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Scholarly Life

Shooting for the Stars

Posted Thursday, 22 March 2012

A vibrant online astronomy community created by PhD students highlights new research and advice for professional growth

The search for planets similar to our own. New discoveries in star formation. And navigating the dark mysteries of the NSF funding process — these are only a few of the topics covered in Astrobites, an online community founded in 2010 by five current second-year PhD students in the Department of Astronomy.

Ian Czekala, Courtney Dressing, Elisabeth Newton, Katherine Rosenfeld, and Nathan Sanders started Astrobites to create an educational resource where students interested in astronomical research could learn about the latest work in the field. The website’s target audience is undergraduate students in the physical sciences who are interested in pursuing a research career, but the tone of the site makes many posts appropriate for fellow graduate students, or for dedicated amateurs.

Sanders explains that his own experiences as an undergraduate “struggling to break into the world of academic research” motivated him to help launch Astrobites. “As an undergraduate, I took the appropriate courses in my field and they were all well-taught, so I had a great foundation. But when I tried to read papers and to participate in departmental journal clubs and colloquiums, I was totally unfamiliar with terminology and concepts that everyone else seemed to take for granted. Even worse, it wasn’t possible for me to understand the context in which contemporary research was being done, because undergraduate coursework in the physical sciences typically focuses on foundational theory and historical experiments rather than modern research.”

In order to help those who are new to astronomy become familiar with the technical literature and acquire the language used in academic discussions, Astrobites summarizes one academic journal article per day. The goal is to impart the most relevant information in accessible terms. “We take a new research paper in astrophysics and boil it down into a bite-size blog post that summarizes the key findings of the work, the methods that make it possible, and the context of other work being done in the field. By spending a few minutes each day reading our site, we hope undergraduates will be in a far better position to approach graduate-level research,” says Sanders. The comfortable immersion into current research also provides a glimpse of what’s exciting about a life in science — and that sense of excitement can help propel a student toward a research career.

With over 30 regular and guest contributors from all over the world — more than a dozen of whom are based at Harvard — Astrobites has become a busy hub for scholars and a platform for graduate students to take a leading role in disseminating information about their field. Other researchers and academics have already taken note of the group’s role in the scholarly community; the American Astronomical Society asked several Astrobites authors to serve as media interns for their annual meeting this year, and they lived-blogged sessions at the week-long event.

But Astrobites offers much more than current research briefs or musings on new directions in astrophysics. The site also allows PhD students to serve in a mentorship capacity by sharing their experiences and advice about navigating the many facets of graduate school. Posts such as “A Day in the Lives of Astronomy Grad Students” and “Why I Chose Grad School,” as well as useful links to Astronomy resources, reveal a commitment to conveying a wide range of professional development information. Other articles include tips on applying for NSF funding, advice on how to maintain a healthy work-life balance as a grad student, and a series of thoughts on research careers outside the academy. And Astrobites even showcases undergraduate research, so that students can reach a wider audience for their projects.

In the 18 months since its founding, Astrobites has published more than 350 articles and has established a remarkably broad reach, receiving more than 25,000 page views per month. While most visitors to the site are students interested in graduate school, Astrobites unsurprisingly draws other scholars and astronomy enthusiasts. “We’ve received feedback from many professors who have integrated Astrobites content into their classes, and four similar projects have sprung up in the past year,” says Sanders, citing the recent launch of Chembites by a group of MIT graduate students in chemistry (graduate students at Harvard and elsewhere may also contribute).

Writing the daily posts can take considerable time and effort, says Sanders, but the task is rewarding on many levels. “When we pick papers outside of our own field to write about, it’s an excellent opportunity to learn about a pocket of astronomy that we otherwise would not have been introduced to. Stepping into unfamiliar territory helps us remain aware of the jargon or obscure concepts we should be explaining to readers. This is actually one of the most important aspects of the project — it’s an opportunity for us, as graduate students, to hone our skills in presenting information clearly to audiences, which is vital for scientific writing, for communicating our own research, and for our careers in general,” he says.


Story credit: Joanna Grossman