UC Santa Cruz ‘Shadow the Scientists’ program honored for astronomical DEI efforts

Video: A Brief Introduction to Shadow the Scientists

A science-inclusion program based at UC Santa Cruz that has allowed thousands of school-age children, educators, and inquisitive individuals to look through world-class telescopes alongside trained astronomers has been honored for opening up scientific exploration to those from underrepresented backgrounds around the world.

Shadow the Scientists (StS), an initiative of UC Santa Cruz’s Creating Equity in STEAM program, won the 2023 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). The award recognizes StS founder Raja GuhaThakurta, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics, StS Coordinator Jameeka Marshall, the Creating Equity in STEAM program, and participating scientists at the international Gemini-North Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii.

In October 2022, an StS session conducted over Zoom was led by Gemini-North Staff Scientist Brian Lemaux, Marshall and science fellow Zachary Hartman. Fast forward to this month, Gemini-North hosted the largest StS session to date, with over 1,000 attendees from and for schools in India governed by the nation's Central Board of Secondary Education.

The original idea for StS came to GuhaThakurta in the summer of 2020, when astronomers began using telescopes from home via Zoom screen-sharing and virtual network computing, in response to COVID pandemic social-distancing protocols. GuhaThakurta and his research team used this opportunity to invite several groups of students and educators to eavesdrop via Zoom on their observing nights on the Keck Observatory twin 10-m telescopes, Subaru 8-m telescope, and Lick Observatory/Shane 3-m telescope.

In StS sessions, top priority is given to timely communication among the science team and observatory staff to ensure the highest quality astronomical observations. Content is not curated in any way, resulting in a truly authentic and immersive scientific-research experience.

StS team members have enjoyed the opportunity to help students and educators worldwide connect with real life scientists and engineers, watch them problem solve, understand what they are passionate about, and hear about their academic and career paths. StS attendees also learn about the underlying science, as well as the technical aspects of the research equipment—including telescopes, spectrographs, and cameras.

Initially, AURA planned to give its 2023 DEI Award to Lemaux. But when he found out, he advocated for all the individuals and programs that make StS possible to receive the award. Patrick McCarthy, director of NOIRLab—which operates Gemini-North—supported Lemaux’s request and helped convince AURA to honor the wider StS team.

AURA is a consortium of universities and other institutions that operates astronomical observatories and telescopes. Based in Washington, D.C, the association builds and operates observatories for the National Science Foundation and NASA, and advances astronomy research.