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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Dr Stella Kafka of The American Association of Variable Star Observers On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

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

Dr. Stella Kafka is the Chief Executive Officer and Director of AAVSO. After obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Athens, Greece, she moved to the United States and earned her Master’s and Ph.D. in Astronomy with a double minor in Physics and Geophysical Sciences. There, she also received the Hollis and Grete Johnson Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Research. After completing her Ph.D., Stella held a series of prestigious postdoctoral positions and fellowships, first at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (CTIO, where she received the National Optical Astronomy Observatory Excellence Award), then at Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), and finally as a NASA Astrobiology Institute Fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. As the Executive Director of the AAVSO, Stella aspires to build strong communities of professional and amateur astronomers who jointly work towards understanding some of the most dynamic phenomena in the universe. She resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her puppy, Ruru. When she’s not stargazing, managing the AAVSO, or making significant scientific discoveries, she enjoys reading, exercising, and traveling.

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

I was born and raised in a big city (Athens, Greece) where, at an early age, I was encouraged by my parents to be curious and explore nature. Having said that, I didn’t have access to a dark sky. I was always curious on how nature works, what are the phenomena and principles that govern the world around me, so I pursued a BSc in Physics at the university of Athens.This is where I got in touch with Astronomy: as an undergraduate, I did my thesis in astronomy, and was enamoured by the process of learning about the universe through analyzing light.

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

Well, here’s one for you: The first day of my tenure was February 1, 2015. It was a Monday, and we were in the middle of a viscous blizzard. So, instead of sending an inspirational email to my new co-workers at the AAVSO, I simply instructed them to stay home and not come to the office because the conditions of the roads were horrible and I didn’t want them to get hurt while driving to the office… What a start!

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?

I underestimate snow. Seriously, Feb 2015 was the first time in my life where I shoveled snow, resulting in a back injury… Not everything that looks easy is easy in real life…

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

The AAVSO is an international non-profit organization of variable star observers whose mission is to enable anyone, anywhere, to participate in scientific discovery through variable star astronomy. Professional astronomers have neither the time nor the telescopes needed to gather data on the brightness changes of thousands of variables, and amateurs can make a real and useful contribution to science by observing variable stars and submitting their observations to the AAVSO International Database. The public can just step outside and use their DSLR cameras to supply data for this. We offer workshops, online courses, manuals, mentors, databases and tools for data upload/downloading, opportunities to directly communicate and work with professional astronomers in exciting key projects. We all are a community of like-minded individuals who respectfully interact and learn from each other, explore the universe and reveal properties of the most dynamic stars out there!

Professional astronomers rely on citizen scientists to gather this kind of data. Astronomy is one of the few sciences in which individuals without a formal degree can contribute in meaningful ways to scientific projects and produce original and significant results. From a practical standpoint, it’s really difficult for a professional astronomer to be able to gather all the data they need for their work by themselves and information sharing is huge. We use the information gathered by amateurs to round out their data and make important discoveries. With such an active membership, we are able to get people looking at a certain star from all over the world within a matter of hours.

For example, when Betelgeuse’s brightness dropped in 2020 in a way that was not recorded in its 130-years, AAVSO observers had been taking data. Thanks to the AAVSO observers we have a good record of those brightness fluctuations. This information was essential for professional astronomers to understand the underlying reasons. That was a really cool project!

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

An exciting new initiative launching in 2022 is a free-for-all Spanish language webinar, which will introduce astronomical concepts to individuals whose native language is not English. We hope to reach out to as many people as possible!

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?

I am certainly not satisfied with the status quo, but I hope we are making progress. More and more women have successful high-profile careers, we are mentoring and empowering the next generation of leaders and are building a strong support group for one another. This is an ongoing process, and will take several generations to change, but we need to keep up our hard work, showcase our abilities and go after opportunities. I am here to support as many individuals I can, in the hopes that they will emerge stronger to change the narrative.

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?

The biggest challenge we are dealing with now are perceptions from the past. Those led to tolerance of sexist/inappropriate comments and jokes, gender stereotypes on roles in the workplace, perceptions on individual’s capabilities, and a culture of tolerance that is hurting underserved communities. First and foremost, we all need to be aware of our personal biases and get out of our comfort zone to deal with all this. Also, listen. Listen to people, situations, suggestions, and start thinking of how we can make safer spaces for all.

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

Ugh.. personal experiences: individuals commenting that “I am cute so why do I waste my time overthinking things” to individuals telling me that “I am too smart for a woman” … the list goes on. Such comments are demeaning and aim to undermine my work and abilities.

While growing up, I feel that I lived in a very safe bubble. My father was always my cheerleader — always championing for my success and supporting my endeavors. Experience the “real world” was always through his goggles: I am a strong, intelligent woman, and I can do anything I put my mind into. Yes, I was very fortunate. My mother nurtured my natural curiosity while making sure I knew how to prioritize, achieve, and celebrate accomplishments. I was really blessed with such an amazing support group… I wouldn’t be able to make it without them.

“Real life” hit after I acquired my PhD, where I experienced gender discrimination in every aspect of my professional life (research, publishing, giving talks, discussing new project, serving in committees). In some cases I was selected as the ‘token woman’’ in the room; no one expected me to have opinions, contribute in discussions or have a voice about anything. Well, this didn’t sit well with me, as I made a point to showcase my abilities and earned respect. It was difficult and sometimes exhausting to have to prove myself in such settings whereas my male colleagues who had the same kind of credentials, were considered worthy professionals from the beginning.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Speak up: people tend to underestimate women in professional settings, and are sometimes surprised that we have opinions.

Don’t get intimidated: There is a specific reason why we are selected to serve in a committee, participate in a panel, give a talk, and this reason speaks for itself. We have the same (sometimes more) qualifications as our male colleagues, and we need to educate them on how they should behave towards us!

Be you: don’t try to emulate anyone or conform to norms. As women, we bring unique perspectives, talent and wisdom, and this needs to be recognized and celebrated.

Build a network and rely on it: I have many wise women and men who have provided wisdom and support throughout my career. I make my own choices, but I love having sounding boards for ideas. My mentors give me perspective and a sense of belonging in a community.

Lift others: each one of us is someone’s role model and cheerleader. Be that amazing person for someone else and help them shine!

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

We need to build a strong network and support each other. We need each other for success. If you think I can help, please reach out!

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

Make sure you understand the culture of your team. Talk to your colleagues and listen. And establish a “no tolerance” policy. Harassment, discrimination, bullying, subtle sexism do not belong in your workplace. Make sure you set the tone from the beginning, and take care of your colleagues.

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

I am deeply committed to doing my part to change the future of astronomy for women and minorities. At the AAVSO, I established norms for what constitutes open, welcoming, and inclusive behaviors through relevant internal policies and practices. We actively embrace diverse viewpoints during discussions, and we participate in the decision-making process. I also introduced a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behavior such as bullying, harassment and micro-aggression, and sponsored webinars to identify and discuss such behaviors. All our employees are offered equal access to all our in-person and digital resources, including webinars, mentoring, professional development opportunities and software to hone their skills, enhance productivity and enable collaboration. I also established flexible work hours, especially as covid-related challenges such as unequal availability of home workspace generated anxiety.

For the AAVSO community, we have drafted ethics policies for our in-person and virtual events and our online forum conduct. Those documents include reporting misbehavior and establishing disciplinary actions. I spearheaded programs engaging a diverse audience and increase accessibility to information and resources: founded our youth program “AAVSO Ambassadors”; introduced closed captioning and transcripts on our online events; conceived and secured funding of a Spanish language webinar series (so that information is accessible to individuals for whom Spanish is a native language); I introduced double-blind referee process for the Journal of the AAVSO (ensuring that JAAVSO articles are judged based on their merit and not the author’s gender and credentials), and immediate access to all accepted manuscripts. Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility are key components of our 2020 strategic plan priorities.

I also volunteer to serve in committees that aim to improve the status and opportunities of women in STEM, and I am mentoring young women and giving talks to younger individuals, introducing various resources that could help with their career.

For me, my success is only a small part of what individuals can achieve in their lives. I am certain that there are amazing, intelligent, ambitious women out there who would shine immensely, if they are given the right opportunities and support. I strive to provide those opportunities and support in any way I can!

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. :-)

Respect for each other and for our planet. This would be my aspiration, and would lead to a better society and a sustainable planet.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” This is one of my favorite RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) ​​quotes, and I have it on my wall in front of my desk. Reminds me that we are stronger together in our challenges in life…

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I wish I could meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but it’s too late now. I would love to meet Michelle Obama or Amanda Grossman. The former is a role model, the latter an inspiration…

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.