In what ways do you strengthen your community through the above role/position?
I provide a role model for women who want to pursue STEM careers; I mentor wonderful women and men, especially students from communities who have been underrepresented in STEM fields; I provide my students, including non-STEM majors, with an understanding of how science works so they can understand and apply scientific ideas as citizens and community members.
Are there any obstacles you struggle(d) to overcome? Consider obstacles specific (but not limited) to being a woman in your role?
There's the run-of-the-mill uncertainty that the career entails: low pay in grad school, a couple of postdoctoral positions, frequently requiring cross-country or international moves, only being able to settle down in a 'final' location later in life (a location which you don't have a lot of choice about. It's a tough decade or so if you have a partner, and much harder with kids).
There’s observing on a mountaintop at crazy hours, while you are jetlagged, breathing air that is too thin to support higher thought, while being expected to think really hard, use your time optimally, and not break any equipment.
Then there's being a woman astrophysicist. All said to me or about me in a professional setting: "Maybe her husband writes all her papers and just puts her name on them." "Where I come from, putting your arm around someone lets them know you're listening to them." "I don't think women necessarily *are* as good as men at science... oh, but not you Saavik, not you!" "Oh, you're pregnant? So you'll be leaving us?"
And let's not forget when my male undergraduate students challenge my authority much more often than they challenge my husband's (he is also a professor at the same school).
What is the best (most rewarding, empowering, FUN) part of what you do?
Being stumped when the universe hands you something really weird. Figuring out the universe. Making models in your head and finding out they describe actual things in the universe. Building an instrument and watching it launch on a rocket, and later, taking data that you will use to learn more about the universe. Watching the light bulb go on in a student's head. Flexibility. Travel opportunities (did you know Hawaii has some awesome telescopes?). Brainstorming with (mostly) awesome, smart people.
Do you have any advice for women and girls who may look to follow in your footsteps or pursue a course in a similar field?
A lot of people who are interested in science get derailed by the math. Math is just a language. It requires practice and patience, and you will make mistakes along the way, but that's ok, because mistakes are how you learn. You will only stop learning if you give up trying (that's true about everything, actually). Be stubborn. Learning to write and speak well are surprisingly important skills for scientists. Managing people is another surprisingly important skill. Also, the job market for science professors is not great--there are not enough jobs for all the PhDs we produce in the US. So, if you want to be a professional scientist, that is awesome! But also have a plan B--which can mean being in science, but not in academia. The skills you get along the way to pursuing a job as a professor will open doors in industrial science, as well as dozens of other fields, especially in finance, teaching, and computer programming. Keep an open mind and be creative. Despite the obstacles, I would pick my job over any other one, every day of the week.