Tuesday, December 19, 2017

First Time Observing at Magellan

Baade and Clay at sunset

I'm Decker French, a new postdoc at Carnegie Observatories. I was recently observing at Magellan over four nights. This was my first time at Las Campanas and using IMACS and MagE, two instruments on Baade (the telescope on the left above!) which have the ability to get optical wavelength spectroscopy. 

Observing with the Magellan telescopes is traditional or "classical" observing in that the observer still physically goes to the telescope. The upside of this, is that the observer gets to go on a trip to a beautiful and remote mountaintop halfway around the world. The site is gorgeous,

The view of the mountains

and the sunsets are amazing, though you always hope for a boring cloud-less sunset.


The Las Campanas staff also take exceptionally good care of the observers. Observing is stressful, and having a steady supply of good food and comfy accommodations helps.

View from the telescopes of the lodging area and cafeteria

A downside of this mode of observing, is that telescope time is scheduled months in advance. I was observing galaxies, whose starlight properties don't change on month to month timescales, but I also work on tidal disruption events, which vary more rapidly. For people who study supernovae, tidal disruption events, and other "transient" objects, fitting into a classical observing schedule can be difficult.

The Baade control room

For this upcoming year, I've joined a collaboration working on upgrading the Swope telescope (which you may have heard about earlier this year!) for more efficient observations of time varying sources, among other uses.

The Swope, DuPont, and OGLE telescopes down the ridge from Magellan

I hope to be back at Las Campanas soon, but in the meantime, I was fortunate that the weather cooperated, and I have a lot of data to reduce!

Me, waiting for the sun to set in front of the Magellan telescopes

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Being an Ally.

One of our Las Campanas Belles is hurting.
I have been serving as her ally for the past few weeks trying to help her thrive during a grueling Title IX investigation over sexual harassment she has endured. I can't tell you anything about her except that she is a Belle that I believe her and that she is a wonderful and talented individual that deserves the world, but who has suffered in the past and continues to suffer.  My thoughts often wander to her and to what she has faced and to how utterly powerless I feel to help her.

For a long time I have wanted to write a post on the blog, but for various reasons, it always falls low in the queue of everything else that needs to be done -- including taking much-needed breaks from my ever-present laptop! Indeed, there are drafts scattered about my desktop to share my experiences on the mountain -- about working on instruments, making new instruments (!!), talking astronomy at the Obama White House, and the weirdness of realizing how often I am the only Belle on the mountain. The topic of this post -- what it means to be an ally, however, rises to the top of my queue over and over again -- I have to express the topic of this post somewhere and the Belles community seems a like good a place to start.

Being an Astronomy Ally (http://www.astronomyallies.com/) is a tough job, but not for the reasons you might think. Hearing the stories of the victims of harassment is painful and their stories stick with you -- swimming out of the chaos of your thoughts in the most unpredictable times. But this I can handle -- it is why I am an Ally. I also am filled with anger. Anger at the harasser, anger at the system that offers so little support to the victims, and anger at the practices in our community that permit so many to suffer in silence for so long. But this I can handle -- it is why I am an Ally.

What I struggle with is how little I can really do. What I struggle with are the feeling of hopeless that overtakes me when I consider this in depth.

All I can offer are my words and my tears and my thoughts and my deepest belief that we can make Astronomy the safe place it should be. I can tell them about my #MeToo story and talk about my own struggle to conquer it. These are not trivial things to give -- it means a lot to validate the experiences of harassment victims with your words and your emotions. It means a lot to carry their story. It means a lot to show them that while it feels like the world is against them, I, at least, am for them. It means a lot to stand for them in all the ways that Allies choose to do.

But what I want to do for this Belle is to stop time and let her have back the moments she has lost to her pain and her fear. What I want to do for this Belle is to disentangle this struggle from her experiences in astronomy and give her back that love of this science. What I want to do for this Belle is tell her that all of this is 100% conquerable and that it will not impact her career goals and her dreams. What I want to do for this Belle is to whisk her forward in time to the safe community we are striving to build.

But I can't do any of that.

Reconciling these strong desires with what I can do is tough. It is the hardest part of being an Ally.

What I can do is listen to stories and learn from them. What I can do is train my students to be allies. What I can do is demonstrate that I can be talked to about difficult situations and that I will listen. What I can do is influence my peers to build supportive environments. What I can do is talk to my superiors about how they can change our community. What I can do is work to be a superior one day that can enable change -- and be the type of superior that can be approached by others to discuss it. What I can do is design safe meetings and teleconferences that are equitable and inclusive, give a voice to the individuals that need it, embrace and enforce good work-life balance among my colleagues, and do my very best to lend my support everywhere that I can. All of these are important things that I do and things that I force myself to double check that I am doing to the best of my ability for all marginalized populations in our community.

But all of these things seem like quiet moves during a time when I honestly feel that the best course of action might to be to burn academia down and start over. I don't really rationally think this thought, but in the irrational frustration of my helpless feelings, it does seem like it would be really satisfying and direct. I told this Belle that and she laughed -- the kind of honest and heartfelt laughter that makes me know that she is on her way to being okay.

So, I have decided to be a little more vocal and try to express all of the things I that I want to do but that I just can't do. I will tweet about the time I spend being an Ally and how important it is to me. I will talk about how the experiences shape me and fortify my resolve that Allies are integral to our community. I will talk about these difficulties in the most anonymous ways possible to gather support for this Belle -- support she may never be able to acknowledge, but support that is so very very meaningful to her struggle. I will show with my words and my actions how much these stories impact our entire community. I will talk about how it is a privilege to not have experienced harassment in any form and one that we all must internalize when we talk about achievement and progress and struggle. I will use this hopelessness I feel as the motivation to keep fighting.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

First trip up the mountain!

Hello! My name is Sarah Hughes and I am currently completing my undergraduate degree in Astrophysics at the University of London. This trip to Las Campanas observatory is my first, but I hope it will be the first of many! I'm so glad that I have the opportunity to share my amazing experience here.

Me standing under the Du Pont Telescope

I was very fortunate to be invited to co-investigate an observation run with Dr. Johanne Teske and Dr. Andrew Mcwilliam, who I worked with as a summer student at Carnegie Institute a couple of years ago.
We were taking images of Trappist 1, the star where many earth like planets have recently been discovered, to see if infrared ground based telescopes can detect their atmospheres.

This run was very much an experiment as we had no idea how good the data would be! Thankfully we seem to have grabbed some really good transit images despite a few technical issues here and there. It's never good when you have a power cut but its something that keeps observers on their toes!

I arrived at the observatory two days before we were due to observe. It meant that I could really explore the site and get an up close glimpse of all the telescopes as well as take in the views :)

View from the Giant Magellan Telescope site

Honestly though, my camera does not do the image justice, but I hope that on any future trips my camera will have improved by then.

I had an amazing time at Las Campanas and hope that in the near future I'll be able to visit again and continue to work on exciting projects!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Transiting Planets at Magellan!

Hello! My name is Erin May, I'm a third year PhD student at the University of Michigan and I'm SO excited to be a part of Las Campanas Belles! 

Me on a previous observing run at LCO
I study exoplanet atmospheres by looking for small changes in light at different wavelengths as the planet crosses in front of its host star. If a planet blocks out more blue light than red light from the star, it means the planet's atmosphere is absorbing the blue light! This tells us about what types of molecules are present in the atmosphere - pretty cool, right?!

One of the "joys" of studying atmospheres is that I have to wait for an interesting planet to cross in front of its star. For the planet I observed last night, this only happens every few days - and is only observable every few weeks! Because of these pesky planets, every time I come to LCO, I only get to stay for one observing night, which means a lot of travel. I'd say the reward is pretty great, though, just look at that view!

My view from outside my room

This run is particularly exciting because it's my first time at the Observatory for empanada Sunday -somehow I've managed to miss it every time I've been here so far. The empanadas definitely lived up to their hype! 

Pardon the photo, I'm by no means a food blogger! 
While the observing conditions were less than ideal this time, there's no such thing as a bad trip to Las Campanas Observatory. I'm looking forward to being back here next month!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Could Go Wrong...Didn't!

My name is Felicity B. Hills. I am a second year physics PhD student at the University of Michigan, and I am brand new to astronomy. This week, I came to Chile for the first time to observe for the first time ever. Luckily, I had a ton of people to help me along the way (shout out to fellow Las Campanas Belles bloggers Katie Morzinski and Alycia Weinberger).

From left to right: CLIO, Dr. Alex Greenbaum, and myself. (The UChicago sweatshirt is from an REU, but I promise I'm wearing a Michigan t-shirt underneath!)
This trip run was not without its drama! On our second night at LCO the wavefront sensor of the AO system failed. We weren't sure if Jared, Laird, and Mauricio and Pato from the day crew (and others) worked incredibly hard to get everything up and running just in time for Alex and I observe our main science target! Katie stayed on the night schedule to be our AO Captain, working with basically no breaks all night.

Seemingly everything was running smoothly until we moved the telescope to our science target and it wasn't there! We franticly looked through catalogs and literature trying to verify the coordinates and proper motion of our target. It started to look hopeless as every resource told us approximately the same thing. That's when TO Hernan swept in and saved the day! He found it! From then on, our observing night went relatively smoothly. This was truly a crash course in observing.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Observing over Christmas and New Years

What have you been doing on Christmas eve ?

I was observing with the du Pont telescope looking at other galaxies and supernovae.

And Christmas day ?
I was sleeping preparing to observe the night of the 25th as well.

Normally the observatories at las Campanas in Chile are officially closed on the 24th and 25th of December. My run also only started on the 26th. However there is an exception. As a telescope operator you can ask for time during these normally festive days. And that is what Nidia did. She is one of the operators of the du Pont telescope and very dedicated to research and observing. Usually, when one obtains time to observe at this telescope, one is accompanied by an operator during the run. On the 24th and 25th however, Nidia would have been observer and operator at the same time.

Since it is always good to arrive one (or two) days before a run (just to adapt more smoothly to the night schedule), I thought it was a good idea to accompany Nidia on her Christmas run. Plus, it is of course nicer to have some company to keep each other awake. Plus: Nidia is like the Einstein of operating this telescope. If you can learn from her, you will know all the little tricks that will allow you to observe in the best and most efficient and accurate way possible. For example, for small offsets, instead of calculating offsets for the telescope and moving the telescope itself, Nidia would calculate the offset that would have been applied to the guider camera and move that one instead. This technique resulted in a significantly better precision in tuning fine offsets. So afterwards, I applied this trick during our observations - to the surprise of my colleagues who had observed many times at the du Pont and did not know about this clever technique by Nidia.

During these festive days, the observatory is also decorated beautifully in Christmas style (see photos). The residency has a big Christmas tree and even in the observing control room, one can find a mini version of such a tree. All in contrast to the dry desert without *any* trees outside, enjoying long summer days (we are in the Southern hemisphere of course). At Christmas, really only two of the probably 30 tables inside the residency are filled with people. A very tiny group. But very cosy. The observatory also makes an effort to serve special dinners during these days. So after a nice meal, Nidia and I head off to the du Pont and observed during beautiful conditions (at least on the 24th). The 25th prepared strong winds. So, even when the sky is clear, no clouds or rain, one cannot observe if the wind is stronger than about 35mph. Once it passes this threshold consistently, the telescope dome has to be closed. After, the wind has to drop below this mark at least for half an hour to reopen. And unfortunately this was not the case on the 25th. But never mind, we still had a good time.

The residence before Christmas.

A little Christmas tree in the operating room in the du Pont telescope.

And New Years?
Observing!:) This is in fact a special day, but it is an official observing day, so the telescopes are not closed like on Christmas. Nevertheless, we also received a special meal. This time, there were obviously a few more people, so the table in the residency got extended (but the Christmas decoration remained) - see photos. The rest was pretty much the same. - well, more or less. I had a friend from Spain to come visit me that night and so we could do the Spanish New Years tradition: together with our operator, we ate 12 grapes at each bell at midnight, making wishes for the new year. However where are the bells in Las Campanas? Funnily enough, the name “Las Campanas” means the bells. This originates due to a certain type of rocks that can be found on that mountain. These rocks produce a very nice ‘bell-sound’ when gently hit against each other. So due to the lack of real bells, we prepared some rocks, recorded the sounds and played them at midnight…. one might go a little crazy after 1-2 weeks of night time observations in a remote place in the Atacama desert….but it was so much fun!

The long table ready for the New Year's dinner.

Happy New Year!

….and here is a little time-lapse that I took during this run (so parts of the sunrise are really the first sunrise in 2017! and others are stars in the night sky at Christmas - not that this matters, but still) I hope you enjoy it!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Internships and Mentors

I'm back observing with Magellan II at Las Campanas Observatory, this time with the Planet Finder Spectrograph, which I've blogged about here before. I came straight to LCO from the 229th American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Dallas, TX, where I was reminded of how overwhelming yet thrilling these huge astronomical gatherings are. It took me back to my times attending as an undergraduate student; many summer internship programs, including the one newly started at Carnegie Observatories and one I just learned about for Argentinian students at Las Campanas, provide students with funding to attend the winter AAS. Attending the meeting and presenting a poster was, for me, an eye-opening and very exciting experience, a window into the world of professional astronomy. It is the culmination of a summer, and sometimes fall semester, of authentic astronomy research that is really the best way for students to decide whether they want to pursue a career in astronomy or astrophysics after college. Such research internships are often the start of strong friendships with other interns, and can also be the start of the incredibly important mentoring relationships that carry students (at least, they carried and continue to carry me) through their careers.  To those hosting students this summer, think back to how formative this experience was for you in your career, and about how you can make this summer the best it can be for your student(s). For those applying, my advice is to take advantage of the opportunity to work on something you haven't before, and soak up all the knowledge from your fellow interns that you can. I learned just as much, if not more, from my intern buddies during my REUs, especially about the practice of astronomy (versus the content knowledge).

Maria Mitchell Observatory summer interns (I'm down in front), and my research mentor Jackie Milingo, at Kitt Peak Observatory during the summer of 2006. I worked with Jackie studying chemical abundances measured in planetary nebulae.

 Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory summer interns with program coordinators outside
Phillips Auditorium at Harvard in the summer of 2007. That summer I measured different types of emissions (optical, IR, X-Ray) in merging galaxies to better understand what controlled star-formation and AGN activity. 

At the AAS meeting, I was pleasantly surprised to run into one of my mentors, Michelle Edwards, whom I met in graduate school at the University of Arizona where she is a Support Astronomer for the Large Binocular Telescope. Michelle and I didn't work directly together very much, but she was the person who turned me on to instrumentation, and cheered me on during the last few years of graduate school when I was struggling. It was from Michelle that I realized working at an observatory was a career option, one that I very much still consider as a possible path. Michelle and I are still close, and when I saw here across the large poster hall at the AAS meeting, I yelled out her name and ran over to give her a big hug. Although I'm no longer a student, I still go to Michelle for advice and support, and now I feel like I can support her, too. Mentors aren't always you're friends, but I have been lucky enough to become friends with most of mine. 

Michelle (right) and me at the AAS meeting.

The person who has mentored me the longest is Alycia Weinberger, who has written blog posts here before. I started working with Alycia during my senior year of college for my honors thesis, reducing and analyzing spectra from the MIKE instrument (which I use now in my postdoc!) of young stars with disks of gas and dust around them that we think are the sites of planet formation. Working with Alycia was an experience that kept me going through graduate school -- I thought if I could only make it through and get back to DTM, it would all be worth it. Lucky for me, I got the chance to go back for my postdoc, during which Alycia has continued to be a great mentor and also grown into a great friend. And now we're collaborating again on a few observing projects!

Alycia's advice comes from years of being successful in astronomy, pushing the fields of young stars and planet formation forward with new observations and observational techniques, and also from years of mentoring other young women like me. In fact, while interning at Carnegie DTM, I also met Mercedes Lopez-Morales, whom I went observing with right after graduating college on my first trip to Magellan and who has also been mentored by Alycia. Mercedes is now at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard, and our work overlaps -- we are both using radial velocity spectrographs to measure the masses of transiting planets! Mercedes has become a mentor to me, too, guiding me through the many twists and turns in the field of exoplanets, offering advice about science projects and career choices, and, like Alycia, serving as a role model who balances an amazing career with mentoring students and having a family. 

Current DTM staff members Alan Boss and Alycia Weinberger (second from right), with former and current DTM postdocs Evgenya Shkolnik (second from left), Jackie Faherty (third from left), and Mercedes Lopez-Morales (first on right). This was taken at a recent Giant Magellan Telescope science meeting in Asilomar, California.

You may be noticing a pattern...almost all of my mentors and advisors have been women! This was also the case during my PhD, where I had two co-advisors, both of whom were women. I honestly have not tried to do this on purpose, but I haven't avoided it either. Sometimes I wonder what this means about my personality and work style...but I am constantly thankful for the compassion, patience, and guidance these women have shown me.

My graduate thesis committee and me, after I successfully defended. Katia Cunha and Caitlin Griffith were my two co-advisors, and I still work closely with Katia today. She is visiting next month and I'm very excited to see her again!

In science, like in the rest of the society, women are still not on equal footingI think any close mentoring relationship is important, and some of my best mentors right now are men who have taught me a lot and are incredibly supportive of my ideas (even when I make mistakes). But I have found that those relationships I have with fellow women are enhanced by our shared experience of needing to work a little harder, speak a little louder, and have the confidence to stand up for ourselves, even when we're the only woman in the room. I have these mentoring relationships with women to thank for where I am today, and wherever I end up in the future (and I really haven't done them justice here, apologies!). They saw/see something in me that I did/do not see myself.

Have you had particularly influential mentors in your career? What about pivotal internship experiences? Share them in replies to this post!