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An Astrophysicist’s Guide to Diversifying the Study of Space

headshot of Keivan Stassun
Keivan Stassun, Ph.D.

Growing up in Los Angeles, the only stars that Keivan Stassun—a stellar astrophysicist—saw were the Hollywood kind.

Undeterred by the thick smog and bright city lights obscuring the night sky, Stassun dreamed of becoming an astronaut and crossing the Karman line to unravel the spooling mysteries of outer space. Eventually, the award-winning AAAS Member and Vanderbilt University professor would choose a life here on Earth over one in orbit, paving the way for his legacy of mentoring and diversifying the next generation of astrophysicists—a mission that grew roots thanks to his own origin story.

“I was born to a single mom who immigrated from Mexico, and she infused in me the American Dream,” Stassun says. “That idea of not only reaching for the stars, but being a part of the uplift of others who would come after me, that’s been a core part of my identity from the very beginning.”

Stassun has worked hard to get underrepresented minority students and those who are neurodiverse—such as people with autism spectrum disorders and others whose brains work and think differently—into the astrophysics pipeline. That means addressing, and trying to eliminate, some of the systemic barriers in higher education.

Underrepresented minority students are more likely to drop out of university STEM programs and reportedly face discrimination and a lack of encouragement in pursuing STEM careers. Those looking to advance their education to the level of a master's degree or Ph.D. have also traditionally encountered the “very, very strong barrier” of overreliance on standardized test scores in program admissions, says the mentor of 25 years.

“The kinds of things we actually value in graduate education [like] ability in the lab and creative potential for future leadership in science and engineering, multiple choice arithmetic problems were never imagined to holistically measure those things,” Stassun notes.

Scraping beyond the surface of what is considered inclusive to tap into the infinite vastness of human potential is what Stassun aims for in his mentorship work.

The scientist earned his undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1994. Around the time he started his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he began to think seriously about the ways he could make a difference and launched a program called Scopes for Schools, where he brought telescopes into middle school classrooms and helped teachers run after-school astronomy programs. 

“By the time I became a professor, I was thinking, okay, bigger impact,” he says.

In his first year teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Stassun helped kickstart the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program to provide access to Ph.D. training in astrophysics and other sciences for underrepresented minority students. More than 15 years later, the collaborative program between the two Tennessee universities is one of the nation’s leading producers of underrepresented minority Ph.Ds. in the physical sciences.

It was those efforts in part that earned him a AAAS Mentor of the Year award and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Million-Dollar Professor grant in 2018.

Today, Stassun is the proud father of two sons, the first of whom was born with autism. Neurodiversity in his own family dovetailed with Stassun’s interest in maximizing diversity in science.

“At the same time that I was thinking about my own son and his future, here I was in my astrophysics research seeing the incredible benefit and creativity of engaging neurodivergent students,” he says.

It’s why he founded the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation, an academic research center with the goal of advancing scientific research and development with, for and through the creative talents of people with autism. Members of his neurodiverse research team have commercialized data visualization systems for exoplanet discovery, especially potentially habitable planets, and have been a part of groundbreaking discoveries about the surfaces of stars and extreme planets beyond our solar system.

Stassun and students with Anderson Cooper standing side by side
CBS films a 60 Minutes special report at the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation. Photo credit: Claire Barnett

So, what advice does a stalwart champion of diversity have for prospective mentors?

Stassun says the stakes—the training and development of the future leadership for STEM—are high, meaning those in mentoring roles “should aspire to nothing short of excellence in delivering on mentoring.” Traditional academia has favored a master-apprentice model of mentoring, he adds, meaning that the select few who survive the weeding out process are deemed worthy of attention. It’s an ineffective and non-scalable model of mentorship, he believes.

“The question is, how do we retain and nurture these people who have come to us wanting to participate in the excitement of scientific discovery,” he says.

A more ideal model is creating mentorship networks, as described in a National Academies report and guide co-authored by Stassun, where mentees can rely on a group of mentors as opposed to just one person to meet their different needs. An effective network would include people who could assign challenging work, advise on technical skills and provide emotional support when the going gets tough.

Anderson Cooper interviews Frist Center’s Keivan Stassun and Dan Burger
Anderson Cooper interviews Frist Center’s Keivan Stassun and Dan Burger.

Key to the success of any mentor-mentee relationship is understanding that different students have different needs. Some neurodiverse students, for example, require sensory-friendly spaces. The traditional conference table chatter of a lab meeting, therefore, would not be conducive to their success. Thinking about how to set up environments so that students can do their best work, no matter what their backgrounds or conditions are, is just the first step in expanding who a scientist can be.

“I like to imagine a future world in which my son will experience those kinds of accommodations and supports, and not even because he has to demand them, but because people understand these are the ways that we do inclusion,” Stassun hopes.

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Jade Prévost-Manuel