New astronomy network catalyzes scientific excellence

Heising Simons Foundation grant helps launch network to connect stellar faculty and students from diverse identities

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The five founding members of the astronomy mentoring network include (from left to right): Nia Imara, assistant professor of astronomy & astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz; Sarah Ballard, professor of astronomy, University of Florida; Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor of astronomy & astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz; Laura Lopez, associate professor of astronomy, Ohio State University; Kathryne (Kate) Daniel, associate professor of astronomy, University of Arizona and associate astronomer, Steward Observatory.

A new STEM mentoring network seeks to maximize scientific excellence and output within the astronomy and astrophysics community by cultivating inclusive environments where people with marginalized identities can thrive.

Funded by the Heising Simons Foundation, the network—Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics: A Network to Revolutionize Our Understanding of the Universe Through Inclusive Workplaces and Equitable Practices—aims to create spaces for faculty and graduate students so they can create cutting edge science, says UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz. He is among the group of astronomers and astrophysicists who bring a broad range of scientific expertise and pedagogical approaches to the network.

The network crosses institutional boundaries and establishes a formal support structure for faculty from historically marginalized communities in STEM, with the purpose of pushing science towards excellence. Each scientist brings unique expertise to the network, enabling members to collaborate and co-mentor students—ultimately bringing new and creative ideas to unsolved areas of astrophysics.

The network is the first significant and sustained effort of its type in the field of astronomy and astrophysics. It goes beyond current efforts to diversify the field, with the understanding that improving workplace experiences significantly increases the creative output of the workforce and thus impacts scientific excellence overall.

The network was inspired as a result of a national Decadal Survey panel, co-chaired by Ramirez-Ruiz, that looked at the investment of human capital in science.

“For the first time in the history of the field—perhaps in the history of science—the Decadal Survey created a panel, the State of the Profession panel, to look at not only how agencies invest in software, hardware, equipment, but how they must invest in people,” Ramirez-Ruiz explains. 

“We are never going to be truly scientifically excellent until every single voice is at the table,” he says.

Kathryne (Kate) Daniel, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and an associate astronomer at Steward Observatory, was a key member of the panel with Ramirez-Ruiz.  She emphasized the importance of mentorship networks, noting that they have been shown to more effectively support students, and academics at all stages, in terms of retention, sense of belonging, and feeling valued.

“In some sense, the panel itself was a demonstration of how having a network of support and a truly diverse set of thinkers can achieve something truly novel and impactful,” Daniel says. “ It was our very composition that created the generative, innovative atmosphere that allowed us to write a report I am very proud of.”

Daniel has received multiple awards including being named the Inaugural Distinguished Vera Rubin Visiting Professorship at UC Santa Cruz (2021), a Scialog Fellow (2019) and an AAUW Fellow (2015).  In 2020, Daniel co-founded the Society of Indigenous Physicists. Daniel is one of a small handful of astronomy faculty in the world who are of Indigenous ancestry. 

Studies show that academic institutions largely do not represent the demographics of the national population, reflecting significant underrepresentation of those from historically marginalized groups. According to Ramirez-Ruiz, of the 38 astronomy departments in the country, 16 departments have only one historically marginalized faculty member identifying as Indigenous, Black, or Latinx. UC Santa Cruz  and the University of Arizona have two faculty members from historically marginalized backgrounds—the remaining 20 departments have none. 

Mentoring success(ion)

The faculty participating in the network have a proven record of success as research advisers and have already built, as a model for the more formal network, spaces for creative co-collaboration and co-mentoring that have led to the training of students in a novel approach.

Laura Lopez, associate professor of astronomy at the Ohio State University, and Sarah Ballard, professor of astronomy at the University of Florida co-mentored Romy Rodriguez Martinez, a graduate student at Ohio State University, who was recently selected as a NASA ExoExplorer.

Co-mentorship by Lopez and Ballard provided Rodriguez Martinez the opportunity to interact with faculty with a variety of expertise—giving her the opportunity to develop interdisciplinary projects and enhance her future science and career potential.

“Serving as a mentor has the potential to assist early career professionals to see what is possible,” Ballard says. ”By serving as influential guides, we can help them find their place in astronomy and provide them with support so they can realize transformative work in the field.” 

Ballard earned her undergraduate degree in astrophysics at UC Berkeley in 2007, before attending Harvard University for her PhD. She was a NASA Carl Sagan Fellow at the University of Washington where she did postdoctoral work and was awarded a Women in Science Fellows postdoctoral fellowship by L'Oréal USA to continue her research at MIT. She took part in the discovery of four exoplanets before she turned 30 years old, including Kepler-19c, the first exoplanet found using the transit-timing variation method on data from the Kepler mission.

Lopez was Ramirez-Ruiz’s first graduate student, completing her Ph.D. at UCSC in 2011. She was awarded the prestigious 2022 American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) Early Career Prize, given for a significant advancement in high-energy astrophysics. She is also a recipient of the Annie Jump Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society (2016). 

Lopez is grateful for the mentoring support she received at UCSC and credits the university and Ramirez-Ruiz for launching her career. She hopes the network will help transform the culture within academia and science. 

“My vision [for the future] is that all students will have the careers they dream of,” she says. “Those who want to be astronomers will have the careers they hoped for. I hope we can change the culture to be more supportive, more inclusive. I hope we can transform the culture and climate to enable better science.”

UCSC as a role model

UC Santa Cruz’s astronomy program is one of the most diverse in the country—more than 30 percent of the department’s Ph.D. students are from historically marginalized communities. Ramirez-Ruiz stresses the important role the network can play in providing a formal structure of support for grad students, by providing access to role models who have similar lived experiences. 

Nia Imara is an assistant professor of astronomy & astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. 

"I'm grateful to be part of a network of such creative, innovative scientists who are also actively working to achieve equity in academia," Imara says.

Imara was appointed as a John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellow and Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She joined the Astronomy Department at UC Santa Cruz in 2020. Her research involves understanding how stars are formed in vast regions occupying interstellar space called molecular clouds. 

Ramirez-Ruiz says UC Santa Cruz should celebrate the work it has done to attract students of color. Now, he says, it’s time to create  effective  support structures for students and faculty.

Ramirez-Ruiz credits the Heising-Simons Foundation for their vision and support. 

“The Heising-Simons Foundation is thinking about how they catalyze the creation of such  transformative support structures,” he says. “I’d like to give credit to the Heising-Simons Foundation for not just thinking about what’s out there and not just recreating what already exists, but really creating a structure that emanates from the needs of faculty and students  of color,” he says.

The network will be coordinated out of UCSC’s Center for Reimagining Leadership. The center is dedicated to establishing workplaces and learning environments that reflect our equity-forward values and allow the full human diversity of our nation and the world to meaningfully contribute to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Founding network members

Sarah Ballard, University of Florida, exoplanets

Kathryne (Kate) Daniel, University of Arizona, galactic dynamics & evolution

Nia Imara, UC Santa Cruz, stars, star formation, galaxy evolution

Laura Lopez, The Ohio State University, stellar birth and death

Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, UC Santa Cruz, high-energy astrophysics 

For more information about the network, and how you can support students and faculty of color, contact Deana Tanguay, Managing Director, Center for Reimagining Leadership, dtanguay@ucsc.edu.