Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Getting intimate with the Sun and the Moon

By Angela Speck

For those of you who don’t already know me, I’m the director of astronomy and professor of astrophysics at the University of Missouri. I’m originally British, but have lived in the US for nearly 20 years and have been a US citizen for nearly 6 years.

I have started writing this blog so many times and I keep giving up and starting over. So here I go again. This time I am taking a very personal approach. I’ll explain why later…

I hope that most readers got to witness at least some of the Solar Eclipse that happened on August 21st last year. This was my first time experiencing a total solar eclipse, and this eclipse consumed my life.

Let’s start at the beginning. I live on the path of totality, bang-slap in the middle, in the middle of Missouri. I came here as a faculty member at Mizzou in 2002. Even then, 15 years ahead of the big event, local amateur astronomers were bugging me, telling me I had to get ready. I didn’t really do much prep for the next 8 or 9 years (I was busy getting tenure, and getting promoted to full prof). Actually that’s not entirely true. While I was not consciously preparing for the eclipse, I was developing useful skills, especially in networking, public engagement and science communication. 

In 2011 I turned 40, became a full professor, and was elected to the AAS Council. Two out of those three milestones were important: being a full prof meant I could take risks with my time; and being on the AAS Council gave me opportunities at a national level. I was able to push for the AAS to be leaders in the preparation for the Total Solar Eclipse. As I rotated off the Council in 2014, I became one of two co-chairs of the AAS Total Solar Eclipse Taskforce.

If you’ve ever been on a taskforce, you’ll know that it can be fraught with the clashes of different personalities, with different ideas about how to proceed, and different leadership styles. In this case, the issues were those and more. We had members who were eclipse chasers and not members of academe. Don’t get me wrong; those amateur astronomers were vital to our efforts, but the ranges of competencies and expertise were huge, and the expectations were all over the place. Now consider that to be effective we were starting preparation for a 2-minute event 3-4 years ahead of time. Most people in the US had never seen any type of solar eclipse, let alone a total solar eclipse. Engaging stakeholders was hard. Even more frustrating was that the people who knew we needed to prepare the nation were all astronomers (profession or amateur); but the stakeholders, the communities that needed to prepare were local, county and state-level governments; departments of transport; tourism boards; school districts; media organizations and more. In addition, we were entrusted with developing and disseminating safety advice, especially about looking at the sun (and the dispelling the numerous myths on this topic).

From my perspective, the solar eclipse was a perfect opportunity to go beyond talking to the choir. Many people do outreach, but rarely get beyond the K-20 classroom or science-friendly public. I wanted to find ways to engage the people who think science isn’t for them. I wanted to advertise astronomy to every underrepresented group around and show them that they should consider that science might be for them. I wanted to have science-phobic and science-skeptical publics become fans. I don’t know the extent of my  success, but I do know that I interacted with more people, learned more about all sorts of random topics, and became a truly excellent  public engagement specialist along the way.

During the course of the 2-3 years leading up to August 21st 2017 I gave hundreds of presentations, did activities at a huge number of events, interacted with students from pre-school to grad school, and people from service clubs (think Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.) to inmates at a high security prison. I talked to law enforcement, politicians, and all sorts of media (including Science Friday, the BBC World Service and C-SPAN). I have partnered with artists; with ophthalmologist; with travel bureaus and more. All the while, I was turning into Ms Frizzle as my outfits for public events got zanier and more astronomically themed. I spoke in schools, libraries, science centers, planetaria, churches, chambers of commerce, theaters, art galleries, brew pubs (I even got a beer named for me), senior living centers, national parks, Native American reservations and prisons.
I also got to be a storyteller on “StoryCollider” and I got to give a TEDx talk in the amazing Kauffman Performing Arts center in

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I learned a few things along the way that I want to share: 
  1. Storytelling is important. I’m better at communicating science at all levels (even in proposals, or specialized conference) because I have honed my storytelling. For public engagement, personal stories are important. The public doesn't want to hear us say “It’s not about me, it’s about the science”. They want to know something about us in order to connect to the science. This is usually something that scientists shy away from. Embrace it!
  2. You never know where things will lead. My various adventures in talking to Rotary Clubs have given me great connections (e.g. to management in Local media companies; and to people with power to make things happen). My local celebrity status led to me being asked to talk about public engagement and science communication to the technical conference of the Biodiesel Industry (and I got paid for that!).
  3. Once you start engaging with the public it snowballs and can lead to an ever growing network of contacts. For example, I am now friends with the Science Coordinator of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is a great connection to have when you want a supporting letter for your Broader Impacts in an NSF proposal. 
The only downside to all of this is that my (male) departmental colleagues view me as queen of outreach and not as a peer researcher. But then I suspect they’d find other excuses to treat me the way they do regardless of all these eclipse efforts.

In any case I had a fabulous, exhausting and amazing time preparing the nation for the Total Solar Eclipse. I grew as a scientists and an a communicator. I hope I can drag a few more research-oriented scientists into Public Engagement and help get the US back to appreciating science.