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“We need to stop cutting education budgets!” With Penny Bauder & Ilse Cleeves

This sentiment is not new– but I do feel early education in the US is so underfunded, and teachers are one of the most under-appreciated careers with the largest impact. We need to stop cutting education budgets! As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the […]

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This sentiment is not new– but I do feel early education in the US is so underfunded, and teachers are one of the most under-appreciated careers with the largest impact. We need to stop cutting education budgets!


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilse Cleeves.

Lauren Ilsedore Cleeves (Ilse) is an Assistant Professor of Astronomy in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Virginia. Prior to her position at the University of Virginia she was at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, where she was a Hubble Fellow at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the Radio and Geoastronomy Division from 2015–2018. Previously, she did her PhD at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor advised by Ted Bergin. She received a B.S. in Physics with a concentration in Astrophysics from Rice University in Houston, TX in 2009.

Ilse is a recipient of the Johnson & Johnson 2020 Women in STEM2D Scholars Award. The Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award seeks to fuel development of future female STEM2D leaders and feed the STEM2D talent pipeline by awarding and sponsoring women at critical points in their careers. The goal is to support the research passion of the awarded women and inspire career paths in their respective STEM2D fields. The winners and their research, across each of the six STEM2D disciplines, represent pivotal global innovations across diverse fields of interest. Ilse’s research focuses on understanding the molecular and physical origins of planetary systems such as our own. By using clues from interstellar molecular emission, she studies young planetary systems in formation around low-mass stars, i.e. protoplanetary disks: the very materials from which planets, comets, and other solar system bodies eventually form.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Astronomy fascinated me ever since I was young, and I remember fondly dragging my telescope to find the perfect intersection in my neighborhood without a glaring streetlight (something that is getting harder and harder to find — a dark evening sky). When I found out in high school that I could make a career out of astronomy, I didn’t look back. I was fortunate to have incredibly talented teachers, including in math and science, at my public high school. It was no small factor that my math teachers were brilliant women and I consider myself very fortunate to have had their mentorship.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

From graduate school: My PhD supervisor, Ted Bergin, fostered a creative approach to problem solving and calculated risk taking in his group. As one of my final projects of my PhD, we wanted to tackle the question of where does the solar system’s water originate? This seemingly simple question has been a topic of debate for decades — does it form alongside the Sun and planets or does water instead predate the Sun, originating in the cold dense environment that the Sun and its cluster formed out of, i.e., was it always there from the beginning of star formation? Using the isotopic ‘finger print’ of water present in Earth’s oceans and throughout our solar system, we created models to explore what water would look like if we didn’t inherit anything from the pre-stellar cloud. It wasn’t possible. This simple experiment could have easily become a standard journal article, but through Ted’s encouragement I published these results in the journal Science targeting a much broader audience than my subfield or even astronomers more generally. ‘Earth’s water predates the Sun’ ended up taking off and I learned a lot through this process, especially the value of making your science broadly accessible to the community and the public. It is not always possible, but Ted always made sure we kept the big picture in mind, and this is something I try to foster in my own students.

Since becoming an assistant professor at the University of Virginia in Fall 2018, I have enjoyed growing my research group. I find that it’s important to maintain a close community in the group so that we can all learn from each other and help each other (especially now that we are all working from home). Before COVID, we had regular in person group meetings, and in one such meeting we decorated holiday cookies themed with astronomical observations of planet-forming disks (a major topic in my group). I made royal icing that matched the color scheme from the original publications (a lot of yellow, orange, and purple). My kitchen was purple for a week (as was my dog’s belly fur, he apparently rolled in some purple icing before I could clean it up).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For the most part, astronomers typically don’t have laboratory space, and most of our experiments are done by large shared telescope facilities. Early on as an undergraduate I had the opportunity to take data on one of the smaller telescopes at McDonald Observatory in west Texas with another undergraduate, a graduate student, and our advisor. Coming from Houston, TX and it being late November — Thanksgiving in fact — snow wasn’t really on our minds, but our advisor told to bring warm clothing. I went to a thrift shop and got what I thought was warm (a long floral jacquard ridiculous jacket, not very thick). While we were able to get some data, bad weather resulted in some extra down time, which we — the students — decided to fill with a trip to the gift shop at the base of the mountain. Driving down was fine, but the weather and eventually snow became much heavier quickly and we couldn’t get the car back up the mountain, so we had to trudge up the snow-covered mountain to the observatory by foot to get a tow. We were probably quite the sight — especially with me in that jacket, but we made it up to the top safely and decided no more ‘short’ trips for the duration of the observing run.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In the last few years, UVA has kicked off a new ‘Initiative on Cosmic Origins’ that is truly interdisciplinary — astronomy, chemistry, computer science, materials science, and the adjacent National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is located on UVA grounds. This broad base of expertise I think gives us a great advantage at addressing some of the most important questions in astronomy, like where did we come from and how common is life in the universe?

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Understanding whether we are alone in the universe and broadly the commonality of life-sustaining planets is one of the really big questions, and is vitally important for putting us, and our planet, in perspective. Whether planets start off with the “right stuff” to support life, like water and organic material, is key. Recently one of my graduate students, Abygail Waggoner, found that young stellar outbursts can forge water molecules by breaking apart the oxygen out of other more volatile molecules like carbon monoxide (the second most abundant species after molecular hydrogen). This is a source of water that had not been considered, and while its longevity is still being studied, other more robust molecules like organics might be longer lived. We often think about stellar storms being harmful to life on planets, but maybe early on they play a helpful role in creating habitable planets.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

In short, no. Every field is different, and so even though astronomy has seen better representation from women than some other fields, there is still an issue with retention especially beyond graduate school. Having more senior mentors is key, in my subfield of astrochemistry many of the leaders are women and it is no exaggeration that having that mentorship has been important for my success. However, change has been generally slow, and STEM needs to do more to support alternative career paths, parental leave (not just at the university evaluation level, but increasing understanding from the scientific community), and count more than raw statistics of papers, grants, etc., per year. These changes won’t just help with representation of women in STEM, but would be important steps to improving diversity in STEM more broadly.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I know many people, myself included, that have been told that they would get a position, job, etc., at least in part because they were a woman. You could change out the word ‘woman’ with other non cis-white-male identifiers and there are countless examples of this occurring throughout STEM. These sentiments are harmful and not ‘reassuring’ as they are sometimes intended to be, as they diminish the work a person has done. I know that I have worked countless additional hours to make sure that I would get a job based on qualifications and not gender. These hours come at a mental and physical cost and puts unnecessary stress on underrepresented communities.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

While on campus I’ve been asked multiple times by undergraduates ‘what my major is’ since I don’t look like what the students expect a professor should look like. Being a scientist or a professor is not your entire identity. You can enjoy a wide variety of hobbies and also bring those into your scientific perspective. I personally enjoy making art and so spend more time on making graphics for my presentations, for example.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Help foster a network of connections in your team — you don’t have to be the go-to on everything. Rely on your team to help each other, and the learning becomes exponential.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I don’t think I manage a large team but having an online community — we use Slack — is key for us to keep communication strong. Some Slack channels are about discussing interesting papers we’ve read, while others are just sharing ‘what are we eating for lunch.’ It’s nice to keep a combination of the serious and not so serious communication.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had so many mentors, I honestly don’t feel like I could fairly tell just one a story here. I did have an incredibly inspiring high school biology teacher, Mr. Pease, who was the person that first made me realize I could pursue astronomy as a career. He gave me his college astronomy textbooks that I read cover to cover, and stayed late after school while I was preparing for Science Olympiad.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I co-run a summer camp for middle school aged girls called “Girls Exploring the Universe” held at UVA’s McCormick Observatory. Young children show interest in math and science regardless of gender, but around middle school there is a sharp decrease in self-expressed interest in STEM related areas in female students. This camp was originally designed by Dr. Rukmani Vijayaraghavan and myself and Dr. Allison Costa have continued running the camp and developing new activities. In addition to these activities, we also have external speakers each day at lunch meet in person or digitally with the group, and in the past we’ve had astronauts, science journalists, and scientists talk about their careers and answer questions from the group.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This sentiment is not new– but I do feel early education in the US is so underfunded, and teachers are one of the most under-appreciated careers with the largest impact. We need to stop cutting education budgets!

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