Monday, January 6, 2020

AAS Astronomy Ambassadors: A Gateway to Science Communication Careers

This is a transcript of my talk at the 235th AAS Meeting in Honolulu at the Special Session - AAS Astronomy Ambassadors: Professional Learning Community, Moving Forward, held on January 5th, 2020.

In November of 2013, I was on a mountain in Chile learning that the instrument I needed to do my thesis couldn’t be put on the telescope for technical reasons. But I had already registered for the Winter AAS meeting for the following January. Luckily I was selected as an AAS Astronomy Ambassador. I hoped to bring more astronomy-related activities back to our department for our outreach events. So, I went to the meeting, presented a poster on my failed instrument, and gained access to an amazing cohort of science communicators and resources.

I also learned a few weeks after attending the meeting and workshop that I was pregnant with my first child. So, I started rethinking my career options.

Because I did the AAS Ambassador workshop, some friends pointed me to the ComSciCon workshop. I applied but wasn’t accepted to the flagship workshop. After my daughter was born, I was contacted by the flagship committee and told there would be a ComSciCon held in my area. At this workshop, I heard science writers speak about their paths from academia to science writing and learned about the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship.

ComSciCon Triangle 2015 participants.

I applied for the Fellowship around the time I was finishing up my dissertation. During the summer of 2016, I was placed at Voice of America in Washington DC. There I worked as a science journalist for 10 weeks, writing breaking news stories such as how only one-third of humanity can see the Milky Way, birds who lead human hunters to honey, and how mammals developed night vision because they lived amongst dinosaurs. I incorporated the things I learned about knowing your audience and being aware of jargon through the AAS Ambassadors and ComSciCon to craft stories around breaking science.

(Left)2016 cohort of AAAS Mass Media Fellows. (Right)Faith Lapidus and Steve Baragona, my editors at VOA.

After the fellowship ended I was a part-time adjunct at West Chester University. There I got to teach a 100 level physics course for non-science majors. I taught physics through the lens of astronomy using AAS Ambassador activities but tailored for a college-level lecture. For example, my course talked about distance scales and instead of doing the Pocket Solar System activity as written. I brought in a long sheet of butcher paper and cutouts of the planets. I then asked the students to use Kepler’s Laws to calculate the distances of the planets from the Sun in AU from their periods. Once they did the calculation I would place the planet at the appropriate distance. I also used my science writing to structure my lectures in the form of stories. Stories of how scientific ideas build on one another.

Here I also met Dr. Karen Schwartz who was on the Board of Directors of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester and an astronomy faculty at WCU. She told me about the Girls in Science and Technology Program at the museum which introduces girls ages 8-18 to scientific topics in Physics, Astronomy, Energy, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Coding, and Robotics. She was looking for someone to take over the Astronomy session and I happily volunteered. This is my 3rd year running the session and I’ve completely revamped it to include many of the AAS Ambassador activities.

I also learned through the Ambassador network about the Pinholes and Space Telescopes workshop offered by the ASP. I obtained 24 Galileoscopes for the museum and developed a telescope workshop for the museum which teaches kids how telescopes work (for money)!

A pinhole telescope from the workshop in May 2019

Because of my support for the Museums programs I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors and chair their Education Committee.

I was also able to leverage my writing experiences to get first an Associate Editor position at a medical magazine and currently a staff writer position at Penn Medicine in their Development and Alumni Relations department. This job permits me to do my outreach since I don't have to take it home with me.

It was because of the AAS Ambassador network that I was able to find my strengths—clearly and enthusiastically explaining complex science to anyone. Being an Ambassador opens the door to many opportunities to learn more about science outreach and gives you access to well thought out and engaging activities for all audiences.

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