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.



Accomplishing the 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 later 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 knowledge is rarely included in normal 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, and his wife Irene. Don 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. 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 ( to learn more.   

Program Description  

The Osterbrock Leadership Program (OLP) is open to all interested PhD students in the UCSC Astronomy Department.  Major aspects of the program are managed by the Osterbrock Fellows, who are the graduate student leaders of the program, staff the Osterbrock Advisory Council, and receive special stipends in recognition of their service. Three categories of activities are offered:

Osterbrock 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. 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. The highlight of the year is the annual week-long visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute and Washington, DC, where students sit in on TAC meetings for HST and (in future) JWST and meet with government and business leaders who convey the importance of injecting scientific data into policy discussions and the challenges of doing that.   Attendance is also encouraged at external workshops, classes, and seminars where principles of leadership are taught, and support exists within the budget to cover travel, living expenses, and registration fees. The Mandel Communications Workshops, offered annually by Osterbrock Mentor Steve Mandel, help students hone their presentation skills to communicate with audiences more effectively. 

Osterbrock 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, the annual Osterbrock Distinguished Leadership Lecture was inaugurated, which invites distinguished scientific leaders from around the nation to address the campus community.  Previous OLP Distinguished Lecturers include Dr. Robert Kirshner, head of Science Programs at the Moore Foundation, and Rush Holt, former Congressperson and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

Osterbrock Mini-grant projects are the core of the OLP training experience.   Selected and managed by the Fellows and supported by small grants from the OLP endowment, Mini-grants are 12-month-long projects that offer unique opportunities for hands-on leadership training. All students in the Astronomy department are eligible to propose for a Mini-grant.  The Advisory Council selects the winners, awards the budgets, and provides oversight and guidance. A list of previous Mini-grants is given on a neighboring page.

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

In any given year, there are 6-7 Fellows on the Advisory Council and another roughly half dozen students who are active in Mini-grants and other activities.  Department-wide activities like the Mandel Communications Workshops, Distinguished Lecturers, and Osterbrock Pizza Lunches, which feature interviews with local leaders,  potentially touch all members of the department.

Highlights from Past Programs

OLP Fellow Viraj Pandya’s Osterbrock Mini-grant project on team management placed him on the team that won a slot for Early Release Science observations on JWST.  As a result, Pandya will be one of the few graduate students with Co-I access to JWST data during the first year after launch.

OLP Fellow Sara Crandall was 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 Osterbrock experience, Crandall, a single mother, had already stepped into the role of representing UCSC graduate students in negotiations over the new Student Family Housing complex.  Her input caused a major re-siting of the complex.

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

OLP Fellow Diana Powell was awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.  The main theme in her proposal was mentoring and teaching work with underrepresented students, based in part on experience gained from an Osterbrock Mini-grant. Diana credits the Osterbrock program for supporting her in the work that led to this achievement.

OLP is working to connect students with outstanding leadership experience that is available in our own department.  For example, Senior Fellow Kevin Bundy teamed with Maureen Savage, UCO Technical Labs manager, to present leadership lessons learned from large astronomical instrumentation projects. 

Grad student Felipe Ardila led two Mini-grant projects to revive the annual UC Astronomy Sierra Conference.  A time-honored tradition that brought graduate students together from all UC astronomy campuses, the Sierra Conference had lain dormant for several years. Expenses for the first two new-era conferences were supported by Osterbrock funds.

OLP 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 accessibility mandates for the entire UCSC campus in the process and reported on best practices to the department.

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