Article - Cynthia Allen and Faye Giles

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This article is reproduced from the February/March 2012 issue of Diversity Careers magazine.

Inclusion is Important at NRAO and Associated Universities


Techies who explore the universe via radio telescope are becoming increasingly diverse as NRAO and AUI work to broaden participation


The folks who study the universe at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and those who manage NRAO at Associated Universities Inc (AUI) are assured of stimulating, inclusive work environments, as diversity has increased in importance at both NRAO and AUI.

NRAO is a suite of facilities and instruments with unique, complementary capabilities for observing the universe at radio frequencies, plus a development laboratory that builds and maintains instruments for the world's leading radio astronomy observatory. NRAO also participates in the Center for Chemistry of the Universe initiative, where universities work to increase understanding of interstellar chemistry.

In 2009 Associated Universities Inc (AUI), the organization that manages NRAO, crafted an action plan for broadening inclusion. NRAO and AUI pledged to recruit staff representing a true cross-section of society, and create an environment conducive to employment and retention of women and minorities.

The plan outlined the need to support universities, including institutions serving underrepresented communities, and to educate a new generation of scientists. The organizations also pledged to enhance public dissemination of research conducted at AUI facilities.

AUI and NRAO each designated senior diversity officials. Cynthia Allen (above left) is AUI diversity officer and Faye Giles (above right) is NRAO employment and diversity manager. The organizations have implemented a diversity advocate model and have started to formalize employee diversity groups. The NRAO has also established a collaboration with HBCU Howard University (Washington, DC) to boost Howard's astronomy program and support internships for students.

"AUI and NRAO are firmly committed to diversity and inclusion within their workforces and within the science, engineering and public communities their missions touch," Allen says.

"NRAO, with facilities in many parts of the world, certainly touches many such communities. The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is in Green Bank, WV. The Very Large Array, encompassing twenty-seven radio telescopes, is in Socorro, NM. The Very Long Baseline Array of ten radio telescopes is very long indeed: it stretches from Hawaii to St. Croix, VI. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), still under construction, is a global effort involving several organizations to build a sixty-six radio telescope array in the Chilean Atacama high desert. Joining all these efforts, the Coordinated Development Laboratory is in Charlottesville, VA.

"Engineering and IT jobs at each site are broadly similar, but there are significant variations," says Giles.

"From the astronomical viewpoint, the telescopes operate at different wavelengths and utilize different observing techniques, so support staff at each site tend to specialize. From an engineering perspective the telescope sites all require staff who are expert in preventive maintenance. The Coordinated Development Lab does more R&D, but the sites are sufficiently similar that scientists and engineers can and do transfer between them."

Marylin Keating is ALMA's head of HR and internal communications in Santiago, Chile. She notes that staff members come from nineteen countries. Besides staff and funding from NRAO, ALMA also gets staff and funding through the European Southern Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. A range of experienced engineers work at ALMA, including MEs, EEs, RF pros and specialists in instrumentation, cryogenics and software, plus system engineers and system admins, Keating says. Over the past year, ALMA hired approximately sixty technicians, four software engineers and thirty engineers in other areas.

In high demand are tech pros who have worked at other observatories, especially on radio telescopes, instrumentation, mechanical maintenance and system integration, Keating says. "We also value work experience in a multicultural and/or international setting."

She adds that working at ALMA "is an exceptional experience. The mix of nationalities and cultural and technical backgrounds helps create an atmosphere of stimulating collaboration. We are united in our common goal to build and operate one of the largest and most complex observatories in the world."

As you'd expect, nearly all NRAO staffers on the science side are PhDs. On the engineering side there's a mix of PhD and non-PhD staff, Giles says.

Experienced degreed engineers work in R&D and production in areas like ME, software and electronic engineering, including state of the art high-speed digital electronics, cryogenics, ICs, fiber optics and more. IT pros handle general support, email and Web servers, videoconferencing and other equipment needs. NRAO's telescopes "are capable of producing hundreds of terabytes of data, which provides an interesting challenge to our IT staff," Giles says.

NRAO currently has several openings for software, electronics and systems engineers. Recruiting is done at the annual conference of the National Societies of Black and Hispanic Physicists and other diversity-focused recruitment and career fairs. Collaborations have been established with a number of important universities.

Last year two Howard engineering and science students were NRAO summer interns; the organization plans to continue the program with other HBCUs this summer.

The AUI board of trustees has a scholarship program for children of AUI and NRAO employees, and NRAO is increasingly active in its various local communities, partnering with the city of Socorro, NM, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Virginia and African American Teaching Fellows of Charlottesville-Albemarle. The Green Bank site works closely with local schools and several colleges and universities. "Green Bank continuously makes a positive impact in promoting science and engineering career opportunities," Giles concludes.

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