Thursday, May 21, 2020

How Can I Learn About Astronomy this summer?

I just had a wonderful conversation with a high school student from Michigan who would like to use the summer (as a rising senior) to explore her interest in astrophysics. 

There are summer research experiences out there for high schoolers. I'll add links to any I find here if I find any, but I couldn't think of any off the top of my head, and I am completely overwhelmed with undergraduate summer researchers this year. 

But I did have these ideas for how to do self directed astronomy useful stuff this summer, at an appropriate level (I think) for motivated and self-directed high schoolers/undergraduate - so I'm sharing them here in case it's useful to others: 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Off Screen Ideas for Kids Who Don't Like Sports

Being a full time college Professor and a Mum during pandemic stay home orders is rough at times. Just over a day ago, I tweeted in desperation "ISO solo off screen activities for my son (10) who says he's "different from other 4th graders and doesn't like sports". I thought my Twitter followers might have awesome suggestions." The response was so awesome it nudged me to write my first blog post in almost two years (oops! what can I say I've been busy).

In whatever random order it was Twitter showed these replies here's a list of seventeen different suggestions. Son has decided to go with Lego animation (which I count as number 18), and I added two more from some "IRL" friends to make a total of 20.

I might update these with tips/links as he does them (if he does them). Thanks all - you are amazing!

1. Photography

2. Pottery
3. Writing letters to nursing homes
4. Kite making
5. Pinata making (paper mache)
6. Fire starting (with sticks only)
7. Paint rocks with inspirational quotes
8. Tie dying
9. Puffy painting thrift store clothing

10. Learn to play guitar

11. Anything with Lego

12. Start a fish tank/ant colony
13. Electronics
14. Cooking

15. Science experiments

16. Paintining minatures (e.g. Warhammer)

17. 3D printing

18. Make stop motion animations with Lego (what my son decided to start with). 

Also to complete the set, my irl friends have so far suggested: 

19. Plan and build a tree house
20. Take up skateboarding

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Gender ratios in physics students in the US and UK....

Why do A-level physics gender ratios in the UK and BSc physics major gender ratios in the USA show similar trends offset by 15 years....?

In the UK the trend flatlined (or began declining) around 1985. I the USA the flat line/decline starts around 2000. There should be an offset of about 4 years (the length of time it takes to get a degree in the USA), but I don't understand 15 years.... 

Modelling Data - Example using A-level Physics Gender Trends

Love this blog post: "Brent and Levenberg-Marquardt: the bread and butter algorithms for postgrads" which uses data I collected as an example for modelling trends.
I collected these data to include in an article I was invited to write for Astronomy&Geophysics on "Women of the future in the RAS". In that article I conclude: "Fitting a straight line to this 60-year trend and dangerously extrapolating the poor linear fit into the future, we find that we can't expect gender equality in physics A-level until 2163."

The data is not cheerful, and a linear increase model does not fit it well. In fact according 's best fit model, recent years show a decline in the fraction of A-level physicsists who are women. 
Credit to Val Aslanyan ( for this version of this plot.

What to Call your Professor?

Nice infographic which may help with the age old question - why do so many people call me Mrs. Masters? (PS. That's my Mother, or my Nanna, but never me, my patriarchal married name would be different.....)
So, you're taking a class... What do you call your professor?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tech Support for Finding Stars

Here's an article by Benji Jones for Gizmodo in which I was interviewed about helping people find stars they have "bought".

People Can't Find the Stars They Paid to Name—and They're Calling Astronomers for Tech Support

The main points:
  •  There is nothing official about buying a star - you're just buying a nice certificate.
  • Many of the stars cannot be seen without substantial amateur size telescopes
  • You can see them online fairly easilly. 
I had previously (like over a decade ago!) written about this for the Curious about Astronomy? Ask an Astronomer website.: "How can I find the star that I bought?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

My Advice for Summer Research Placement Applications

Summer research experiences for undergraduates have been common in the US for years, and more recently have been growing in availability in the UK (where they are sometimes called "summer research placements"). They are one of the best ways to help obtain a PhD position where demonstrating your experience and ability in the research environment really helps.

As an undergraduate at Oxford I benefited from summer placements in two summer breaks. I spent the summer between my first and second years working at the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center (as part of the British University's North America Club, BUNAC exchange scheme), and in the summer between my second and third year I spent 10 weeks working with Duncan Forbes, then an academic at Birmingham University (which happens to be relatively close to where I grew up), on a project which resulted in my first ever published paper: "The elliptical galaxy formerly known as the Local Group: merging the globular cluster systems", Forbes, Masters, Minniti & Barmby 2000, A&A 358, 471.

I have also previously been in charge of organizing a summer research placement scheme (Summer Research Placements at the ICG, Portsmouth), and it has been a real pleasure to be able to help the current generation of undergraduates access different schemes.

Here are my top tips for summer placement applications, as well as making the most of a short talk/poster presentation which may follow:

Application Tips (many of these I assume apply to more than just summer placements):
  • Tailor your cover letter (at least a bit). A form letter is easy to spot, and probably worthless
  • Spell check.
  • Be open to different project possibilities, but honest about subject areas/placements that don't interest you.
  • Spell check.
  • It's extremely helpful if you include details of your results in different units. This helps us figure out which project may be most suitable for you.
  • Spell check.
  • Don't assume the person you are sending the application to is admin staff (especially if they are female).
  • Spell check.
  • Don't assume the person you are sending the application to is male (especially if they are female).
  • Spell check. 
  • In fact just address the letter to "Dear Prof/Dr. A. Non". Don't go with "Ms. A. Non", "Mr. A. Non", "Amy", "Andrew" or "Dear Sir".... No-one was ever offended by you being more formal than you needed to be, and I suggest you spend 5 minutes looking up who you are writing to (or if if you can't work it out go with "Dear Sir/Madam", or "Dear Summer Placement Organizer").
  • Spell check. 
  • Send your CV as a pdf, with a filename which includes your surname. 
  • don't use a personal email - your University should have provided you with an email you can use. 
  • list references up front, rather than list them as "on request".
  • Oh did I mention you should use the spell check on your computer (honestly I'm bad about this too, hence mentioning it so much. Correct spelling demonstrates you care about your application). 

Poster Tips:

  • Go for visual impression. It's likely your poster will be in a room with many posters, so you need to attract attention
  • Include some photos of what you did.
  • Don't put too much text - just the main points.
  • Make sure you can read all text if you print the poster A4 size - then it's about right for printing full size to go on the wall (and you can make handouts easilly if you want to). 
  • Include your email/photo/full name. 

Presentation Tips:
  • Say your FULL NAME, and the University you study at. 
  • Say the FULL NAME of the location of your placement, what they do, and what your project was
  • Describe your main result and/or something you enjoyed about the placement. Describe the implications of what you found (these may not be obvious). 
  • End with "If you'd like to know [more or something specific] come and see my poster, number XX".