Developing a values-oriented framework for your career

Earlier this year Dr. Lucianne Wallkowicz (@shaka_lulu) gave a careers talk at the NSF AAPF Symposium as the 2018 Winter AAS Meeting. A few days ago she posted an essay of her talk; Choose your own Adventure: Developing a values-oriented framework for your career, on the arXiv pre-prints (arXiv:1805.09963v1). Not surprisingly I came across it on Twitter. For those who may be contemplating leaving astronomy it's a damn good read.

I first met Lucianne when I lived in Oakland. A mutual astro friend and post-doc at Berkeley was hosting one of her amazing brunch parties. A few years later we met again at the .Astronomy6 conference at the Adler Planetarium. I was always struck by the fact that she seemed to work on really fantastic, innovative projects (especially at the intersection of science and art) that brought together communities that aren't normally associated with astronomy research. If those communities or initiatives didn't exist, she went ahead and created them. She comes across as the type of person who just keeps reinventing her career, while staying true to herself. I've also met a few senior astronomers that hold her in high regard. Most of them have either collaborated or supervised her at some point. 

Since then, I've followed her career pretty closely, along with several other female astronomers that I admire.

There are a bunch of reasons why I love this essay, but these are my top two. Firstly, it debunks that idea that you have to conform to what it traditionally means to make it in astronomy. Secondly, following your passions, being guided by your values, and defining your own version of success is just bloody good advice. 

IAU Working Group for Data–Driven Astronomy Education & Public Outreach (DAEPO)

With the development of many mega-science astronomical projects, for example CTA, DESI, EUCLID, FAST, GAIA, JWST, LAMOST, LSST, SDSS, SKA, and large scale simulations, astronomy has become a Big Data science. Astronomical data is not only necessary resource for scientific research, but also very valuable resource for education and public outreach (EPO), especially in the era of Internet and Cloud Computing.

The new Data Driven Astronomy Education and Public Outreach (DAEPO) Working Group was put together by Chenzhou Cui from National Astronomical Observatories, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC). Chenzhou is also the PI of Chinese Virtual Observatory, and an Organising Committee Member of Commission B2. Based on my experience in astronomy e-Research and my involvement in the .Astronomy community, I was invited to join the working group as a Founding Member and IAU Associate.

The working group has the major objectives to:

  • Act as a forum to discuss the value of astronomy data in EPO, the advantages and benefits of data driven EPO, and the challenges facing to data driven EPO.
  • Provide guidelines, curriculums, data resources, tools, and e-infrastructure for data driven EPO.
  • Provide best practices of data driven EPO.

This working group is hosted at the IAU Division B (Facilities, Technologies and Data Science) Commission B2 (Data and Documentation), and organized jointly with Commission C1 (Astronomy Education and Development), Commission C2 (Communicating Astronomy with the Public), Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) and several other non IAU communities, for example IVOA Education Interest Group, American Astronomical Society Worldwide Telescope Advisory Board, Zooniverse project.


OzGrav Centre of Excellence presentation finished.

I won't (can't really) say much about this other than it's 95% done and it looks great. I think it very nicely communicates what the team plans to do and it's relatively slick. For futuristic science I think it needs to be. Of course there are still some more details to add and potentially some re-arranging by the team but it's ready to hand over to the Director to play with. They have a really solid research case and a great story to tell. I'll be stunned if it doesn't get funded. I'm sure it will. I will post the slide containing their mission statement since this has already been shared on social media and it doesn't give the game away. Look out Gravitational Waves! The Australians are coming!



OzGrav Centre of Excellence - Mock Interview

Yesterday I was back at Swinburne to sit in on the OzGrav - Gravitational Wave Centre of Excellence mock interview. OzGrav is one of ~20 proposed Australian Research Council (ARC) Centres of Excellence (CoE) so it was a real privilege to witness this part of the process. Getting to this stage is a mammoth effort – research expertise aside it requires a ~500 page application – but if funded, it will set the stage for Australian astronomers to compete globally in cutting edge gravity wave research and drive technological innovation.

For those of who are unfamiliar with Australia's CoEs, the goals are to;

  • undertake highly innovative and potentially transformational research that aims to achieve international standing in the fields of research envisaged and leads to a significant advancement of capabilities and knowledge
  • link existing Australian research strengths and build critical mass with new capacity for interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches to address the most challenging and significant research problems
  • develop relationships and build new networks with major national and international centres and research programs to help strengthen research, achieve global competitiveness and gain recognition for Australian research
  • build Australia’s human capacity in a range of research areas by attracting and retaining, from within Australia and abroad, researchers of high international standing as well as the most promising research students
  • provide high-quality postgraduate and postdoctoral training environments for the next generation of researchers
  • offer Australian researchers opportunities to work on large-scale problems over long periods of time
  • establish Centres that have an impact on the wider community through interaction with higher education institutes, governments, industry and the private and non-profit sector. 

Needless to say CoE applications are competitive. In 2014  (application rounds are every three years) the ARC awarded twelve CoEs to the value of up to $4 million per year for seven years. These twelve were awarded after a lengthy selection process that began with 103 expressions of interest, endorsed and recommended for consideration by the ARC by the various host universities. Of these, 22 proposals were shortlisted and the prospective Directors and their teams interviewed by the ARC. Only 54% of those shortlisted were successful. 

It's tough, but the rewards are great - in some cases fame and glory.

So you might ask how the heck did I end up in this room of outstanding gravitational wave and pulsar researchers, pitching their centre to a mock selection committee? Well, preparation is key, science teams really need to nail the interviews and the intensive Q&A session that follows. It also helps to have a killer presentation – and that is why I was there. For the rest of the week, I'll be working with future OzGrav Director to create a visually awesome presentation that knocks the socks off the ARC. It needs to telling the compelling story of gravity waves and the recent first detection, as well as outlining the structure and operations, and technology and science milestones leading to future success of OzGrav. All this in 20 minutes to a mostly non-scientific audience.

So what are Gravitational Waves?

Simple really, gravitational waves are the cosmic ripples that distort space-time itself, for example when two black holes merge.


The Origin and Dynamics of High-redshift Disk Galaxies

It's been a long time since I went to an astronomy colloquium. Far too long.... and since I'm trying to get back in astronomy research mode (at least for the next month or so) I thought this would remind me what I love about optical astronomy and galaxy evolution. The colloquium speaker was Andreas Burkert from Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich, and he talked about why the redshift two Universe (high-redshift from my point of view, the Coma  Cluster is at z ~ 0.02) is one of the most interesting epochs of galaxy evolution.

This was a really excellent and quite amusing talk. Admittedly he lost me on some of the theoretical predictions, but the simulations and connection to the observations was really interesting. But it did also bing back frustrating memories and some of the reasons I used to be quite cynical about results. Image and spectral resolution is crucial in astronomy, and it's so refreshing to hear astronomer critique their own work and call things out for what they are. So many "discoveries" have been explained away because the observations hit instrumental limits (measuring velocity dispersion is classic example), or because the imaging/radio observations didn't have high enough resolution, or because other wavelength observations were not taken into account, or because models were too simple, or because the underlying assumptions are complete garbage. Astronomy research is a tricky thing to navigate, we'd never get anything done if we didn't start with some basic assumptions, theories and observations. At the same time, theories and observations don't progress unless someone is willing to challenge the status quo and deal with the hard stuff.

Having said that being too critical of the data and the data pipelines – to the point where it stops you from publishing – can be career suicide, particularly if you want to spend 100% (pr close to) of your time on pure research. I'll  be the first to admit that's been my failure over the years.

But I did love that this talk included lots of caveats (I thrive on the caveats even though many of them about the data) and an effort to change current theories. Not enough astronomers do this in talks. There is still far to much emphasis on finding new discoveries – many of which are disproven later on –  and getting papers out quickly before follow-up observations are taken.  To me the most interesting science papers and talks are the ones where astronomers really nail what's going on.

Plus Andreas showed us some pretty fantastic images of high-redshift (z~2) galaxies. The simulations were equally as spectacular. 





South Africa's Inter-university Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA)

In September 2015, a new partnership between UCT, the University of the Western Cape and North-West University was launched, with the aim of developing crucial capacity for big data management and analysis, particularly for Square Kilometre Array (SKA) astronomy. Somehow I managed to miss this, but to me this is BIG NEWS so I'm really excited to see how this pans out.

A data science institute for Australian astronomers (and multi-disciplinary research in general) is something I've been championing for the past couple of years. While there is definitely a lot of interest in the community, it's still be a bit of hard sell. In the 2016 – 2025 Australian Astronomy Decadal Plan, the issues around data Intensive research (including HPC) and e-Science were highlighted, but compared to other areas it wasn't considered a high priority – more like a "nice to have". However since then various groups within the astronomy community have been working hard to come up with solutions (locally and nationally) that could benefit the whole of Australian astronomy. As with any new initiative it's difficult to please everybody, particularly when resources are limited, so this has taken some time. 

Having said that I can't help but feel like everyone else is beating us to it. Various universities in the US and UK have launched multi-disciplinary data science Institutes (e.g. the Moore–Sloan Data Science Environment - BIDS, NYU and UW). Over the past year STScI, LSST and individual astronomy research centres (e.g. IGC Portsmouth) have all committed to funding astronomy/data science fellowships. It certainly hasn't helped that our Government has slashed Australia's scientific research budget more than once in the past few years, but I think there are still some cultural?/traditional? barriers we need to break through.

The below address was given by Naledi Pandor MP, Minister of Science and Technology, at the launch of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA), South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town. I've taken the liberty of copying it verbatim from the South African Government website, and bolded some of my favourite bits.

I'm somewhat biased towards the power of data science training and digital literacy, and partnering with tech companies to do research. Partly because of the direction I want my career to take, but mainly because I think this has enormous potential to flow into the broader research (and non-research) community. I'm a firm believer of the idea that big-data (and technology in general) can help the developing world beat poverty, and that solutions have to come from within those countries. This idea is summed up nicely in this article by Datafloq.


Prof Russ Taylor   
Prof Tyrone Pretorius, UWCVice-Chancellor,
Dr Max Price, UCT Vice-Chancellor,
Dr Bernie Fanaroff
Prof Frik van Niekerk, NWU DeputyVice-Chancellor, 
Directors of the SKA project

"Rising to the Big Data Challenge of the SKA"

The SKA is not simply an astronomy project. Or a big science project. Or an infrastructure project. It's certainly a global infrastructure project and there will be activities in some 20 countries on 5 continents. Total project costs will run into billions of Euros, with much being spent on relaying, storing and analysing the data captured by the antennae - a task that will require processing power estimated to be equal to several millions of today’s fastest computers.

Professor John Womersley (SKA board) once said that “SKA is to some extent an IT project with an astronomy question as a driver."

It's an IT project of the kind that pushes the boundaries of global technology. Big tech companies like IBM and Cisco are already involved because they know it will allow them to develop the knowledge and technologies that will keep them at the leading edge of computing. This in turn will benefit computer users in many spheres from finance to government through industry and medicine to other science researchers.

SKA challenges big data to the extreme. All science pushes the boundaries of knowledge but big science like SKA has the ambition to push those boundaries on the largest scale imaginable.

Our challenge in Africa is to use big data to find answers to big science questions. To do that, we have to develop capacity in Africa. To date no South African university has offered a comprehensive dedicated data-science degree programme. However, given the nature of data science most universities have graduated students in disciplines such as computer science, statistics, high-performance computing and databases and data processing. The Department of Science and Technology supports postgraduate students through grants by institutions like the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC). For the past three years, an average of 15 postgraduate (masters and doctoral) students per year graduated from CHPC supported programmes.

The newly established Sol Plaatje University made history by being the first institute in the country (and the continent) to introduce, in 2014, a dedicated undergraduate degree in data science. The current intake is about 30 students. Other universities have recognised the urgent need to develop programmes in the area of big data to be globally competitive in SKA research and are starting up programmes at postgraduate level and appointing senior staff with data science backgrounds.

The IDIA initiative is therefore a timely intervention. The new Institute plans to provide training in SKA-driven data-science research for up to 100 young data scientists over the next 5 years. SKA SA itself has a significant HCD programme that is starting to focus more on supporting work in the area of big data.

Besides the targeted SKA activities to promote big data and the continued support to the CHPC, the DST funded National Integrated Cyber Infrastructure System (NICIS), through its Data Intensive Research Initiative for South Africa (DIRISA), will support and facilitate the development of data science across the entire national research and innovation space. This will be done by enabling and facilitating data-intensive research activities in and between higher education and research institutions. Data-intensive research-capacity development programmes will be established at two institutions during this year and this initiative will be expanded to other institutions.

Negotiations with tech companies, such as IBM, are aimed at preparing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in various topics in Big Data Science that can be included in coursework programmes of academic institutions. The NICIS ‘Skills and Training’ component will facilitate and promote the training of all types of data professionals. Apart from the significant investments (R200 million per year) to date in supporting infrastructures for big-data research, the DST will invest about R100 million over the next three years in the establishment of DIRISA. In addition, work with European partners (and funding) in developing training initiatives are underway. Efforts have been initiated at a national level to better coordinate various research community efforts and infrastructures in support of developing big data skills and projects.

A significant focus and investment in big data in South Africa is not only due, but is probably crucial if South Africa is to play a significant role in the world economy in the coming decades. However, it is now a fact that the human expertise to capture and analyse big data is both the most expensive and the most constraining factor for most organisations pursuing big data initiatives.

The McKinsey Global Institute (2011 report), a business and economics research organisation, predicts that by 2018 in the United States alone there will be a shortfall of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytics skills and 1.5 million managers and analysts who know how to make effective decisions using analysis of big data. Scaled to the population of South Africa, we would need 23,000 to 31,000 specialists with deep-analytic big-data skills. Initiatives in broadband rollout for all communities, and provision of ready access to e-learning can also play a role here in preparing younger generations for the coming wave of data and opportunities that this represents.

It's clear that the current data challenge requires a wide range of new skills, policies and practices, technologies and legal frameworks. We also need people-focused big-data systems. This area involves looking at data that is geared towards solving problems such as disease* in Africa like the H3AFrica Bioinformatics project. The project collects data and looks at solving problems like TB and Malaria.

The other big-data important project is in the agricultural sector, where we need to have efficient data collection and analysis to assist farmers in better farming methods and also food production.

IDIA will make a significant and broad contribution to the research enterprise in South Africa. Through a focused research and training program in data-intensive science, IDIA will drive innovation in big data solutions that will have impact beyond astronomy. We will be working proactively to transfer knowledge and expertise to benefit a broad range of data challenged domains in science, humanities and commerce.


*Incidentally,  South Africa has one of the highest rates of active TB and it continues to be the leading cause of death in South Africa. WHO gives a figure of 25,000 deaths from TB in South Africa in 2011 but this excludes those people who had both TB and HIV infection when they died. These people are internationally considered to have died of HIV. - See more at:

... and here is the press release from the University of Cape Town (September 2015)



.Astronomy7: Countdown to Day Zero – Part 1

At this year’s .Astronomy 7 conference, we’ll be running a pre-conference training day (‘Day Zero’) to showcase previous Hack Day projects and to introduce some of the tools participants have found most useful for their Hack Day experience and general work flow. Day Zero is optional, but we encourage everyone to attend, because Day Zero is about sharing skills, ideas, and lessons learned from previous .Astronomy participation and continuing professional development. During Day Zero we will run a number of short tutorials – disguised as one giant hack – to help make all participants feel more confident about jumping into the hacking arena.

why is day zero important?

Traditional astronomy conferences usually focus on a specific subdomain and are primarily used as a forum for researchers to present rigorous scientific outcomes, to network for the next job, seek the best future hire, and/or visit with old colleagues and friends. Rarely do researchers get to create innovative projects in collaboration with non-astronomy researchers, data scientists, freelance/tech-industry software developers, education professionals, and science communicators, or attend hackathons.  The .Astronomy conferences offer a playground for astronomy that is more specific than a general hack day, but more dynamic than a normal scientific astronomy meeting.

We aim to introduce a range of skills that will not only be useful for managing larger data sets coming online in the near future, but also in a context of professions other than the traditional academic astronomy career. The rise of fellowship programs, for example the Insight Data Fellows and Science to Data Science programs can offer a variety of careers options for trained astronomy professionals.  Skilled data scientists are in great demand in the worldwide job market and researchers with analytical backgrounds are being offered jobs in leading tech-companies. We hope to offer astronomers access a broader skillset and the opportunity to learn how to work collaboratively on hack-like projects.

Over the past six years the cumulative .Astronomy community has grown to become a connected group of people contributing uniquely to professional astronomy, international science education, and general science awareness among the public.  Day Zero is for sharing experiences and lessons from the past and present in order to build interesting and better tools for the future in all these arenas.

The idea for Day Zero is to teach various tools by treating them as steps in one big hack (perhaps). For example we might want to start by data-mining the the social web (for example scraping the #dotastroTwitter feed), then  populate a database hosted on a droplet server (DevOps: SQL, VMs), then  create a word association visualisation using D3js (Javascript, HTML, CSS) and finally, document everything in an IPython Notebook or on blog (either on GitHub or hosted with the database). Or we may take the more traditional approach of example based tutorials. Personally, I’m excited about learning new data visualisation tools, for example learning how to integrate tools like Aladin Lite into a research webpage, and learning about APIs and data archives.

This year we are also creating an official .Astronomy7 Day Zero Guide for conference participants. The guide will contain details about all previous .Astronomy Hack Day projects as well as information about our favourite web tools (and installation notes) and code repositories. We intend to make the Day Zero Guide available to the wider astronomy community  as a permanent resource for everyday research.

We are very excited about bringing Day Zero to .Astronomy and plan to make it just as fun and innovative as the rest of the conference.

Watch this space…