I really enjoy being up on the Museum floor talking with our visitors. As well as sharing some of the latest astronomy news, I also answer a lot of questions from all types of people. A favorite question, usually asked by a starry-eyed young kid, is “How did you become an astronomer?” I think they are expecting to hear a story about seeing the night sky and being so overwhelmed that I simply had to become an astronomer. Or perhaps a tale of an inspiring teacher who opened my eyes to the beauty of the Universe.
The truth though, is that I’ve always wanted to learn everything I could about the Universe. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t fascinated by space and everything in it. So my career path has been pretty straightforward. I was really excited by my science classes in high school, got my undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics, and then went to graduate school for physics. Five years later I graduated with a Ph.D. in physics (so technically I’m a physicist, but astrophysics and astronomy are really the same thing these days so who’s counting?). Over the next four years I did a couple of post-doctoral positions in Italy and San Diego. Post-docs are a bit like a journeyman position. You’ve gotten your degree, but you are still learning the ropes of the research community.
So, the most pivotal moment for me wasn’t deciding to become an astronomer: it was deciding to come to the Adler. I was at San Diego, enjoying the sunshine, but feeling a bit out of sorts. I enjoyed the research, but was uncertain with the idea of teaching large lecture classes year after year. I had always enjoyed one-on-one conversations much more. That’s when I found out that the Adler was looking for professional astronomers who could do both research and outreach! This seemed perfect for my interests. But I was a bit nervous that it was off the beaten path. Museums have always been central to research in sciences like anthropology, archeology, and paleontology, but planetaria had never before been considered research institutions. It was a bit of a risk, but it was also an opportunity to do something really new. The Adler was looking to start an entirely new kind of astronomy department, centered on both research and informal education!
And it has really panned out. Now thirteen years later the Adler has proven itself in the research community, but also in the exciting programs we offer to our visitors and audiences. I’m looking forward to seeing all of you at the next Astronomy Conversations!
Have you always wanted to meet the people behind the science at the Adler? During Astronomy Conversations, you can exchange ideas with Adler space science and technology experts and learn more about ongoing Adler projects. Astronomy Conversations take place Monday through Friday from 2 to 3pm in the Space Visualization Laboratory.