the other.) I've also become actually active on Twitter. Particularly at AAS, you can hear an awful lot about what's going on in other sessions and engage in brief conversations about those topics (the education talks seemed to attract a lot of Twitter attention in particular). There's also something about being surrounded by astronomers that makes me, for once, socially outgoing. It's a strange feeling, but I enjoy it every once in a while, especially when there are so many great people with similar interests to be met!

Upon my return to Penn State, one of my first orders of business was to talk to Steinn, the head of the astronomy graduate program, to ask about the requirements for a Master's and the possibility of doing an astronomy education research thesis for a degree from the Astronomy & Astrophysics department. After Steinn flipped through the graduate handbook, he informed me that there was no reason I couldn't do an astronomy education thesis, so long as I chose my committee carefully. He even offered some suggestions along with regard to committee selection.

I think the only time I have ever been happier while walking through that department was after learning that I had passed my candidacy exam, and even then, it's a close contest.

I immediately shot off emails to Chris and Julia, and another to a different Julia in the education department, and set up a meeting for this past Tuesday, and I have never felt more encouraged by a research meeting of any kind. I have a lot of reading to do now and probably some actual education classes to take, but I actually have new ideas to contribute, and will probably come up with even more as I continue along my reading list.

I owe a lot to the department, as the post title is not a question I have received so far. Rather, everyone who actually knows about my new field of interest has been very supportive and willing to help (for those who can actually help). I came in to grad school knowing I'd never be the person doing Earth-shattering (or super Earth-shattering) research and I've always been comfortable with that. The fact that my department is equally comfortable with my decision is a credit to the type of people in this department. I clearly made the right choice to come here.

1 comment:

  1. As long as the rubber bands are heading in the right direction. Seriously though, it's good to be thinking things through and figuring things out. And you know I'm a fan of education anyway, so of course I approve of this.