3Q: Sarah Ballard On Astrophysics And Gender Equity In Science

Friday, November 13, 2015
by Debbie Meinbresse | MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research

In September, Sarah Ballard joined MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research as a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow in exoplanetary research. She earned a BA in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard University. Ballard also spent three years at the University of Washington as a NASA Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow. So far, she has discovered four exoplanets — planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system — and she is currently investigating ensemble properties of planetary systems and their atmospheres.

In addition to astronomy, Ballard is deeply committed to pursuing an inclusive and equitable science culture. She’s authored articles for The Harvard Crimson and for professional astronomy blogs about parental leave, values affirmation, the intelligence of groups, incentivizing self-care in academia, and practices for allyship. She has designed and led an impostor syndrome workshop and made those resources publicly available. Ballard also co-produces a podcast, “Self-Care with Drs. Sarah,” with another female astronomer, about helping women navigate the challenges of the science pipeline.

On Oct. 13, Sarah was awarded the 2015 L’Oreal USA For Women in Science Award. The L’Oreal program supports female researchers and encourages women to pursue STEM in fields where women are underrepresented. She recently answered a few questions about her career and future aspirations.

Q: How did you first become interested in being an astrophysicist?

A: I was 18 years old. In school I was never particularly interested in science, although I did just fine in my classes. I thought math was very satisfying in high school because of how challenging it was, but that was in my late teens. In middle school I remember being tearful doing my homework because I could not understand the point of the quadratic formula. Now it feels like an old friend! I actually remember, too, a period of time when I thought “x” was always 3, and failed many tests. It makes me laugh now to remember that. 

I was a freshman in college at UC Berkeley and took astronomy to fulfill what I thought at the time was a useless physical science requirement. I wanted to major in gender studies or peace and conflict studies, and I thought I might be a social worker. I would stumble sleepily out of the dorms to get to this astronomy class at 9 a.m. What started as just a class to tolerate shifted very slowly to be my favorite class. I never missed office hours, and I looked forward to doing my homework. I remember printing out star charts and taking them outside the dorm onto the Berkeley street at night to find Jupiter. I excelled on every quiz and test because of how hard I worked. I would sometimes get goosebumps in lecture because of how vast and incredible the universe is. But just like most women who pursue advanced degrees in STEM, I did so for different reasons that those men commonly report: While most men will stay in STEM because they feel they are good at the subject or can make a contribution, most women report pursuing STEM degrees because someone important to them encouraged them at a key moment. This happened to me with three people at this crucial juncture, when I went to them and asked what they thought about changing my major to astronomy: my astronomy professor, my astronomy teaching assistant, and an academic counselor at UC Berkeley. All three wholeheartedly encouraged me.

I particularly remember the counselor asking me what it felt like to do astronomy. I was very confused about what to do, and afraid that I wasn’t smart enough. I described the joy and excitement I felt about it, and shared how well I’d been doing. She told me: “That’s what it’s supposed to feel like when you find something you ought to do.” I’ve never forgotten that. 

Q: What are some of the challenges women face as scientists?

A: I think a good answer to this question addresses the rockiness of the landscape generally, and not only the rocks I’ve personally stubbed my toe or tripped on! It deserves a lengthy answer to address it with the complexity it deserves, but I will give a condensed version. At every step of the way, it is harder for women and people of color. Physics is so white that most studies about bias in our field are related to gender, so I’ll confine my remarks to gender for now. We receive less grant money for the same achievements (we have to achieve roughly twice as much as a man to be perceived as equally qualified), we are offered lower salaries with the same qualifications, we are bereft of mentors, and we suffer the indignity of being told it’s all in our heads, or worse.

But probably the largest injustice is one that could be remedied most straightforwardly, and that has to do with child care. I’m at the part of the so-called “pipeline” where women leak the most: the step between postdoctoral researcher, a scientist with a PhD in a temporary research job, and the bottom rung of professor. Women are just as likely to leave science at this stage if they imagine they might ever want to have children, then if they have them already. Tenured male professors are three times likelier to be married with families than female tenured professors. It’s foolish to imagine that young women scientists don’t perceive the sacrifice that might await them if they stay. To make science supportive for women is to make child care and parental leave available (and I’ll point out that the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t provide some paid leave to mothers). But as it is, on top of everything else: If you are a woman who wants to stay, you have to grapple with the fact that you’re likelier to do it alone.

Q: How will the L’Oreal For Women in Science Award impact your career?

A: Now that I’ve spent a week in New York and Washington, D.C., with the other fellows, I can give a good answer to this question! First, L’Oreal has given me the gift of an extended community of women scientists. Not only with the other L’Oreal fellows across biology, medicine, and physics, who are brilliant and kind; but with other women scientists whom I’ve heard from and met since the award was announced. Second, I’ve felt immeasurably bolstered by the chance to affect science policy even the tiniest bit. We visited the White House and the Capitol Building, and talked very seriously and in detail with senior executive scientists and policy makers about the issues facing women scientists on the ground. That was deeply profound to me and gave me a feeling of usefulness and worth within science culture. And third, the funding is extremely generous. I proposed to use it toward personnel hires to start my first independent research team.

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