AAS Astronomy Ambassadors: A Gateway to Science Communication Careers

This is a transcript of my talk at the 235th AAS Meeting in Honolulu at the Special Session - AAS Astronomy Ambassadors: Professional Learning Community, Moving Forward, held on January 5th, 2020.

In November of 2013, I was on a mountain in Chile learning that the instrument I needed to do my thesis couldn’t be put on the telescope for technical reasons. But I had already registered for the Winter AAS meeting for the following January. Luckily I was selected as an AAS Astronomy Ambassador. I hoped to bring more astronomy-related activities back to our department for our outreach events. So, I went to the meeting, presented a poster on my failed instrument, and gained access to an amazing cohort of science communicators and resources.

I also learned a few weeks after attending the meeting and workshop that I was pregnant with my first child. So, I started rethinking my career options.

Because I did the AAS Ambassador workshop, some friends pointed me to the ComSciCon workshop. I applied but wasn’t accepted to the flagship workshop. After my daughter was born, I was contacted by the flagship committee and told there would be a ComSciCon held in my area. At this workshop, I heard science writers speak about their paths from academia to science writing and learned about the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship.

ComSciCon Triangle 2015 participants.

I applied for the Fellowship around the time I was finishing up my dissertation. During the summer of 2016, I was placed at Voice of America in Washington DC. There I worked as a science journalist for 10 weeks, writing breaking news stories such as how only one-third of humanity can see the Milky Way, birds who lead human hunters to honey, and how mammals developed night vision because they lived amongst dinosaurs. I incorporated the things I learned about knowing your audience and being aware of jargon through the AAS Ambassadors and ComSciCon to craft stories around breaking science.

(Left)2016 cohort of AAAS Mass Media Fellows. (Right)Faith Lapidus and Steve Baragona, my editors at VOA.

After the fellowship ended I was a part-time adjunct at West Chester University. There I got to teach a 100 level physics course for non-science majors. I taught physics through the lens of astronomy using AAS Ambassador activities but tailored for a college-level lecture. For example, my course talked about distance scales and instead of doing the Pocket Solar System activity as written. I brought in a long sheet of butcher paper and cutouts of the planets. I then asked the students to use Kepler’s Laws to calculate the distances of the planets from the Sun in AU from their periods. Once they did the calculation I would place the planet at the appropriate distance. I also used my science writing to structure my lectures in the form of stories. Stories of how scientific ideas build on one another.

Here I also met Dr. Karen Schwartz who was on the Board of Directors of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester and an astronomy faculty at WCU. She told me about the Girls in Science and Technology Program at the museum which introduces girls ages 8-18 to scientific topics in Physics, Astronomy, Energy, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Coding, and Robotics. She was looking for someone to take over the Astronomy session and I happily volunteered. This is my 3rd year running the session and I’ve completely revamped it to include many of the AAS Ambassador activities.

I also learned through the Ambassador network about the Pinholes and Space Telescopes workshop offered by the ASP. I obtained 24 Galileoscopes for the museum and developed a telescope workshop for the museum which teaches kids how telescopes work (for money)!

A pinhole telescope from the workshop in May 2019

Because of my support for the Museums programs I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors and chair their Education Committee.

I was also able to leverage my writing experiences to get first an Associate Editor position at a medical magazine and currently a staff writer position at Penn Medicine in their Development and Alumni Relations department. This job permits me to do my outreach since I don't have to take it home with me.

It was because of the AAS Ambassador network that I was able to find my strengths—clearly and enthusiastically explaining complex science to anyone. Being an Ambassador opens the door to many opportunities to learn more about science outreach and gives you access to well thought out and engaging activities for all audiences.

Monday, January 6, 2020 

We need to start being honest with girls about science

"My daughter has a question for you," the video began. An adorable 3 year old girl asks breathlessly, "Why does the Sun stay still?" I had to message my friend separately to find out what exactly her daughter meant. She told me that in school her daughter learned that the Sun sits still and the planets move around it. Her daughter wasn't having it. She was very concerned. Everything else in the world moves, so why wouldn't the Sun? I quickly told my friend that her daughter was absolutely right to be concerned because the Sun does not sit still. Just like the planets orbit our Sun, the Sun orbits the center of our galaxy along with billions of other stars. I also told her how much her daughter kicks ass for questioning what she was told and using her everyday experiences to come up with really amazing questions. It's what scientists do.

Science has a girl problem right? We leave our fields of study in droves at every level after middle school. There are tons of after school and summer programs aimed at getting young girls interested in science. Those programs work. You'll find girls just as interested in science at the elementary and middle school levels as boys. As my 3-year old buddy shows, gender has no impact on a child's ability to do science. So why should it be any different as those kids grow up?

The answer is it shouldn't be. I write this as a mother who tells her two girls they can be whatever they want to be, a science communicator that watches young girls' minds light up as I talk about science and a former astrophysicist that is no longer studying galaxies. The feeling that rises when those three parts of me come together is guilt. Guilt because some day my daughters and those young girls are going to realize that I lied to them.

Some day one of my daughters will ask: "Why aren't you an astronomer anymore? Isn't that what you wanted to be?" Some day one of those young girls will look back and remember: "Dr. McBride talked to us about science and it was so cool, but she doesn't actually do science anymore. What's up with that?" Or, and this is my worst fear, they'll figure it out as I did. At the end of a decades long, uphill battle to earn my Ph.d only to have it end there. To realize that the people who held the key to the gates of my scientific field didn't want to let me in, even after I successfully jumped through all their hoops and passed all their tests.

The signs were always there. My mother went to college and earned a B.S. in Biology, but her professors wouldn't write her recommendations for graduate school. She was honest about that but it seemed so long ago. Like it didn't happen anymore. It was a different time. Well it's not different. It's just less blatant. My adviser didn't say he wouldn't write me recommendations, he just sort of faded away - to Australia. He saddled me with a project that others warned him wouldn't work and then left me with the mess. Even after reorganizing my dissertation project so I could get data, analyze and write my thesis in two years, there was no discussion of my future in the field. He had moved on, so I guess I had to also. I reached out to former advisers and senior astronomers who worked in the same sub-field for guidance. But that network didn't pan out. It's very frustrating to have devoted decades to a degree and a field only to have it fizzle out and end. At some point, hard work and determination isn't enough.

Girls want to do science and science needs girls to do it. Science doesn't care what the gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or class of the person doing it is. It's the system that's been designed to groom new scientists that has an opinion on this. We get girls interested in science and tell them nothing of how the system is stacked against them. How many more walls they'll come up against. How much harder they'll have to work to prove their intelligence. How few people like them they'll see in senior positions in their field. How defeating it can all be.

Science doesn't have a girl problem. Institutions of scientific learning have a problem with girls doing science.

It's obvious the institutions that work to develop and employ the next generation of scientists need to do better. But we also need to own up to the faultiness of the system to the young girls we're asking to join our ranks and make sure we're setting them up to succeed. Some ideas:

We need to start being honest with girls about what they'll face if they're interested in science. The more prepared they are, the more likely they'll make it through and change the system for the next generation.

Thursday, July 12, 2018 

Strapless Boots

We’ve all heard “Hard work and determination are all you need to succeed. Look at me. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, without any help.” These words might be considered motivational to some, but can seem like criticism to others. Determination and hard work were critical to my earning a Phd in astronomy, but the support from others was also instrumental in making my success possible.

When I was young, I loved Carl Sagan’s COSMOS series. My mother would rent the videos from the public library whenever I asked. I dreamed of being an Astronomer, but living in a rural part of Northern Virginia limited my access to people in the field. I found out when applying to colleges that I needed to major in Physics to become an Astronomer, so I indicated as-such on my applications. I selected a small, liberal arts school in Pennsylvania because I quickly realized that I would be a minority in my discipline. The smaller-sized classes made me feel comfortable while pursuing my degree, and allowed me to build closer relationships with the faculty and my peers.

The faculty at my college were immensely supportive. Any time I started to feel discouraged by my lack of preparedness for Physics, my instructors took the time to help me understand my studies. They encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree, so I signed up for the Physics GRE with little preparation. As a result, I did terrible on it-- better than 1% of the other test takers. The rejection letters from graduate schools started pouring in. Regardless of this, my advisers and other senior faculty encouraged me to apply to all the top Astronomy schools. I also applied to a lesser-known Master’s degree program in Physics out in California as a back-up. It was the only acceptance letter I received. So I packed my bags and drove to San Francisco.

The Master’s program contained students from many backgrounds-- both academic and personal. Many of us found that we needed to retake undergraduate-level Physics classes to prepare us for the higher-level courses in the program. Because of this, we quickly bonded by working on homework together, making sure no one fell behind. We supported each other through periods of self-doubt and wanting to give up. I had never experienced such camaraderie before. This empowered me to pursue my Ph.d.

I applied to graduate schools and retook the Physics GRE. This time I scored a 24% which, while better than before, still wasn’t high enough to earn my Master’s or get into Phd programs. Again, I felt discouraged. When I met with my research adviser about this, he urged me not to give up. He felt I was ready for a Phd program and encouraged me to stay an extra year in order to focus on my research and study for the GRE. My advisor listed graduate programs that he thought better-suited my research interests. He even suggested that, if I didn’t want to continue in academia, he would help me find alternative career paths. Motivated by his confidence in me, I agreed to give it all another go. I studied rigorously and received a much-improved 46% on the Physics GRE. I was then accepted into one of the Phd programs suggested by my adviser with guaranteed access to a 4-meter class telescope, which proved to be critical for my dissertation research.

Though this is only one person’s experience, I can’t help but wonder if we should ditch that bootstrap saying. Having determination doesn’t mean you have to accomplish your goals all on your own. A lot of my own success stems from determination, but I cannot ignore the encouragement and support I received when I wanted to just give up. Instead of straps, I like to think that my boots have zippers. As I pull the tab, the teeth close behind me keeping me up, supporting and propelling me towards my goals. My hope is to pay it forward by being the teeth in someone else’s boots.

Friday, March 3, 2017 

The Little Things

Experiences shape us and we are shaped by our experiences. But experiences are just an accumulation of little interactions with the world around us. Some of these little interactions, if they happen often enough, start to have a big impact on your overall experience. Talking about your own experiences and how they differ from others can help bring awareness to the inequalities we face. For me, that started by posting short Facebook statuses highlighting a few of my experiences as a white, straight, female astronomer. I am summarizing my posts here along with discussion. I hope that these posts give you a glimpse of another human's experience and encourage you to tell of your own experiences.

Too Pretty

A comment I get pretty much every time I tell someone I am an astrophysicist.

Person: You're too pretty to be that smart.

Me: Don't worry. I didn't let my looks get in the way of analyzing galaxy spectra.

What surprised me the most about posting this exchange is the number of my friends who were appalled that this is said to me. For women in scientific disciplines, this is something that we hear-- a lot. We are constantly defying people's expectations just by our presence. Imagine if we spoke about our knowledge!

The reason I posted it is not to appall people but to give them an idea about why women feel discouraged in fields dominated by men. When someone says this to me, I immediately get the impression they don't think I'm intelligent or capable of studying astrophysics. It's exactly what they said. Pretty people aren't smart. Men aren't usually referred to as pretty so I know that my gender identity spurred this comment. My response is my way of showing them that what you look like has no effect on your ability to succeed in a field. And it usually keeps them from saying something like that again to someone else.


My partner and I met our first year of graduate school in the Physics department. Six years later we found out we'd be having a baby! Upon telling other academics the news, the responses to each of us differed drastically.

Response to my partner: Are you excited to be a dad?

Response to me: Are you going to finish your degree?

Just to remind you, my partner and I were in the same program and at the same points in our studies. We had both passed our qualifying exams and our preliminary oral exams. Both of us were in the home stretch to earning our Ph.ds. We were both teaching assistants and doing research. The only difference is that I was carrying a human life inside of me. While pregnancy affected me physically, after the baby was born, both my partner and I were taking care of a new human. Being the only one asked about finishing my degree made it seem like these academics were questioning my ability to finish and didn't see it as a detriment for me to leave the field. They obviously didn't think my partner would have a problem finishing.

Don't Worry

In fifth grade I did poorly on a Math test for the first time. I went to my teacher to ask what I should do. Her response to me was "Don't worry about it. Girls aren't as good at Math as boys". I just kept thinking "That doesn't answer my question". From that point on I never asked another teacher for help until college.

Unfortunately, too many children are told something like this at some point in their lives. Those of us who have other people in our corner can rise above it. But many children have parents who were told the exact same thing. Where do they find support? My parents were my privilege. They always told me I was good at math and encouraged me to work hard at it. But what if they had also been told at a young age that they couldn't be good at math because they were female or poor or not white? Would they still be able to encourage me?

Our experiences shape us and we are shaped by our experiences. We cannot move forward towards equality if we don't understand the experiences of our neighbors.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 

A Little Girl As My Guide

I fell in love with Astronomy after watching Carl Sagan's COSMOS series. My mom would rent them from the library for me when I was seven or eight years old. I can recall seeing Dr. Sagan working with the Voyager team, going over images taken by the satellite and thinking "That's what I want to do. I want to be a part of a team pushing the boundaries of knowledge." The way astronomers study the mysteries of space fascinated that little girl. They can't touch anything out there. They can't change it and see what happens. All they can do is watch. Now that little girl is an astronomer, and she's still fascinated by the field, but she isn't part of a research team. My path did not lead her there. That little girl acted as my guide through this whole journey, pushing me forward. I want to thank her for not giving up on me and helping me through the obstacles thrown in my path.

My interest in Astronomy was obvious to my family and friends. I would read random Astronomy books and people bought me space-themed stuff, but I had no real connections to the field. I had no idea what you needed to know to be an astronomer. I figured I would learn it all in college. When applying to college during my senior year of high school I discovered that to study Astronomy I would have to major in Physics. That little girl was so excited to study such a difficult subject so I marked on all my applications that I wanted to study Physics. I received phone calls from many of the schools trying to convince me to choose them. Not because of my SAT scores or my grades, but because I was female. It was very obvious going in that I would be a minority in my courses so I chose a small liberal arts college. Because the classes were smaller, I got a lot of support and attention from my professors. They encouraged me to apply to graduate school to continue studying Astronomy. That little girl was excited to learn more.

A liberal arts education meant I had to take many classes outside my field of study. I did well in all my classes but my knowledge did not prepare me for the Physics GRE which I needed to take for graduate school. I had no idea what to expect going into this test and I didn't study. I got a terrible score, I only did better than 1% of the other exam takers. The rejection letters from graduate programs came in droves and that little girl started to get worried. I emailed one school asking what was weak about my application. The response I received read something like "Your application was not up to the calibre of our institution. Your GRE score was the lowest of all our applicants. Scoff scoff." I had no idea how much weight that test held and I didn't ask any other institutions for feedback. That little girl told me it wasn't necessary since they obviously didn't have anything useful to say.

By some stroke of genius I applied to a Master's program that didn't need Physics GRE scores. I was accepted and had an amazing experience! I had to take a diagnostic exam to evaluate my Physics knowledge. Needless to say, I didn't have much. My confidence was shattered going in but that little girl told me it would be OK because we were going to learn what we needed. I had to retake a bunch of undergraduate level courses but, in the process, I found colleagues from different backgrounds who were in the same situation. I made life-long friends and had an adviser who never let me give up. Even when I broke down in my third year of the program and declared I wasn't cut out for Astronomy he told me to focus on retaking the Physics GRE and to apply to specific Ph.D programs that would accept someone with my abilities. I studied my ass off and did much better on the Physics GRE the third time around. It wasn't Harvard good, but I didn't want to go there. After a total of four years and two rounds of graduate school applications, I got into a Ph.d program with renewed self-confidence. That little girl was ecstatic.

That confidence was not to last. In my first semester of the Ph.D program, I tried to get a head start on research since I already had experience. Half-way into the semester, the adviser I worked with told me I wasn't cut out for a Ph.D program since I couldn't handle coursework, studying for my qualifying exam and research. That little girl told me I was obviously qualified to be there so, despite that blow to my self-esteem, I found a new adviser and passed my qualifying exam on the first try. Over the next four years I agreed to develop a project that would use an instrument my new adviser was building for the SOAR telescope in Chile. I helped obtain funding for building the instrument and created a strategy to use it to study galaxies in compact groups. That little girl was so happy to be working on new and exciting research. Just as we were getting ready to commission the instrument on the telescope, my adviser decided to take a year of leave to work in Australia and left me with the responsibility of getting the instrument up and running in Chile. That little girl wasn't phased at all. We would be just like Carl Sagan, working with a team to build something that would be used to study the universe.

I spent two separate weeks in October and November 2013 working with the day crew at the telescope to get the instrument working so I could finally take some data. It was unsuccessful and my adviser basically said I was screwed. So after crying in the bathroom of the telescope for 10 minutes that little girl helped me back up and I adapted my project to use a different instrument on the same telescope to take my data. I told my dissertation committee the plan and they approved. Shortly after this, I found out I was pregnant with a little girl of my own. Over the next year and a half I had a baby, took some of my data, and worked on my science communication skills. My husband graduated from our program and got a tenure-track position so we bought a house and I finished my last year remotely. While waiting to close on our new home I took the last of my data. Once our daughter started daycare in September I was free to analyse all that data and six months later, I got the go ahead from my adviser to defend in April 2016. In the next two months I wrote my dissertation and successfully defended it.

On top of all that I also applied for more than 20 jobs during this time and wasn't hired by any of them. Instead I used connections through my adviser from my Master's program to meet with astronomers in the area. That led me to a temporary faculty position at a university 20 minutes from our house which I'll start in the fall. I can still do research on my own and will continue to do science outreach in my spare time.

Those last two years went by so fast that I didn’t have time to check in with my little guide. I put that seven year old girl through hell, but she got me through it. Now that it’s over I’ve been spending some time thinking about how that little girl watching COSMOS helped me. We started this journey knowing what we wanted to be and ended up discovering what we needed to be every time we encountered resistance. I am so thankful she was with me through this journey because I couldn't have done it without her.

Monday, April 25, 2016 

The Resurrection of Planet X

Earlier this week, two astronomers at Caltech announced that they had observational evidence of a ninth planet orbiting in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt. The planet has not been directly detected but its effect on the orbits of six dwarf planets was observed. Based on theoretical models, the most likely explanation for the unexpected orbits of these icy bodies is a planet, 5 to 10 times the mass of Earth. They're calling it Planet Nine, but I remember when I first became interested in Astronomy at 7 years old, reading about the mysterious "Planet X" that many believed orbited somewhere in the Kuiper Belt. The story of the search for Planet X and other far orbiting bodies is apparently far from over.

Anomalies in Uranus’ orbit led astronomers to calculate the theoretical presence of another large planet. These theoretical calculations were verified with the discovery of Neptune in the 1840s. However, the initially measured mass of Neptune could not completely account for the perturbations in Uranus’ orbit. A decades long hunt for “Planet X” commenced at the end of the 19th century at Lowell Observatory. A few locations for Planet X were proposed but no candidate bodies revealed themselves until 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh noticed a faint blob that moved across the background of distant stars. The new body was named Pluto and many astronomers attempted to determine its mass. None of their calculations allowed them to claim Pluto as the long searched for Planet X. In 1989, Voyager 2 flew close enough to Neptune to allow astronomers to accurately measure its mass. The new mass measurement turned out to be adequate to describe the fluctuations in Uranus’ orbit, which removed the need for Planet X. Pluto's discovery turned out to be a happy coincidence.

In an interesting twist, one of the Caltech astronomers proposing the existence of Planet Nine is Michael Brown, author of the book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming". For over 70 years, the status of Pluto as a major planet was not questioned. However, as telescope sizes increased and the ability to place telescopes in orbit around Earth became feasible, more information about Pluto came to light. This amassed evidence showed that bodies orbiting past Neptune were very different than the eight major planets in our Solar System. In August of 2006, eight months after the launch of NASA's New Horizons satellite, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) changed the classification of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. Many still question the criteria set by the IAU to define a planet. Data provided by the New Horizons mission after it makes its fly-by of the dwarf planet MU69 in 2019 may help the IAU further modify the definition.

It is increasingly obvious that we are still learning what is lurking in the outer reaches of our Solar System. Much like the search for Planet X led us to discover the icy worlds in the Kuiper Belt, the search for Planet Nine is guaranteed to teach us more about our Solar System.

Saturday, January 23, 2016 

Where Galaxies Live and How that Affects Star Birth

I gave a talk on my research at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. View it here! 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015