Jim Toomey, Cartoonist and Marine Conservationist, Speaks at Scripps

[This is adapted from an article I wrote for the La Jolla Light. Special thanks to the editor, Susan DeMaggio. I recommend checking out the article on LaJollaLight.com, and if you quote it, cite the article there. The low-quality photos are my own.]

“It’s the first time I’ve been a distinguished anything!” says Jim Toomey, beginning his presentation as the distinguished speaker for the annual Knowlton-Jackson Lecture of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC) at Scripps Seaside Forum Auditorium last Friday afternoon. The speaker series, which began in 2013, is named after Nancy Knowlton, founder of CMBC, and Jeremy Jackson, both marine biologists.

Just outside the auditorium, people appreciated the sunny day on the beach and sounds of the crashing waves, making the place a fitting venue for Toomey’s lecture, titled “Drawing Inspiration from the Sea.”

For the past 20 years, Toomey has been writing and drawing the daily comic strip, Sherman’s Lagoon, which is syndicated in over 250 newspapers in North America and in 30 foreign countries. Its cast of sea creatures includes a lazy great white shark, Sherman, his wife Megan, the sea turtle Fillmore, and the selfish hermit crab Hawthorne.


Toomey joked with the audience that he often speaks before younger crowds and at aquariums, so it was like a nightmare speaking in front of real marine biologists at Scripps, and he thanked the organizers for making his nightmare come true. Sherman’s Lagoon brings together two of his life-long passions—art and the sea—and he claimed to be “equally incompetent in both areas.”

Toomey holds a Masters of Arts from Stanford University, and recently, he earned a Masters of Environmental Management from Duke University. The son and grandson of engineers, Toomey said he considered going into engineering as well, but the ocean fascinated him at a young age, and he enjoyed doodling in class, sharing some of his earliest drawings of sharks.

When holding a globe in his hands, he said he realized that most of it consists of water and that, “if I had a boat, I could go anywhere.”

The audience followed as Toomey told a riveting story about learning to fly small airplanes and struggling with the stall recovery. To attempt the maneuver, he descended in a spiral from 6,000 feet, and while facing the rapidly approaching ocean below, he somehow managed to recover control. Afterward, on his way to the bar, he saw birds spiraling downward to eat with ease and natural skill, and he realized, “I’m being humbled by sparrows!”

He also became aware of the “incredible powers” of ocean creatures. For example, about Sherman he said, “he’s talented without motivation—like some human characters.” He could easily catch more prey if he weren’t so lazy. Fillmore, the turtle, has an incredible ability to navigate; he also has terrible pickup lines. He named many of his characters after streets in San Francisco, where he was living at the time.

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To make his cartoons, Toomey starts with the dialogue, “though for me, the hard part’s the writing.” He then demonstrated with Photoshop by drawing the strip above, as the audience watched it take shape on the screen. (He switched from pen and paper to drawing on the computer in 2002.)

With his cartoon, artistic abilities, and speaking skills, Toomey works toward communicating science and environmental issues to a wide audience. For example, he recently conveyed how ocean acidification affects sea creatures, including Sherman’s and other sharks’ ability to smell. He also drew a series of strips about the BP gulf oil spill.

Toomey’s comics and illustrations appear in educational materials published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and he partnered with the United Nations Environmental Program to create videos to raise awareness of the importance of oceans and the coastal environment.

He also created a video about threatened coral reefs with Céline Cousteau, granddaughter of famed ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, and the World Resources Institute. Efforts like these earned him the Environmental Hero Award in 2000 and 2010, presented by NOAA, “for using art and humor to conserve and protect our marine heritage.”

Last summer, Toomey dove to the depths of the Gulf of Mexico in Alvin, a Navy deep-ocean submersible vehicle. He described his experience and showed videos of the area teeming with life, including tube worms and a squid with incredibly long tentacles.

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The scientists aboard had technology to allow him to call his 10-year-old son’s science class in Annapolis, Maryland from the bottom of the ocean. He has plans to take his family on a boat for a year, and will describe their experiences with autobiographical comics.

Just as he advised scientists trying to engage with the public, “if you want to reach people, you need to be honest, tell a story, and connect with your audience in a human way.” Toomey reaches and inspires many people with his entertaining cartoons and as a passionate and outspoken advocate for ocean conservation.

Science Policy at the American Astronomical Society: NASA, National Science Foundation, New Telescopes

Following my previous post, here I’ll write about some science policy-related talks, events, and news at the American Astronomical Society meeting two weeks ago.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As we saw in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, NASA’s sending Scott Kelly to join Mikhail Kornienko for a 1-year mission at the International Space Station, where they and their crewmates will carry out numerous research experiments and work on technology development. This could help toward sending manned missions to Mars in the future, which would involve much longer periods in space. Of course, actually getting to Mars involves many other challenges too; and let’s remember that the ISS has an orbit height of about 431 km while the closest distance between Earth and Mars is 54.6 million km–about 100,000 times further away. Reaching Mars is clearly an ambitious goal, but it’s achievable in the long term. (For SOTU coverage, check out these articles in Science and Universe Today.) The new budget extends the life of the ISS until at least 2024, “which is essential to achieving the goals of sending humans to deep space destinations and returning benefits to humanity through research and technology development.” The ISS accounts for most of NASA’s space operations budget, but that only accounts for a few percent of NASA’s total budget, which includes many other activities and missions.

The NASA Town Hall began with with an update on its budget for 2015, and if you’re interested in the details, take a look at my previous post. One important change is that education will not take up 1% of every project as before; instead, the new budget requires that educational activities be centralized in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).


The National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, organize a massive effort every decade for leaders in the astronomy and astrophysics community to prioritize their goals and challenges and to make recommendations about what kinds of large-, medium-, and small-scale projects should have funding and resources invested in them. The Decadal Survey for 2010-2020, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics”, is detailed and well-organized, and you can view it online. It’s complementary to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Cosmic Visions” programme for 2015-2025. Astronomers have produced these surveys since the 1970s, and other fields are catching on too; for example, the 2015-2025 decadal survey of ocean sciences just came out today.

The NASA spokesperson pointed out that previous Decadal Survey missions—Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer—have now become household names, and the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will too. JWST will be great for astronomy and for outreach, but it is nonetheless extremely expensive and over budget, which implies that some smaller projects won’t be funded. According to this detailed article by Lee Billings, JWST is taking an ever-increasing fraction of NASA’s astrophysics budget, and based on the presentation at the town hall, it looks like that will continue for the next few years. In the meantime, WFIRST’s budget will start ramping up soon too.

In other news, at the AAS meeting we also heard updates about research grants in 2014 through NASA’s funding of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) funding. The Astrophysics Data Analysis Program (ADAP) was funded at $7.5M last year with a 21% proposal success rate, and the Astrophysics Theory Program (ATP) was funded at $3.5M with a 11% success rate. I didn’t catch the stats for the other programs, such as those involving exoplanet research and instrumentation. Grant funding levels have been pretty flat for the past four fiscal years, but because of the increasing number proposals, the selection rate keeps decreasing. Theoretical astrophysicists will be dismayed that no ATP proposals will be solicited in 2015, but they say that there has been no reduction in funding, just a delay.


There were also interesting sessions about education and public outreach (E/PO) and Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) too, and I suggest checking out those links if you want more information and resources.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

I also attended the NSF town hall, and similar to the NASA one, was primarily about budget issues. The NSF budget fared alright for fiscal year 2015 and appears to be between the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios they envisioned. NSF is pursuing partnerships with universities, other institutions, and federal agencies on some projects, such as a NASA-NSF partnership on exoplanet research. NSF analysts expect an approximately flat budget out to 2019, but that could change. They’re already preparing for FY 2016, and the President’s Budget Request will come out in the near future.

For the division of astronomical sciences (AST), NSF research grant proposals had a success rate of 15-16% for both 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, as with NASA, there appears to be a long-term decreasing trend; in 2002, the success rate was 38%. And as with NASA, this is mostly due to increasing numbers of proposals, and they’re starting to restrict the number of proposals submitted per investigator and per institution. They’re also developing strategies in case success rates drop below 10%, which would be a dire situation. I’ve been funded by NSF grants myself, and it’s stressful for faculty, research scientists, and grad students when proposals are rejected so often.

The NSF spokesperson briefly mentioned NSF “rotator” positions, which are temporary program directors who work at the NSF and collaborate with many people on a variety of policy and budget issues. The astronomical sciences has such a program, and if you want more information about it, look here.

The NSF also funds major telescopes, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also in Chile. As you may know, scientists are making progress with ALMA and have obtained interesting results already (see below). DKIST is under construction, and construction will begin on LSST later this year. In NSF’s budget, existing facilities account for about 1/3 of it, individual and mid-scale programs are another third, and the rest of the budget goes to ALMA, DKIST, and LSST.

AAS Science Policy & Advocacy

Joel Parriott, the AAS’s director of public policy, and Josh Shiode, the public policy fellow, organized a great session on science policy and the AAS’s advocacy efforts. They gave an informative presentation about how budgets are determined and about the current budget situation for basic and applied research in the astronomical sciences. I didn’t know that the US currently funds 37% of the world’s R&D, but China is expected to overtake the US in the early 2020s.

Shiode also spoke about the importance of cross-cultural communication between scientists and policy-makers. As a scientist and as a constituent, there are many ways that you can influence your Congress members, and nothing beats interacting with them in person. If you’re an astronomer, I strongly encourage you to participate in the Congressional Visits Day. I participated in it last year (see my blog post about it), and I really enjoyed it. You can find more information here, and note the deadline on 3 February.


There are other ways to get involves as well. You can also call or write to your Representative or Senators as well as write letters to the editor or op-eds for your local newspaper. Note that some Congress members will be receptive to different messages or to different ways of framing scientists’ and educators’ concerns. One concern scientists have these days is that some members of Congress are interfering with the peer-review process in the NSF and NIH.


The AAS meeting also included a session on ALMA, a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) open house, and a JWST town hall, as well as one for Hubble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this spring. (I wasn’t able to attend all of these sessions, unfortunately.)

Al Wootten (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) gave a nice talk about science that is being done with ALMA so far. It’s an array of 66 12-meter and 7-meter radio telescopes, and after three decades of planning/construction, ALMA is now approaching full science operations. The US is part of a large international collaboration consisting of a partnership between North America, Europe, and East Asia. Wootten presented interesting results about observations of gas in Milky Way-like galaxies in the distant universe and of gas kinematics in protostars and protoplanetary disks. ALMA had a conference in Tokyo in December, and the proceedings will be published in a few months.

The TMT and JWST are upcoming telescopes that much of the astronomical community and the science-loving public are looking forward to. The TMT is one of the giant telescopes I’ve written about before, and it will have “first light” in 2022. JWST is scheduled to launch in 2018.

[This is my second post in a series about the American Astronomical Society meeting.]

Reporting from the American Astronomical Society Meeting: Impostor Syndrome, Publishing Changes, Sustainability

[This will be the first of a series of three posts about interesting events at the American Astronomical Society meeting. I plan on writing about some policy issues and scientific results in separate posts.]

When I was taking the train north, I fell asleep in northern California and awoke to sunrise in Oregon. The dry desert-like environment was replaced by the foggy forests and mountains one typically associates with the northwest. You won’t be surprised that it was rainy when we arrived.


In any case, it was great to visit Seattle. Thousands of American and international astronomers, as well as educators and journalists, converged on the convention center downtown two weeks ago for a busy and exciting American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting, which is annually one of the world’s largest astronomy meetings. I’ll describe a couple of the interesting sessions that involve scientists’ activities and concerns beyond scientific research here and that you might not have heard about elsewhere. (A separate post will address new scientific results and plenary sessions.)

You can view the AAS meeting’s program online, and you can check out everyone’s live-tweeting at #aas225 too.

Impostor Syndrome

Jessica Kirkpatrick, Caitlin Casey, and Kartik Sheth organized an excellent session on the impostor syndrome, and from what I could tell, it was very successful. They packed a large room, and graduate students as well as more senior scientists actively participated in the event. The organizers will soon be posting about it and about survey results on the Women in Astronomy blog, so watch for that.

Many people working in academia have experienced what some psychological researchers refer to as “impostor syndrome.” According to Langford & Clance (1993),

the impostor syndrome is defined by ‘believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, and having manipulated other people’s impressions.’

As Rachel Ivie and Arnell Ephraim (American Institute of Physics) put it in 2011, “One key aspect of the imposter syndrome is the attribution of your own success to factors beyond your control, such as luck, while attributing the success of others to skill or knowledge.” Based on a survey, they argue that impostor syndrome manifests itself more strongly in women and therefore contributes to a higher
drop-out rate among women than men in astronomy.

Consequently, impostor syndrome is not just harmful to the health and success of the many people who experience it but is also harmful to science in general. Men (including me) experience impostor syndrome too, as do many minority groups such as black and Latino scientists. According to a survey of astronomers planning to the attend the AAS session, 56% of them are experiencing or have experienced severe impostor syndrome. This is clearly an issue we must try to address, and this involves identifying, assessing, and reversing the effects of impostor syndrome.

The session mostly consisted of the participants interacting with each other and going through a series of steps in which everyone talked about the sources of their impostor syndrome feelings and doubts, how they cope with them, and figuring out what to do in order to break the cycle. That last part involves great advice: “Start talking about it. Accept that this is normal. Rewrite your script. Think positive. Redefine success. Stop unrealistic comparisons. Self care. Find a support network. Fake it.”

In my opinion, all of this is great, and more sessions like this should be organized in future AAS meetings. Encouraging everyone and dealing with sources of doubt will help all scientists and students to gain confidence, and this is an important step toward achieving equality in STEM fields. In addition, people at universities and other educational institutions should make an earnest effort especially at the level of graduate programs to discuss and address these issues. Unfortunately, straight white privileged men seem to be the most unaware of these issues are also the people most often in leadership positions and most unlikely to have attended this session. Talking about these issues openly and consistently should help to make everyone more aware of them.

AAS Publishing

In a town hall-style session, people from the AAS publishing program described potential changes to the main journals, including the Astronomical Journal (AJ) and Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) (where I have published papers before). I expect that many of these changes will be officially announced in more detail later this year.

The details will mostly just interest professional scientists who frequently read and publish in these journals. There are plans to balance content in ApJ and AJ and to have one centralized portal for submitting papers. They will eventually do away with ApJ Supplements, as the distinction between them and regular ApJ papers is not as clear as before, and in any case, in an age where most papers are accessed online, the distinction is basically irrelevant. They are planning on technological enhancements in the journals in the future, such as including 3-dimensional figures, video abstracts, and staff support with graphics. Finally, rather than just having ApJ Letters, they proposed the creation of AAS letters, which would highlight the most important research of both the AJ and ApJ and which would not have as strict a length limit.

During the Q&A period, there were comments about open access and about the contrast between the AAS business model and that of the Royal Astronomical Society, which publishes the Monthly Notices of the RAS. In my personal opinion, I think open access journals are generally a good thing, and I prefer the MNRAS model, in which scientists do not have to pay to publish papers; in effect, the cost is paid by libraries and other institutions. In other publishing-related news, a new open-access scientific journal, Collabra, was just introduced in the UK, in which they plan to pay peer reviewers and editors.

Sustainability Efforts

As I wrote in my previous post, where I described my train trip to the AAS, I recently joined the AAS Sustainability Committee. The committee organized a splinter session called “Teach Climate Change!” that was led by James Lowenthal (Smith College), Katy Garmany (NOAO), and others. The session mainly consisted of: (1) discussions about how to teach climate change in an introductory astronomy course; (2) how astronomers can engage in public debate on climate change issues; and (3) how we can address sustainability through control of “light pollution,” though we ended up having not much time for that topic.

We had many lively discussions about these topics and audience members had many excellent ideas. Many people advocated for astronomers to engage in more public outreach programs, including with museums such as the California Academy of Sciences. When teaching a class, it’s useful to assess students’ views anonymously such as with “clickers,” and students can calculate their own carbon footprint on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) website, which would help make these issues more concrete. For interested readers, Lowenthal recommended the 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which compares climate change misinformation to that of the tobacco industry.

We will make more information and resources available in the future, and in the meantime, I suggest checking out the Sustainability Committee’s website and blog.

Other Sessions

I’ll just briefly mention a few more sessions at the AAS meeting. On the pre-meeting days, there sessions on astrostatistics and databases with R and Python codes, and one on “distributed collaboration” with Github. There also was a two-day teaching workshop organized by the Center for Astronomy Education; I attended it in 2012 and strongly recommended it. There were other teaching and outreach-related sessions too, including one about the Astronomy Ambassadors, but I only could attend a few of them this time. There were also a few events related to the International Year of Light. Finally, the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) organized many interesting sessions I was sad to miss—you can’t go to everything when there are many parallel sessions—with titles such as “Astronomy and the First World War” and “Preserving the Material Legacy of the American Observatory Movement.”

Science Writing Awards

Finally, at a reception on 6th January, Rick Feinberg, the AAS Press Officer, announced the science writing awards. Alexandre Witze won the 2014 American Institute of Physics (AIP) Science Communications Award for her excellent article, “Spinning the Core” in Science News, on magnetic dynamos. Lee Billings won the award in the book category for his “Five Billion Years of Solitude”, published by Current/Penguin. I look forward to reading it!

You could say that I attended the AAS meeting as an astronomy researcher, astronomy policy analyst, and beginning science writer. Here’s my badge—for the first time, I was registered as both press and as an astronomer. It’s interesting seeing things from the other side.


All Aboard to the American Astronomical Society Meeting!

I’m on a train adventure, going through California, Oregon, and Washington to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle. This post is a modified version of one I wrote for the AAS
Sustainability Committee.

For those of you astronomers and journalists at the meeting, you’re welcome to join us for our Special Session next Wednesday (7th January) at 12:30-14:00 in Room 4C-3. We’ll be starting the new year with ideas and plans for addressing climate change issues in class and with the media.

We encourage anyone who is interested in the Sustainability Committee to contact us and get involved. We will post resources on this website for teaching and discussing climate change with journalists.

It’s important for astronomers to try to make observatories, telescopes, university department buildings, and computer centers as energy efficient as possible, but our largest environmental impact and carbon footprint comes from airplane flights to meetings, conferences, workshops, etc. According to a New York Times article, air travel emissions account for about five percent of global warming, and that fraction is projected to rise significantly as the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency.

It would help this situation to develop better resources and technologies for videoconferencing and remote observing, and these are areas where we should continue to make improvements. In addition, long-distance travel can be difficult for some people, such as for those with families and those in relatively remote locations, and videoconferencing and webcasts can make conferences more accessible to more people.

Nonetheless, long-distance travel is sometimes necessary, including for early-career scientists who need to advertise their work and network at conferences. I joined the Sustainability Committee in 2014, and one thing I am trying to do and trying to encourage others to do is to take more trains. In the US, long-distance trains can be very useful depending on where one wants to travel. They are not always the fastest mode of transportation, but they are comfortable, convenient, have great views, and usually have wireless access if you need to work. And importantly, they save energy.

I work at the University of California, San Diego, and I’m taking the train up the Pacific coast to Seattle via Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, which we just passed, the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland. (It makes me think of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”) I’m traveling nearly 1500 miles (2400 km)—nearly the entire distance from the southern to northern border of the US. As I wrote in a blog post last summer, Amtrak trains expend about 1,600 BTUs of energy per passenger per mile, while planes use 2,500 and cars use 3,900. Trains are much more energy efficient than planes, cars, and buses, and by not flying to Seattle, I’m saving tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This is just a start, but I am trying to view flying as a luxury or necessary evil that I will avoid and reduce when possible.

In any case, I’m excited to be part of the new and improved Sustainability Committee, and if you’re interested, join us at the AAS meeting! More importantly, make a resolution in 2015 to reduce your and your institution’s carbon footprint.