Webcam cover

I knitted a tiny hat for my external webcam, for stylish privacy when it’s not in use, and I wrote it up in my first ever knitting pattern! If you make it and find an error, please tell me and I’ll fix it 😬 If you don’t see the PDF embedded below, download it here.

Physics choir, Winter 2020

The MSU Physics choir, the Grand Canonical Ensemble (it’s a physics pun), had our virtual performance at the end of 2020! Since we rehearsed on zoom with sound off the whole semester, this was also our first time ever hearing each other and how we sounded together!! (I’m in the yellow scarf with the peach background)

Black Lives Matter and anti-racism resources

Aside from showing up at protests (wear a mask the whole time! to not spread COVID and to protect your identity!), talking with neighbors (I think I convinced an older white guy that being at a protest doesn’t mean you deserve tear gas), and donating money (scroll down for places), I’ve been reading and reflecting and flagging for follow-up. White supremacy is ingrained in nearly every aspect of my life. Recognizing it, unlearning it. and actively working against it is possible (and necessary!) and I’m in it for the long haul. If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are of experiencing and living it! Here are a list of articles, tweets, and organizations relevant to Black Lives Matter, protests, and anti-racism. Please read and share, and contact me if you have suggestions/corrections.

Articles I’ve read/on my to-read list

This is a mix of articles on current events and analysis of historical events that provide context for the current Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve put things in alphabetical order by author’s last name. You’re welcome to provide further suggestions!

Twitter threads that are extra super good

I’ve re-tweeted and signal-boosted lots on my twitter, but these threads get extra mention. Again, alphabetical by last name, where possible.

Organizations to donate to

Lansing-area twitter accounts to follow for protest and safety info

  • BLMLansing (FYI, they did not organize the May 31st protest; after a few hours of the nonviolent protest that formed, they strongly encouraged everyone to go home)
  • LansingDSA
  • BLMPolice and InghamScanner (tweets of what’s said on the police scanner)

Some more articles, while you’re here

If we’re mutuals on Instagram, you can also check out some info and resources I’ve saved to my IG Stories.

Take care 💖

Local Lansing farms for produce and meat

In an effort to both support local farms and avoid the grocery store as much as possible (no more than once every 2 or 3 weeks), I’ve been ordering things directly from farms! They’re listed in order of approximate distance from the city of Lansing. Some of them have come from a list of farmers market vendors in the area. Please let me know if I’ve mislabeled anything or missed one you love!

Fresh produce

Eggs, Meat, and Dairy

Other food

  • Rust Belt Roastery, Lansing: coffee
  • Ozone’s Brewhouse, Lansing: beer, new growlers and to-go cans (not refilling old growlers)
  • Stone Cloud Gardens (Marjorie & Bob Johns): jams and jellies, vinegars, handmade soap. Order at stonecloudgardens@yahoo.com
  • DavePops, St. John’s MI: dairy-free popsicles; minimum order of 1 dozen, can mix and match flavors, Lansing delivery each week
  • Sandy Ridge Farm, Owosso: baked goods, syrup. Farm pickup hours are Friday 3-7pm at 3611 Tyrrell Rd Owosso; check facebook for options and order instructions 
  • Grampa’s Pasties, Richland MI: pasties! Taking orders and doing drops every couple of weeks

So you want to be an astronomer

Astronomy research makes for an interesting and challenging career! In my experience, it’s one of the more collaborative physical sciences, and it’s one of the most fascinating things I could possibly be doing with my time. I’m regularly asked for my advice by high school and college/university students on what they should do to become a professional astronomer, so I’m sharing it all here. Other professional astronomers like Prof. Katie Mack also have advice on their websites!

High school

Take physics, math, and computer programming (if offered). It will be most helpful to you if you can take pre-calculus and calculus 1 in high school, and AP/IB/honors physics (if available). Statistics is also very useful, but unfortunately you may have to choose stats OR calc, and I would probably recommend calculus for now (but listen to your teacher’s advice, since they know you and your program best). Much of astronomy is actually done with writing scientific research software for data analysis or simulations, so having a programming background is SUPER useful!

You can also look into summer research opportunities at your local college or university. As a researcher, it is often difficult to hire a high school student on their own for research, so it’s best to go through established programs. Check online for summer research opportunities both in your area and (non-local) residential programs.

When looking at colleges/universities, keep in mind that not all programs are equally rigorous. Many times, astronomy is part of a physics (or sometimes physics & astronomy) department, so you will take lots of physics classes. Do undergrads take two semesters of upper-level Electricity & Magnetism? Two semesters of upper-level Quantum Mechanics? Can undergrads take graduate-level classes if they complete the pre-requisites? Both small liberal arts colleges and massive public research universities can have rigorous physics and astronomy programs, so ask questions! Also ask what research opportunities there are for undergrads on campus (in addition to summer research), and how many students go on to grad school (if you think that’s something you might want to do).

Keep up with your athletic and artistic pursuits. Hobbies are good for the soul.

College/university

Again, take physics, math, computer programming, and astronomy (if offered), and meet with your advisor to be sure you’re fulfilling the course requirements for your degree. Make study groups with your classmates, and ask questions at office hours with your prof and/or teaching assistant. College is when the training wheels start to come off and you transition to being a self-driven learner, so your coursework will transition from being formulaic plug-and-play to being multi-stage problems that help you synthesize different aspects of the course material.

Talk with your academic advisor about research opportunities, both during the semester and the summer. Different universities have policies about doing this for course credit vs. being an hourly employee, so ask questions, accept advice from your mentor(s), and do whatever is best for your personal situation. Building on a former student’s research project is great experience, and is true to how most research actually goes!

Applying to grad school

If you decide that you really like research and want to pursue graduate school, talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people). Again, listen to their advice. Chat with grad students, postdocs, and profs who work in areas you’re interested in, and ask them what classes are most helpful for studying that field. Remember that grad school in the US and Canada (and post-MSc PhD programs elsewhere) is *paid* and tuition is either covered by grants or very inexpensive. You should not be taking out a loan to go to grad school in the sciences. Iterate with your advisor (and even a writing tutor) on grad school application materials, and give your letter writers ample time (like 4 weeks notice) for the letters of recommendation. You can also ask a letter writer to include specific pieces of information to explain any discrepancy in your transcript, like if you had health problems and that’s why your grades dropped one semester.

Policies vary based on country and school, but often times you’ll be invited to visit either as an interview stage or after you’ve been accepted to grad school. Take this opportunity to chat with professors you want to work with, grad students (to see how happy they are and how much they’d recommend the program), and get a feel for the location and whether or not you could realistically live there for 6ish years. If you’re part of an underrepresented demographic and you don’t see anyone else from that demographic at that school, ask questions of mentors and current grad students (there and elsewhere) to figure out whether there’s a notable systemic problem there, or there just don’t happen to be any students of that demographic there at that time.

You should know that there’s a mental health crisis among graduate students, and graduate school is HARD (both emotionally and mentally). Part of the difficulty is because you’ve chosen a particular path and that path is challenging (research is part exploration and part banging your head against a wall). You’re also in a life stage with a lot of existential angst and growing pains as you figure out what kind of adult you are and what kind of life you want. Advisor fit is one of the better predictors of mental wellbeing among graduate students, so pick someone who you mesh well with and who you think will support and inspire you. Your advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience — a great advisor will help you find a niche that plays to your strengths in whatever sub-field you find interesting (like high-energy astronomy, or exoplanets, or quantum information, or optics); a negligent advisor will amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can cause you to dislike a research topic that you might otherwise think you love. It can be tricky to judge the quality of a working relationship based on short interactions, but chatting with grad students (both in their group and not) can help fill in the picture.

Some final thoughts

Above all, know that it is very normal to change your dreams, and change your major, and change your job. There are new and varied challenges to being an astronomer as you move along the path from undergrad to grad to postdoc (and presumably to professor). There is more than one way to be an astronomer, and the community as a whole needs people with varied talents and areas of expertise — not just research, but also outreach, teaching, advocacy, etc. Building your own support network of peers and mentors (more senior grad students, postdocs, and profs) can help you find your own path to success!

Doing my MSc in Canada


I wrote a guest post in AstroBetter about doing my MSc in Canada at the University of Alberta! Going abroad for a MSc is quite an uncommon path for US-born students in STEM, but I’m really glad I did it. Read the whole post here!

I knitted a hat!


When I was a kid, my grandma taught me to knit, and I made a few simple little things. In middle school and high school, I’d knit skinny “fashion scarves” with fluffy sparkly yarn, and I did some granny-square blankets, teddy bears, and mittens with the church youth knitting group (I was suuuuper cool /sarcasm). I hadn’t really touched it at all since starting college, but I noticed it becoming popular again among my generation in the past five or so years. So, I finally properly picked it up again earlier this month and knitted a hat!

Checking the circumference and length of the body of the hat. Yes, I’m using a paper clip for my row marker.

At the suggestion of the ladies at Sticks & Strings in Lansing, I joined Ravelry and found a cute, easy pattern for a winter hat (/toque, for Canadians). I used the Bankhead pattern by Susie Gourlay, adult size large. It fits pretty perfectly! Have a look at my project page on Ravelry for the technical details. I’ve noticed that it’s easier now to do “longer” patterns while binge-watching tv shows! I also have a longer attention span as a 28 year old than I did as a 12 year old. I made this hat in probably 5 days (two weekends and a workday evening) working at a leisurely pace. I’d say it was relaxing to work on this, but mostly, it was nice for my anxiety to be channelled in a focused, creative outlet where the input-output relation (so much work for so much result) is basically linear 😊 I’m looking forward to the Fiber Arts Fest in Ann Arbor in October!

CUWiP panel on mental health


If you’re an undergraduate physics/astronomy major in the US or Canada and a gender minority (woman, non-binary, etc.), sign up to attend the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP)! It’s a 3-day regional conference Jan 18-20, 2019 held at 12 locations across the US and Canada, so there’ll be one not too far from you. You can look up the CUWiP hosting universities here.

At Michigan State University (for students in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania) I’ll be involved in a panel/workshop on mental health! Take a look at a seminar I gave in May 2018 at MSU on mental wellbeing for early career researchers (note that many of the university resources are MSU-specific). Mental health issues are alarmingly common for early career researchers (students and postdocs), so raising awareness and connecting people to resources are very important.

Conference networking and self-care

I’m at COSPAR 2018 in Pasadena, CA this week! COSPAR is a giant meeting with 3,500+ attendees from all around the world spanning all aspects of astronomy, astro-particle physics, space physics, solar physics, astrobiology, and any other science from low-Earth-orbit to the edge of the universe. COSPAR 2018 is Pasadena’s largest-ever scientific conference! It can be a bit overwhelming, so here are some tips for networking at and navigating such a meeting.

Networking

“Networking” means making friends/acquaintances with nice people who do interesting science. That’s really all it is! Quick conversation starters: ask them what their latest paper was on, students are working on, and/or side projects are. It’s ok to ask simpler/broader subject questions!

  • Email people you’d like to meet and ask to meet them for lunch or coffee, and tell them when your poster/talk is.
  • If it’s your first time at a very large meeting, attach yourself to someone a little more senior than you who you know well (senior grad student, postdoc) and ask them to introduce you to people at coffee breaks and bring you along for meals the first day.
  • Tag along for meals even if you just met the people! Saying “mind if I join you for lunch?” or “mind if I join you for dinner?” is  a totally normal thing to ask at conferences.
  • Get dinner with colleagues on the majority of the evenings. Mix it up: sometimes with grad students, sometimes some postdocs and profs in the mix. Take evenings for yourself when you need them, but don’t miss out on this part of networking.
  • Attend the keynote talks. They’re often quite interesting, and people will generally be talking about them at coffee breaks and whatnot.
  • Try going to a session block that sounds really interesting and is totally out of your wheelhouse. Also go to a session block or two in a related topic to broaden your understanding of your own subtopic. This is one of those great things you can only do at very large, broad meetings like COSPAR!
  • Prepare an “elevator pitch” (one to two sentence non-jargon summary) if someone asks what your research is on.
  • See this great thread on attending a conference as a student/ECR without your advisor there!

Self-care

Giant 9-day-long conferences can be exhausting, even for the most extroverted among us. Try not to skimp on your usual basic self-care like eating regular healthy meals, getting plenty of sleep at night, and exercising once or twice a week (even just 20 minutes of youtube yoga in your hotel room).

  • Don’t feel bad about skipping sessions. Acknowledge now that you won’t see All The Talks.
  • Spend time making new conference buddies and seeing old ones.
  • Take a nap if you need to! At one of the big AAS winter meetings, I took a nap every day.
  • Eat a vegetable every day. Your body needs it.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Try to not go over your usual caffeine & sugar intake. I know, I know, that’s what coffee breaks are for…but try not to go overboard. Doing this helps me manage anxiety better and sleep reasonably well with the jetlag.
  • Struggling with your mental health at a conference can be more taxing than usual. Reach out to friends (at the conference and at home), and take time to do whatever helps you when you’re at home. Generally people don’t pry and we all know everyone else is busy, but if you need an excuse to get out of something, you’re “not feeling great, but will catch up tomorrow/the next day/after my talk.”

What would you add to the lists?

HEAsoft install on a Mac

Updated Feb 1, 2021

Here are my instructions for how to get HEAsoft, the NASA High Energy Astrophysics Software, set up on a Mac with macOS Catalina (v10.15.7). I learned most of this from HEAsoft’s own documentation (and a lot of trial and error over the years). I work in bash, so adapt as needed if you use c-shell or zsh. Disclaimer: I’m not a HEAsoft developer or maintainer, so follow this advice at your own risk. Actual HEAsoft maintainers should be your first point of contact if something goes wrong.

Step 0

Make a full backup of your machine as-is.

Step 1

Install these things:

Anaconda
Xcode from the App Store
Command Line Tools for Xcode by typing xcode-select –install
homebrew (or another package manager like MacPorts or Fink)

prompted to run these by homebrew:

git -C /usr/local/Homebrew/Library/Taps/homebrew/homebrew-core fetch –unshallow
git -C /usr/local/Homebrew/Library/Taps/homebrew/homebrew-cask fetch –unshallow

Step 2

Using the package manager, install the following (and their dependencies). Some of these are brew upgrade Thing instead of brew install Thing (it will complain and tell you).

brew install gcc@10
brew install x11vnc
brew install perl
brew install wget
brew install automake
brew install mawk
brew install flex
brew install wcslib
brew install lzip
brew install slang
brew install imagemagick
brew install gnuplot
brew install ncurses
brew install pgplot
brew install cfitsio

Step 3

Download the HEAsoft source tarball. The first bullet point, above Step 1 on that page, should have everything you need (and you probably don’t need the extra old XSPEC stuff). This download takes like 30 minutes! I then put it in the directory ~/opt/ and unzip the HEAsoft tarball in there (tar -xvzf). This is a different location than what I’ve previously done! It seems that the new macOS really hates letting the user install things as su.

As it’s downloading, navigate to your old HEADAS directory and rename it to, e.g., old-heasoft6.26. This way there won’t be weird crosstalk. You can also delete your previous old-heasoft and tarball if you still have it. If you’ve never ever installed HEAsoft on your computer, you can skip this part.

Step 4

Follow the instructions for remote CALDB: https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/heasarc/caldb/caldb_remote_access.html. Remember to save the files in /usr/local/src and put the appropriate export lines in ~/.bashrc!

Step 5

Copy/paste into ~/.bashrc (using homebrew installations of the compilers and the anaconda distribution of python 3):

export CC=/usr/local/bin/gcc-10
export CXX=/usr/local/bin/g++-10
export FC=/usr/local/bin/gfortran-10
export PERL=/usr/local/bin/perl
export PYTHON=/Users/YourUserName/opt/anaconda3/bin/python
unset CFLAGS CXXFLAGS FFLAGS LDFLAGS

Step 6

In the ~/.bash_profile file, be sure that /usr/bin and /usr/local/bin are at the beginning of your PATH environment variable.

Step 7

Restart your computer. I don’t know how necessary this is, but it’s one of the few things that changed in the few days between the install not working and working.

Step 8

To configure, make, and install (your HEAsoft version number might be different when you reference this blog post):

cd ~/opt/heasoft-6.28/BUILD_DIR/
./configure
make > build.log 2>&1
make install > install.log 2>&1

Note that I’m no longer passing the X11 include and library directories to the configure script, as I’ve had to do in previous installs. You should be able to open build.log and install.log as those things are going (from a different terminal window) to see their progress. You can also use tail build.log and tail install.log to view the last 10 lines of the files (though this won’t update, so this is more for occasional checks).

The make line with build.log takes a particularly long amount of time (like 20ish minutes). Since it’ll use a lot of memory and you’ll hear the fans going as it’s makeing, I don’t recommend playing videogames on your computer in the downtime.

Step 9

Copy/paste into ~/.bashrc for general use (again, your HEAsoft version number and system architecture might be different. If you ls in the HEAsoft directory you’ll see what to put for the system architecture thing):

export HEADAS=/Users/YourUserName/opt/heasoft-6.28/x86_64-apple-darwin19.6.0
alias heainit=”. $HEADAS/headas-init.sh”

To start up XSPEC, in a bash terminal session type

heainit
xspec

and it should start up an XSPEC environment! Happy analysis!

Step 10

Once I get PyXSPEC working, I’ll put the steps here.