Setting an example

"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." 
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

 

Meet Rukmani Vijayaraghavan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia who, using her NSF fellowship resources, has organized an awesome science camp for middle school girls, Girls Exploring the Universe. Rukmani's outreach demonstrates the value in reaching out and setting an example for young girls. As Rukmani says, we have to "show [girls] that there are women scientists doing and owning science and are just as accomplished as any male scientist." 

I wanted to learn more about the science camp (I wish I could attend) and about Rukmani's own research in astronomy and astrophysics. Did you know that Venus is an example of unchecked climate change? Here is our conversation: 

Rukmani, you have set up your own awesome science camp for middle school girls; what is your goal with this camp, what motivates you about it, and do you have a fun story about what the girls learn? 

Part of the reason I set up my camp is because it is a part of my Fellowship. This NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship includes an educational/broader impact component that we are expected to spend 10 - 25% of our time on. We have significant freedom to choose what kind of program we want to either start or work on and since my particular interest is in encouraging women to pursue science, I decided to run an astronomy camp for middle school girls. I get a lot of support from my Department and the University here. I was inspired by a similar camp at my Ph.D. institute, UIUC, called GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math and Science) at which I volunteered for a couple of weeks, and it was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences in grad school. My goals with this camp are (1) instill early enthusiasm for science (and STEM in general) through astronomy, which I think is a gateway STEM field among girls before they are socially demotivated from pursuing it as a career, and (2) show them that there are women scientists doing and owning science and are just as accomplished as any male scientist. 

My favorite story from the camp this year was during a snack break: the girls were standing around and chatting, this was day 4 of the camp. A professor from the astronomy department, Kelsey Johnson, had just come in to talk to the girls and we'd had this activity on the different types of galaxies, which evolved into talking about the expansion of the Universe and its eventual fate. A 1 hour activity turned into a 3 hour chat because the girls had an infinite reservoir of mind-blowing questions. Immediately after, during the break, the girls couldn't stop talking about the origin of the Universe -- they were speculating on where it came from, where it was all going. And I just stood there with another professor (Ed Murphy) listening to them and realizing how just giving 12 and 13 year old girls the space (pun unintended!) and forum channeled their incredible energy and enthusiasm into having casual chats on cosmology and origin of space and time.

Could you give a bit of background on your own path in science, how you got to where you are now? And why is a group like 500WS important to you? 

Pictured here: a simulation of two massive clusters of galaxies (each is about 10^14 times the mass of the sun) smashing into each other. This is a snapshot of the temperature of the hot gas, here, about 10^7 (K) -- 10 million degrees. This region is HUGE: the x and y axes are in units of thousands kpc (kiloparsec), where a kiloparsec is about 3200 light years, so this region is about 10 million light years across. And we see smashing galaxy clusters like these in the real Universe!

Pictured here: a simulation of two massive clusters of galaxies (each is about 10^14 times the mass of the sun) smashing into each other. This is a snapshot of the temperature of the hot gas, here, about 10^7 (K) -- 10 million degrees. This region is HUGE: the x and y axes are in units of thousands kpc (kiloparsec), where a kiloparsec is about 3200 light years, so this region is about 10 million light years across. And we see smashing galaxy clusters like these in the real Universe!

Since I was about 9 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. I've always thought space was cool and exciting and math and science were always my favorite subjects in school, but in large part I was inspired by the late Indian-American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. It was incredible that a woman who looked like me could actually be an astronaut who went to space, could be a scientist and engineer who was just as good as all the men around her. In college, I double majored in Physics and Electrical & Electronics Engineering. I realized soon enough that engineering was not for me, but I really enjoyed physics and decided to go to grad school in some field of physics. Of course I always liked space and astrophysics seemed like the perfect fit -- so I applied to grad schools in astronomy & astrophysics. I graduated with a Ph.D about 15 months ago, and now I'm an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow.  500WS is important to me because it speaks to many of my core interests -- advocating for science, promoting science literacy, and of course encouraging women to pursue science as well as supporting fellow women in science. 

 

More broadly speaking, why do you think science outreach and education is important? What are some techniques you use to help communicate your own science? and do you have suggestions for bridging the gap between scientists and the public?  

Rukmani and her science camp girls. 

Rukmani and her science camp girls. 

I think science outreach and education should part of our lives as scientists, it should be our obligation to share our often taxpayer-funded research and knowledge with our community. This is particularly true with young kids, especially girls and kids from underrepresented backgrounds, who need all the motivation, encouragement they can get and most importantly, interact with role models who look like them. In a selfish way, having a broad, inclusive pool of potential scientists can only be good for the future of science. And of course having a scientific literate population is crucial to the future of our planet -- we, as professional scientists, need to do our part in this.

I don't know that I use any special communication techniques, but in general, I've found that having kids do activities through which they learn scientific concepts is an infinitely better way to hold their attention than talking at them with presentations and slides. As for bridging the gap between scientists and the public, I think we scientists need to be better trained to talk about science like humans! Cut out the jargon, and talk to people about why *you* think black holes are so cool or why *you* are so fascinated with space, or why you love molecular biology or whatever it is. That passion I think really comes through.

Last question, and a treat for all us science dorks. You mentioned in our phone call that Venus is an example of unchecked climate change, could you give us a brief explanation? 

Venus is the best example we have of the runaway greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect  is when a planet absorbs sunlight and emits infrared light; the infrared light is absorbed by greenhouse gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone (in Earth's atmosphere) which warms the planet. This is, in general, a good thing -- without the greenhouse effect, Earth would be much colder than it is and wouldn't be able to support most of life as we know it. However, when human activity results in too much greenhouse gas emission, this effect is intensified, causing global warming and climate change that can and has resulted in melting ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns, etc. In the case of Venus, scientists think Venus had oceans early in its history. These oceans likely evaporated into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which further warmed the planet, which led to to even more evaporation... you get the idea. Eventually, the oceans boiled away and water vapor in the atmosphere disintegrated due to ultraviolet radiation. Today, Venus' atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and its surface temperature is 462 °C (863 °F) -- hot enough to melt lead. (Scientists don't think this will happen on Earth any time soon).

 

Rukmani is a NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of VirginiaDepartment of AstronomyShe completed her graduate work in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignRukmani is a theoretical and computational astrophysicist -- she uses numerical simulations to understand the evolution of galaxies in massive groups and clusters; primarily using the astrophysical simulation code FLASH.