EPO Update from Department of Physics and Astronomy, York University

By/par Michael De Robertis and Richard Bloch1
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)

Astronomers at York University occupy the north hallway of the third floor of the Petrie Science and Engineering Building (named, like the CASCA Prize Lecture, after the noted Canadian astronomer, Robert M. Petrie). Not only does our floor include classrooms used by students from a variety of science and non-science courses, but it also contains the main entrance to the York Observatory that houses 40 cm and 60 cm telescopes in two separate domes, and which regularly hosts public viewing sessions throughout the year, serving thousands of people.

It is in this setting that astronomers have recently established two education and public outreach (EPO) initiatives that are the subject of this update; a series of posters down the main astronomy hallway, and video content for our new Astronomy Education Station (AES) situated in the NW corner of our hallway.


Though the Department of Physics and Astronomy has seven astronomers (though only six at the time these initiatives took shape), our research interests span the four major areas of modern astronomy: Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology.

The first of our EPO initiatives involved the creation of posters concentrated on these areas. (In fact, we divided each of the first three areas in two because of the richness of these topics.) Individual posters focused on the following areas (facilitated by York faculty members):

  1. Solar System (John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)
  2. Extra-solar Systems (Paul Delaney)
  3. Star Life (birth and mid-life) (Michael De Robertis)
  4. Star Death (Norbert Bartel)
  5. Galaxies and Clusters (Marshall McCall)
  6. Active Galactic Nuclei (Patrick Hall)
  7. Cosmology (Matthew Johnson)

The faculty coordinator Michael De Robertis, and senior undergraduate Richard Bloch, solicited feedback from each faculty member as to the most important information (with supporting graphics) that might appear in each poster. While most of the graphics used in the posters are non-proprietary, Richard produced the remaining graphics using Adobe Photoshop. After extensive vetting of the text and design by faculty involved, seven posters were produced along with an index poster. Each poster was printed in 0.9 m x 1.2 m format and mounted sequentially along the hallway covered by a thin sheet of Plexiglas. The title of each poster was given its own colour. Key words in one poster that are more fully described in another were printed with the colour of the other poster’s title for easier reference. An image of each of the seven posters is included at the end of this article. Departments and institutions are free to use any of the text. Reproduction of the images themselves can be used with attribution.

Since their mounting in 2015, the posters have drawn the attention of visitors and students in the hallway.

Posters, while interesting, are a passive medium. We therefore initiated a plan to supplement more active and engaging astronomical content to students and visitors of our hallway. This led to the introduction of the Astronomy Education Station.

The AES consists of a 60-inch Sharp SmartTV driven by a modest PC. The PC is housed in a small locked closet near the TV, a holdover from the days when overhead and slide projectors used in nearby classrooms necessitated such storage space. To prevent theft of the TV, we purchased an inexpensive locking system. Potential damage to the screen was also a concern, given that the facility operates continuously without monitoring (in addition to being in proximity to two student pubs!). We were able to get a local vendor to produce an inexpensive, thin, durable plastic cover that slid onto the TV screen and that could be secured in place. The protective screen is unfortunately slightly more reflective than the TV screen itself.

We originally had the idea of using a secure, tablet-like device mounted on the wall or on a modest pedestal so that viewers could interactively select content. While this may be an option for the future, we decided to loop existing short non-proprietary (e.g., NASA) videos as well as videos produced “in house.”

Since the AES is within earshot of not only classrooms but faculty offices, it became immediately apparent that we had to forego sound in favour of captioning. (There is still a sound option that can be used during Observatory tours after hours, but the facility is normally muted.) Some of the NASA videos we chose were already captioned. Those which weren’t captioned, as well as content created in-house, had to be captioned. Captioning does not present a serious challenge; free captioning like that provided by YouTube, while not very efficient, can be edited to produce a perfect script without much effort, particularly since experts suggest videos of this sort should not be more than 2-3 minutes or so in duration, in order to better retain audience attention.

The first generation of videos for our AES involved short NASA videos on subjects from the International Space Station, to the Moon, Planetary formation, Galaxy formation, and the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. These were supplemented by student-produced videos on the general themes of our posters, as well as highlights of astronomy; i.e., a tour of the universe from planets through to large-scale structure using images from the HST.

We are currently producing second generation videos, including answers to the “top ten questions” undergraduate students have about astronomy. The ten most frequently asked questions by undergraduates were compiled based on surveys of the York University Astronomy Club and students working at the York Observatoy. Answers to the questions were suggested by faculty members based on their area(s) of expertise. Videos 1-2 minutes in length of faculty members answering these questions, supplemented by relevant background images, are being recorded and captioned for display on the AES. It is important that the production quality of such content appear as professional as possible, since students are particularly discerning when it comes to video content at this time. (While the videos are recorded with sound, they are muted for obvious reasons and are captioned for the AES.)

As with our posters, we would be willing to share our in-house content with other institutions. Moreover, we would be interested in learning of such content produced by other groups across Canada and the USA.

1Richard is currently a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario.

Solar System poster (facilitator: John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)

Solar System poster (facilitator: John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)

Extra-solar System poster (facilitator: Paul Delaney)

Extra-solar System poster (facilitator: Paul Delaney)

Star Life (birth and main sequence) (facilitator: Michael De Robertis)

Star Life (birth and main sequence) (facilitator: Michael De Robertis)

Star Death (facilitator: Norbert Bartel)

Star Death (facilitator: Norbert Bartel)

Galaxies and Clusters (facilitator: Marshall McCall)

Galaxies and Clusters (facilitator: Marshall McCall)

Active Galactic Nuclei (facilitator: Patrick Hall)

Active Galactic Nuclei (facilitator: Patrick Hall)

Cosmology (facilitator: Matthew Johnson)

Cosmology (facilitator: Matthew Johnson)

Report from the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC)

From/de Brenda Matthews
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2016)

The program of the 2016 CASCA annual meeting in Winnipeg included the society’s first session on Diversity & Inclusivity. The very well-attended session was hosted by the recently formed Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC).

The committee is charged with the following:

  • Taking a critical look at CASCA’s ethics statement and making suggestions.
  • Preparing a section on the CASCA web page summarizing best practices for hiring and for inclusivity in the workplace.
  • Moderating an open discussion session on inclusivity at the CASCA Annual General Meeting.
  • Compiling national statistics on women and minorities in Astrophysics and making these publicly available on the CASCA website.
  • Acting as points of contact for people in the community who feel harassed or need advice on issues related to harassment.
  • Ensuring that CASCA meetings are welcoming for all members.

The ultimate goal of improved awareness of diversity and inclusivity is to foster a respectful workplace. To that end, the committee has adopted the following mission statement:

“The Diversity and Inclusivity Committee will undertake initiatives that will encourage members of CASCA (and their organizations) to foster diversity among participants in astronomical research. Our goal is for CASCA to serve as an example of inclusiveness to the broader scientific community.”

and provided a Code of Conduct for CASCA meetings that was adopted for the in Winnipeg meeting. The DIC welcomes comments on the Code of Conduct and suggestions for its improvement and can be contacted at casca-diversity@lists.casca.ca.

Why Should we Care about Diversity?

If we exclude minorities, we exclude the bright minds that could make a significant contribution to the field. Research suggests that in general, diversity is an important tool – many of the major discoveries in science (or even the advancement of society in general) often came from the intersection of unexpected roads, where people from different backgrounds offered new ideas. In other words, diversity stimulates new ideas.

Coming to Grips with Unconscious Bias

There have been many studies both inside and outside academia that establish that “implicit” or “unconscious” bias is real and at play in hiring, job performance evaluation and other aspects of advancement. We discussed several of these in our presentation (which will be made available to the community). In particular, we highlighted the findings of Neill Reid (2014), who has analyzed the results of 11 cycles of HST time allocations and has found that in every cycle, proposals with female PIs are less successful than those with male PIs. Sometimes, the difference is a very small number of proposals, but the fact that the trend is always the same suggests the effect is real. Furthermore, it is not mitigated by a higher ratio of female to male reviewers, substantiating the fact that unconscious bias is exhibited by men and women alike. Similar studies have been done for two early cycles of ALMA allocation where a deficit of allocations to female PIs has also been identified. The ALMA/NRAO report is not yet public.

After an initial presentation about the mandate of the committee, some results of relevant surveys on diversity and why we all should embrace increasing diversity in our community, the community then engaged in an interactive discussion about how to handle certain situations that can arise relating to issues of diversity and inclusivity. The fact is that these “fictitious” scenarios in fact are representative of experiences of many of those in our community. When we are confronted with the scenarios below, it can be difficult to decide how best to intercede. Many of us may feel that it is not our business to inject ourselves into discussions or situations, challenge the behaviour of others, or know how to follow up with either party.

Each time a scenario was posed, groups took time to discuss the scenario and come up with suggestions as to how each should be handled. What follows are the questions that were asked and the suggestions that were made.

Fictitious situation #1

You are interviewing for an academic position and the person asks, “The project is at a turning point and I want to hire a committed person. Do you think you will have a child during your graduate degree/postdoc/faculty appointment? ”

Similar questions that can be asked during an interview: “Are you married? What does your partner do? Do you think you will be fully committed considering your family responsibilities?”

Make no mistake. This question is wholly inappropriate and is often expressly illegal in some jurisdictions, but commonly justified as a way of assessing someone’s “seriousness” about their career. It also has at its base an unjustified assumption that if one has or will ever procreate (or has any family commitments outside their work), they are therefore less able to do scientific research.

Several respondents recommended a “vague” approach and either saying something like “not in the immediate future” or just ignoring the personal aspect of the question and talking up one’s sense of commitment. Another suggestion was to turn the question around, for example by asking “Is this question legal?” or “Do you ask this of all your candidates?” or by asking your own questions regarding the root of the questioner’s intent. Still another suggestion was not to answer at all, but to just sit and shuffle your papers until they move onto the next question. A final suggestion was to state that you would be willing to discuss this issue once an offer has been made.

The recommendation for those questioning job applicants is to have questions reviewed by HR before interviewing anyone. The job applicant is also interviewing YOU and these questions can very negatively impact the applicant’s perception of the interviewer/department.

Did you know?

NSERC now funds parental leave grants! NSERC offers family and medical leave grants for students that have scholarships AND students who are paid with an NSERC grant (i.e., not their own!) valid for up to 6 months. Check out the following link for more information.


Fictitious Question #2

You are at a conference poster session. You notice that someone is behaving in a way toward a colleague that you think he/she might later regret.


One of your friends exhibits inappropriate behaviour during the welcome reception at an international conference.

Many respondents emphasized the need to both immediately diffuse the situation for the benefit of the object of the potentially unwanted attention and also the need to deal with the person behaving in an inappropriate way. The best thing to do if you suspect someone is uneasy but aren’t sure is just to inject yourself into the situation. By adding a third party in the dynamic (and a potential witness), you may give the person on the receiving end of the attention a chance to leave or bolster their confidence. If you’ve misread the situation, there is no harm done. It was noted that afterward, you can offer yourself as a witness to both parties, noting what you saw and, depending on your degree of comfort with the “aggressor”, you can confront them about their behaviour. At the AAS, they now identify “Allies” who can be sought out if assistance is needed (for example if a junior person doesn’t feel able to insert themselves into a situation where they feel assistance is needed). At CASCA meetings, you should now report such incidents to the LOC or members of the CDI.

Fictitious Situation #3

A co-worker puts a calendar of provocative women/men on the wall of your common office. What do you do?


You notice that one of your colleagues has posted a cartoon of questionable taste on the door of your common office. What do you do?

Several people noted that provincial human rights guidelines are likely violated in the first case of this example, so the university (or a local departmental representative) should step in to remove such material. Several other people said that all departments should take care to inform ALL employees (including students) of the policies that are in place. In the US, harassment/sensitivity training is common for all faculty and staff; Ontario universities will likely have something similar soon. In the case of the calendar at one Canadian institution, female grad students made paper clothes and covered up the calendar until it was taken down.

Fictitious Situation #4

You have just been offered your dream job. Your colleague, who also applied for the position, says that you were probably offered the job simply because you are part of an underrepresented minority group. How do you respond?

One suggestion was to insult the person right back, or take an assertive position and state that “I got the job because I’m better”. It was also pointed out, however, it is not often possible to just throw back an insult since the person(s) involved may be junior and such language is most easily thrown around by those who are well established (for whom blowback will be minimal/non-existent). It was also suggested that you state the more reasonable version of “people get jobs for all kinds of reasons.” If this person is a friend, you could note that such statements make you uncomfortable, acknowledging that you realize they may be upset at the news that they did not get the offer.

Fictitious Situation #5

You are explaining at a social event that you are a physicist and that you study the Universe. The person next to you looks surprised and says “you don’t look like a physicist”. How do you respond?

Similar questions: “You are smart for an African-American. Aren’t all Asians good at math and physics?”

We ran out of time in the session, so this scenario is left for your own consideration.

We thank all the members of CASCA who attended the session and participated with such enthusiasm. The committee welcomes input from the community and will be undertaking a Climate Survey in the near future.

The DIC members are:
Pauline Barmby
Bryan Gaensler
Lauren Hetherington
Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo
Brenda Matthews (chair)