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Advice for those considering a career in space science

(ROCKWALL – October 14, 2013) If you are the parent of a high school junior or senior, or if you’re a student considering a career involving some aspect of space science, then please read this.

Every year,  tens of thousands of  incoming freshmen enter colleges and universities intent on studying some aspect of space or who desire graduate space studies in astronomy, astrophysics or cosmology.  Despite the dire warnings of a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) gap in our nation, the competition to enter the best programs and succeed is very stiff indeed.  If you or your student don’t have the grades to make it into the top 10% to enter into the very best schools, but you have done an excellent job at math and science and demonstrated increasingly improved performance, then the future may be brighter than you think.

Pay attention now because this may be the most important take away from this week’s column. If you desire a career in astronomy, astrophysics or cosmology, then your undergraduate major should be physics or some other broad science that provides a broad background that prepares you for advanced study. This has long been my “standing advice” but recently when advising a Rockwall High School senior on a future in astronomy I referred to my friend Dr. Will Burgett. Will is a former professor at UTD and today manages the Pan-STARRS program for the University of Hawaii, Institute for Astronomy,  arguably the most powerful survey telescope mankind has ever created.

Will offered the same advice to this Rockwall student.  Simply stated, if you desire a career in space science, begin by studying physics. Even if your career takes a wild turn, your foundational studies will serve you quite well.

Women and minorities have always been sadly underrepresented in the sciences in America. While it’s true that there have been many very accomplished women in space sciences, they remain a stagnant percentage of the overall population.  The good news is that companies and organizations interested in promoting diversity may also do so through major-specific scholarship awards. Women or minorities entering fields where they are still underrepresented are likely to also see a wide variety of scholarships meant specifically for them.

On October 3, 2013 Eileen Pollack published a front page story in the New York Times titled: Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? As one of the first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics from Yale graduating in 1978 Professor Pollack describes an extremely unfavorable landscape for women in science and knows the subject firsthand. One of my goals in writing this column is to mitigate at least the barriers to entry that may prevent young women from even beginning to follow their dream. The New York Times story can be found here nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?hp&_r=1&.

The most dire statistics cited in her expose are based on a Yale University study, Pollack’s alma mater and include hard evidence of a continuing bias against women in the sciences.  For example, one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women. Almost absurdly, of that group only about half of those women are American. The numbers of black and Hispanic scientists are even lower; in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics. The reasons for minority under-representation is largely attributed to the public schools these students attend,  leaving them too far behind to catch up in science.

The deeper and more troubling question to me is  what could still be keeping women out of the STEM fields because of the hundreds of hours spent in classrooms I have observed no difference in aptitude or ability in our students.  In the classic 20th century photo below documenting the 1911 Solvay Conference, perhaps the premier global science conference of the day, one woman attended. Marie Curie, the lone woman, accounted for 4% of the population of the conference.  Here’s another important point: If you’re a young female student interested in studying science as a career, then find other like-minded women who have gone before you and get to know them, how they got to where they  are and learn from them. Recently, I connected a young female student with several astronomy graduate students, providing invaluable insights to the prospective scientist.

The 1911 Solvay Conference. The Solvay Conferences were the most influential of the day.

Broadening our topic, if you’re a Rockwall resident, there are a number of excellent programs in your backyard. UT Austin consistently ranks in the top-ten of American astronomy and astrophysics programs as.utexas.edu/ , most recently ranked eighth according to graduate-school.phds.org. UT is one of fortunate institutions operating its primary research facility in its home state (McDonald Observatory, Ft. Davis)  Even closer to home, UTD offers a great undergrad program followed by world-renown graduate programs in the Physics Department utdallas.edu/student/catalog/gradcurrent/NSM/PHYS/dept_physics.htm#MS .  UTD is specifically noted for its innovative hardware solutions built for robotic space exploration systems.   One of the well kept secrets in the radio astronomy community is Stephen F. Austin State University astro.sfasu.edu/.  This list is not inclusive and students should do their homework as every individual has different needs.

If you have the means to pay for a very, very expensive education (hold that thought) then scan the nation for potential  space schools.  In full disclosure, I have been affiliated with Cal-Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab for over ten years as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and truly believe they are one of our nation’s great space exploration and research treasures.

  1. California Institute of Technology: Astrophysics
  2. Princeton University: Astrophysical Science
  3. University of Chicago: Astronomy and Astrophysics
  4. Cornell University: Astronomy and Space Sciences
  5. Harvard University: Astronomy
  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Astrophysics and Astronomy and Planetary Science
  7. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus: Astronomy and Astrophysics
  8. The University of Texas at Austin: Astronomy
  9. University of California-Berkeley: Astrophysics
  10. Ohio State University-Main Campus: Astronomy

Back to that pesky topic of money. Another key take away is that if you really, really want to be a professional astronomer, astro-fill in the blank, then follow your dream. However you should begin the journey knowing that just to play in this field you will require a PhD. Not only this, but you will be in a competitive field which means that you fight for scraps while moving from grant to grant without a steady income let alone a retirement plan. Layer the incredible debt most students are assuming today and you may be paying off your loans for decades while taking home a pittance.

Engineering offers an excellent, much needed alternative to a debt-laden PhD fighting for scraps. However, don’t compromise if you are called by space. Don’t compromise because our nation and the world needs you to accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

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