The Donald and Irene Osterbrock Leadership Program

We are saddened to report the passing of our generous patron Irene Osterbrock on February 2, 2019.  Her family suggests a donation to the Osterbrock program in lieu of flowers.

The Osterbrock Leadership Program: A Unique PhD Experience

Vision Statement:  Empowering young astronomers to become effective leaders

Mission Statement

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Earning the PhD in Astronomy is a rare chance to develop resourcefulness, creativity, and critical thinking. The Osterbrock Leadership Program is founded on the conviction that the lifelong value of the PhD – to the recipient and to society – will be maximized if PhD candidates can master basic principles of leadership and management in addition to their regular research training.  The Osterbrock Leadership Program provides unique training opportunities to the UCSC Astronomy graduate community through a variety of educational activities, mentorships with outstanding leaders, and leadership experiences conceived and executed by the students themselves.

For information on how to support the Osterbrock Leadership Program and other Departmental initiatives, click here.


Doing a PhD in Astronomy teaches students how to think clearly – but this is not the only skill needed through a long career. As researchers, they may be called upon to lead big projects with large teams and multi-million-dollar budgets. As an academic, they may become department chair, or dean, or provost. Beyond academe, astronomers are increasingly serving as leaders in business, education, government, and politics.  In all these roles, astronomers need to understand people and organizations, how to motivate and inspire, and how to manage complex endeavors. This constellation of skills and understanding is rarely featured in astronomical PhD training.

The Osterbrock Leadership Program in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UCSC is designed to fill this gap. It is named in honor of Donald E. Osterbrock, eminent former Professor of Astronomy at UCSC and skilled mentor of numerous graduate students.  Don Osterbrock pioneered the study of gaseous nebulae and originated the classification scheme for active galactic nuclei. His steady hand on the helm as Lick Observatory director guided the UC astronomical community through the turbulent period when the Keck Telescopes were taking shape. Don was a gifted teacher, and the many doctoral students he advised comprise a significant portion of today’s astronomical leadership. His wife, Irene, worked tirelessly to help establish the UCSC Library's Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory as a world-renowned repository of U.S. astronomical history, for which she was named Patron of the American Astronomical Society. 

Together, the Osterbrocks’ leadership accomplishments set the standard for our program and continue to inspire students in the PhD today.

As far as we know, the OLP is unique – there is no other program like it in in the nation.  If interested, please contact Program Director Sandra Faber ( and Osterbrock Fellow Viraj Pandya ( to learn more.   

Program Description  

The Osterbrock Leadership Program (OLP) is open to all interested PhD students in the Astronomy Department.  Major aspects of the program are managed by the Osterbrock Scholars themselves. Three varieties of activities are offered:

Osterbrock leadership activities teach basic leadership concepts and expose grads to examples of outstanding leadership both inside and outside science.  Visits to Osterbrock partner organizations take students outside the “department bubble” and introduce them to PhDs now serving in different kinds of leadership positions.  Government and business execs convey the importance of injecting scientific data into policy discussions and the challenges of doing that.   Attendance is encouraged at external workshops, classes, and seminars where principles of leadership are taught. The annual Mandel Communications Workshops help students hone their presentation skills and communicate with audiences more effectively.  OLP partner organizations include the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the California Council on Science and Technology.

Osterbrock leadership events advertise the importance of PhD leadership training and seek to improve its quality both within the Astronomy Department and more widely in the UCSC community.  In 2016-17 we inaugurated the annual Osterbrock Distinguished Leadership Lecture, which featured Dr. Robert Kirshner, head of Science Programs at the Moore Foundation.  The OLP Distinguished Lecturer in 2018 was Rush Holt, former Congressperson and now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

The Osterbrock Mini-Grant projects are the core of the OLP training experience.  Designed and proposed by the OLP Scholars themselves, Mini-grant projects are 12-month-long opportunities for hands-on leadership training.  Projects are supported by small budgets from the OLP endowment and are selected and managed by the Osterbrock Fellows, who staff the OLP Advisory Council.  All students in the Astronomy department are eligible to submit Mini-grant proposals.  The Advisory Council selects the winners, awards the budgets, and provides oversight and guidance.  PIs report on their projects at the end of the year.  Successful Mini-grant PIs and Co-Is are eligible to become Osterbrock Fellows and members of the Advisory Council in future years.

A unique feature of the Osterbrock program is mentorship by accomplished leaders.  Three UCSC Astronomy faculty serve as Senior Fellows in the Department and interface with the Osterbrock Scholars regularly. In addition, the Osterbrock Mentors Circle consists of external advisors from business, government, science, and education who want to share their leadership wisdom with young scientists.  Long-term relationships with the Mentors and Senior Fellows foster friendships that we hope will blossom into life-long bonds.  

In any given year, there are 6-7 Fellows on the Advisory Council and another roughly half dozen Scholars active in Mini-grants and other activities.  Students stay active for about three years so that roughly half of all incoming grads will engage as Fellows or Scholars during their graduate careers.  In addition, department-wide activities like the Mandel Communications Workshops and Osterbrock Pizza Lunches reach many more grads, postdocs, and even faculty.

Selected Highlights

Osterbrock Fellow Viraj Pandya’s Osterbrock Mini-grant project on scientific team management placed him in a team that wrote an Early Release Science proposal for the James Webb Space Telescope.  The proposal was accepted, and Pandya will be one of the few graduate students with Co-I access to JWST data during the first year after launch.

Senior Fellow Sandra Faber and six Osterbrock Scholars visited Space Telescope Science Institute and other scientific institutions in Washington and Maryland for a week in October.  The Scholars were given permission to observe confidential Telescope Allocation Committee deliberations and interviewed twenty different senior scientific leaders to learn about leadership strategies and the many different career paths open to scientists with PhD training.

Osterbrock Fellow Sara Crandall was recently awarded a prestigious Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship to spend 12 weeks at the National Academy of Sciences learning about science and technology policy and the role that scientists and engineers play in advising the nation.  Thanks to her previous Osterbrock experience, Crandall, a single mother, stepped into the role to represent the UCSC graduate community in negotiations concerning the new Student Family Housing complex.  Graduate student concerns about daycare and child safety caused a major re-siting of the complex.

Osterbrock Fellow Alexa Villaume shared her new insights about conflict resolution in a presentation to faculty, grads, and postdocs in the Department.  Her new knowledge was gained from a recent Mini-grant, which paid for conflict resolution training for her and another Astronomy grad student.

Osterbrock Scholar Felipe Ardila recently revived the annual UC Astronomy Sierra Conference, which had lain dormant for five years.  The Sierra Conference brings together graduate students from all eight UC astronomy campuses to form science connections and share best practices for running a graduate department.  Transportation and campsite expenses were paid for by Ardila’s Mini-grant.  The conference was judged a success, and Ardila will lead a second conference this summer.

Osterbrock Fellow Amanda Quirk conducted a Mini-grant project to learn about ways to make teaching more inclusive and accessible for disabled students.  Disabled herself, Quirk rewrote the UCSC accessibility mandates in the process and will report on best practices at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Selection of the second year of Osterbrock Mini-grant proposals is underway.  Seven proposals have been received, with budgets that total $10,000. 

Biographies of the current Fellows, Senior Fellows, and Mentors are found on neighboring webpages.