Interview

Interview with Prof. Barbara Ryden

Prof. Barbara Ryden is a Professor of Astronomy at the Ohio State University. She is a self-described “Cosmos Mariner: Destination Unknown”. Apart from pursuing research in galaxies and large scale structure, she is a successful textbook-writer: her book “Introduction to Cosmology” won the Chambliss Astronomy Writing Award. I came to know of Prof. Ryden through this book and was able to chat with her about research, textbook-writing, and social issues.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

Definitely working with undergraduate researchers. The fun part of that is that it’s typically their very first research project. They’re so enthusiastic. However, in some cases they’re a little too enthusiastic. Sometimes you know a topic is going to end up in a dead end, so it’s a question of how much guidance you give the students, to not squash their originality or their enthusiasm. But to the whole idea of doing research is that ideally you end up with a result.

The projects I’ve been supervising involve data from large digital sky surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to look at the properties of galaxies. We have a sufficiently large sample of uniformly imaged galaxies. Then, statistical properties of the color of their stellar population could be found, which reveals whether there’s been recent star formation. This in turn correlates with whether there’s a central active galactic nucleus, as well as other properties of galaxies and their surroundings. It’s a good way to get students involved in research; the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has a very nice online interface. It’s then possible to skip the boring ‘install preliminary software’ phase.

What I’ve been doing recently in terms of my own research are studies of how properties of galaxies’ interiors are statistically correlated with each other’s stellar populations, and vice versa.

You are an alumni of the Integrated Science Program at Northwestern University. Why did you start doing astronomy after graduating?

The program involved all the different mathematically based sciences and explored the connections between them. When I was applying to college, I didn’t want to specialize and be narrowed down. I wanted to do everything. The program was a wonderful science buffet. After a while, I realized that I like physics. They also offered astronomy courses on stellar structure. Then I realized that I like astronomy too. And it occurred to me, as an undergraduate, that a lot of astronomy is applied physics. If I went to graduate school in physics or astronomy, I’d be using the same equations, dealing with the same (broadly speaking) type of problems. I eventually decided on astronomy.

Why did I decide this? Partially due to aesthetic judgments. Astronomy is so pretty: you can look at all these pictures of galaxies and nebulae and you get to go outside and stare up at the sky.

What is your favorite part of the research process?

That’s interesting. There are so many interacting parts of doing research that have to fit together. First, you have to think of an interesting problem, then you’re going to approach this problem. Things can always go wrong, and in these cases you have to try something else.

Of course, if you have an interesting result, you have to write it up. Sometimes you get a good referee, sometimes not. In a way, that’s the best part of research: publishing results.

That said, now I’m doing far less research than I did earlier in my career. This frequently happens to professors: you find different interests as you work through your career.

To my surprise, I’m actually pretty good at writing textbooks. I wrote my first textbook nearly 20 years ago. It was pretty well received: people liked it a lot and it won a bunch of awards.

Most of my time outside of teaching on campus is spent working on a series of textbooks based on the curriculum here at Ohio State astronomy.

Why did you first start writing textbooks?

I was teaching a course on Cosmology. And looking through all the different textbooks available, I went “hmm, that’s not exact what I want…that’s not exactly what I want either”. None of the textbooks seemed to be at the right level and the deal the correct balance of theory and observation. They were clearly written but all had flaws.

So great was my ego. I said, I will write my own. What I first wrote were lecture notes for my students. And then the fateful day came when an acquisitions editor for an academic press was visiting campus. They do that from time to time, talking with professors, asking if they have any textbook ideas.

The editor – Adam Black was his name – stopped by my office and asked “do you have any ideas for writing a textbook. And I said “see, I have this set of lecture notes for this undergraduate cosmology course”. And Adam Black turned me into said, “you know, there’s really no good textbook on the market for an undergraduate cosmology course.”

And I said, “you know, you’re absolutely right.” And the next thing I did was sign a contract for Addison Wesley, the publisher of that first edition.

If I knew at the time how much work it was going to be, I might have hesitated.

But that’s also one of the best things about it. You start off so enthusiastic and usually, you make it through to the other end. And after that you look back and say “oh wow, that was a lot more work than I thought it would be.”

What do you think is the most challenging part of writing a textbook?

I’m starting to realize the importance of using the right figures. I thought that writing words was all the work, maybe diagrams here and there to illustrate the point, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that pictures really are worth a thousand words. In particular, being able to integrate visual descriptions of, for example, some astronomical phenomena with verbal description, is incredibly useful. Then, bringing in mathematical descriptions really helps the reader understand what’s going on.

It’s kind of like a PowerPoint presentation. You first choose images for the slides, and then fill in the words. That’s the way I go about teaching, especially at the undergraduate level. In graduate level courses there you can add more ‘boring slides’ with lots of equations, but even so illustrations and figures next to equations help.

Textbooks are about trying to make every statement as clear as possible. In any slightly ambiguous sentence, there’s someone out there who could read it the wrong way. It’s fun writing things that are ambiguous on purpose, such as poetry. The reader could project their own thoughts in it.

What is your opinion on the gender gap in STEM and how do you think it should be tackled?

It’s definitely a large problem.

I’ll first speak from personal experience. I was interested in science from an early age. I read every popular science book I could get my hands on at the library.

Nobody ever told me that women couldn’t be astronomers or scientists. I suppose it’s partially a failure of imagination on my part. When I went to Northwestern University in 1979, the Integrated Science Program had around one female student for every five male students. I wasn’t completely oblivious to my surroundings and knew that being a female scientist was quite rare. But there I was, getting A’s on my exams, better than some of the guys. And again, nobody tried to discourage me. It was a pretty cool journey.

Maybe a girl who is more sensitive to social cues might have thought that they were doing something wrong. I think encouragement from a very early age, or at least exposing people to science from a very early age, would be really helpful.

There isn’t necessarily this constant bombardment of propaganda that women aren’t good at science or women aren’t good at math, but a lot of people do tend to pick that up.

Speaking of being good at math, often, students come to my office hours and they say “I’m no good at math.”

I’ve never once had a student come to office hours complaining about their essay assignments, that they aren’t good at writing. There isn’t the idea that writing is this innate talent that you can’t fix.

However, somehow society teaches that there’s such a thing as being bad at math. And if you’re bad at math, it’s something that you can’t fix. It’s like being colour blind or something. This comes from subtle social cues.

The same goes for science. A lot of times, people have the stereotype that scientists are obsessed with getting everything exactly. Sometimes, however, it’s just about getting something about right. Astronomy, in particular, consists of many order of magnitude estimates, getting something within a factor of 10. It’s not always necessary to have ultra-precise calculations.

How do you usually deal with difficulties encountered during textbook-writing or research?

One of the good things about being a professor is that your job consists of so many different aspects. If something I’m working doesn’t seem to be progressing, I could work on the lecture notes for the course I’m teaching. And if I get totally fed up with course preparations, I can go back and revise and chapter.

It’s basically about having the flexibility of being able to swap things around.

What are your hobbies outside of research or textbook writing?

Walking vacations.

Wilderness hiking is nice, but I prefer someplace with beautiful scenery, but where I’m walking from one place where I can sleep in a comfortable plant bed to another place where I get to sleep in a comfortable bed.

What advice would you have for students who are interested in going to science?

The most serious piece of advice would be to not let others discourage you.

It’s important not to label yourself as bad at something. In order to be a scientist, you don’t have to be without a gold-medal winning mathematician. Yes, for many fields of science, mathematics is a very useful tool, but it’s also as important, if not more important, to work on your language skills – writing and speaking. There isn’t one scientific paper that didn’t get written. Learning how to tell a story is also very important. After doing research, it’s necessary to tell the story of what you’ve done to other people.

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