May 13

AURA Annual Meeting 2024

Participants sitting at  a square of tables about to being the meeting.
AURA’s Member Representatives gather in Tucson, Arizona for the AURA Annual Meeting. Credit: AURA/S.Lifson

By Shari Lifson

On a bright April morning in Tucson, Arizona, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy’s (AURA) Annual Meeting kicked off. Held annually, the meeting brings together representatives from AURA’s 52 member institutions to interact with AURA leadership, Center Directors, and staff. The Member Representatives hear updates from each Center and AURA Corporate, vote on slates for governance positions, and discuss current issues in astronomy. 

The 2024 meeting, held April 22-24, offered both in-person and hybrid options for attendees. Member Representatives first heard from AURA President Matt Mountain who talked about recent science results from AURA-managed facilities. He also discussed some of the upcoming funding challenges for science in the FY24 and FY25 federal budgets. Dr. Mountain ended his presentation with a reminder that the AURA Representatives should advocate for basic science. “All science is good,” he said.

Alejandra Voigt, AURA Head of Mission in Chile, presented an update about AURA in Chile or AURA-O. Chile has become an astronomy powerhouse because its terrain, climate and atmospheric conditions make it an excellent location for observing. AURA has a significant presence in Chile, managing older facilities as well as the newest telescope in Chile about to come online in 2025, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. Alejandra Voigt discussed some of AURA-O’s strategic goals including communications and public outreach, dark sky protection, and economic and political challenges.

Jen Lotz with mic in hand talking in front of a screen showing space telescopes.
Jennifer Lotz, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, presents mission updates. Credit: AURA/S.Lifson

The Member Representatives also heard directly from AURA-managed Centers and construction projects. From the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Solar Observatory, Director Valentin Martinez-Pillet, with Deputy Associate Director of the Inouye Solar Telescope Dave Boboltz, presented operation updates and science news. 

Director Pat McCarthy, and Deputy Director Stuartt Corder, shared the latest science and news about activities at NSF NOIRLab, AURA’s Center for ground-based nighttime astronomy. 

From the Vera C. Rubin Observatory construction project, Director Zeljko Ivezic, Project Manager Victor Krabbendam, and Deputy Director Sandrine Thomas shared updates about the progress of the observatory’s construction, scheduled to be completed in 2025. 

Space Telescope Science Institute’s Director Jennifer Lotz and Deputy Director Nancy Levenson informed the Representatives about the status of the Institute’s missions, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb Space Telescope, the upcoming Roman Space Telescope, and the MAST data archive. Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by AURA for NASA.

The Chairs of each Center’s and construction project’s governance bodies also gave quick updates about their overall status.  

Governance Positions Elections

One of the main functions of the Annual Meeting is to hold elections to fill open positions on AURA’s Board, Councils, and Nominating Committee, as well as Board and Council Chairs. A new ranked-order voting system was used this year, which allowed the Representatives to anonymously indicate their preferences for the entire slate of candidates, instead of just voting for the top few. The Member Representatives expressed a positive reaction to this new system, and it will likely be continued next year. Newly elected governance and committee members’ terms begin July 1 when the current members of AURA’s Board and councils whose terms have ended, will rotate off. The results of the 2024 elections are listed below.

Dara Norman presents at the NOIRLab open house.
Dara Norman presents about the data lifecycle at the NOIRLab open house. Credit: AURA/S.Lifson

Open Houses

The Annual Meeting’s Open Houses are a way for meeting attendees to participate in more in-depth discussions about AURA’s Centers and related selected topics. There were four Open Houses in 2024, focused on: NSF NOIRLab including Rubin Construction; the NSF National Solar Observatory; Space Telescope Science Institute; and NOIRLab’s tenant observatories at Kitt Peak National Observatory (in Arizona) and Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (in Chile).

Dr. Bryan Kent Wallace, Dean of Graduate Studies at Fisk University, commented after the National Solar Observatory Open House, “This is my first experience as a member rep for AURA. I’m actually very excited, just seeing what AURA is about. Just incredibly fortunate and excited to be here.”

Discussion Topic 

At every Annual Meeting, time is allocated for Member Representatives to discuss an important issue facing the field of astronomy. This year’s discussion topic concerned the potential funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the US Extremely Large Telescope Program and the two telescopes that are part of the program, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the Giant Magellan Telescope. Representatives met with their colleagues prior to the meeting and then shared those opinions during the discussion. The topic sparked a lively conversation, with a broad range of views expressed.

Future Leaders

Since 2019, AURA has invited recipients of astronomy fellowships to the Annual Meeting to introduce them to the process of managing large astronomical observatories. The goals of this “Future Leaders” program are to inspire young astronomers to become involved in governance and to give them a chance to network with colleagues in astronomy.

Melinda Soares-Furtadoone of the Future Leaders and a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said of the Annual Meeting, “Listening to the presentations shared over the two-day meeting, I became more keenly aware of the underlying infrastructure and professional relationships that support astronomical research at major US facilities. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to grow my professional network. As a Future Leader, I was also provided with the opportunity to meet in a small group with the Directors and Deputy Directors of major astronomical facilities. It was inspiring to learn more about their current leadership positions and the challenges that the role presents.”

A Chance to Connect

In addition to the formal proceedings on the agenda, the meeting provided ample time for colleagues in the astronomical community to converse and network. These connections can be valuable for Member Representatives and might lead to future collaborations.

Prof. Raja Guha Thakurta from the University of California at Santa Cruz commented on the meeting, “I’ve been coming to these meetings for many years. At our institutions we get very deep into our research and bury our heads in the sand, and get very involved in a particular astronomical topic, but these meetings are a great way of getting an overview of what goes on in our overall discipline of astronomy. It’s been a real pleasure to be part of this.”

AURA thanks the Member Representatives who attended, both virtually and in person, for their time and willingness to contribute to AURA. We also want to thank the AURA staff who worked tirelessly to make this unique meeting possible. We are already looking forward to next year!


AURA’s Members and their Representatives

AURA’s Governance Bodies

AURA Governance Members as of July 1, 2024

* Indicates new members

AURA Board Members

Andrew Baker, Vice-Chair
Elizabeth Barton
Karen Bjorkman, Chair*
Emily CoBabe-Ammann*, Chair of the SOC
Kelle Cruz*, Chair of the NMOC
Roger Davies*
Megan Donahue*
Brenna Flaugher*, Chair of the AMCR
Leopoldo Infante*
Dan Jaffe
James McAteer*
Matt Mountain, ex-officio
Sally Oey
Jerome Oglesby
David Reitze*
Willie Rockward, Chair of the STIC
Monica Rubio*

NOIRLab Management Oversight Council (NMOC) Members

JoAnn Browning*
Kelle Cruz, (Appointed) Chair
Sean Dougherty
Jeff Kern
Jennifer Marshall
Matt Mountain, ex-officio
Elizabeth Sexton-Kennedy
Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, Vice-Chair
David Shoemaker*
Ezequiel Treister*
Doug Welch

Space Telescope Institute Council (STIC) Members

Scott Altman
Stuart Bale*
James Bullock, Vice-Chair
Joan Higginbotham
Bruce Macintosh
David Mongeau
Matt Mountain, ex-officio
Willie Rockward, (Appointed) Chair
Ed Schlesinger (Appointed)
Linda Tacconi
Jessica Werk*
Michael Wise

AURA Management Council for Rubin Observatory (AMCR) Members

Tulika Bose, Vice-Chair
Brenna Flaugher, Chair
Matthew Graham
Paulina Lira, ex-officio
Allison Lung
David MacFarlane
Rachel Mandelbaum
Pat McCarthy, ex-officio
Joe McMullin
Matt Mountain, ex-officio
Vivian O’Dell*
Connie Rockosi
Michael Wood-Vasey

Solar Observatory Council (SOC) Members

Sarbani Basu*
Doug Biesecker
Emily CoBabe-Ammann, Chair
Geoff Crowley*
Dale Gary
James Mason*, Vice-Chair
Sarah Matthews
Matt Mountain, ex-officio
Kathy Reeves
Alan Tokunaga*
Gelys Trancho*

Nominating Committee Members

Joe Shields*
Felipe Barrientos*
Joan Burkepile*
Sarah Tuttle*
Nicolle Zellner*
Michael Zwick* Chair
Mayra Montrose*