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.