Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meet Your CSWA, Tiffany Wolbrecht

Tiffany is the Planetarium Lecturer at Youngstown State University’s Ward Beecher Planetarium where she coordinates and leads programming. In 2018, Tiffany was selected for the Astronomy in Chile Educator’s Ambassadors Program, or ACEAP, and traveled to Chile touring NSF-supported astronomy facilities and receiving extensive training about the observatories and their telescopes, instruments, science, and data. Tiffany currently serves on the leadership team for an NSF-funded project developing a planetarium show about astronomy in Chile along with web-based and hands-on resources.

Passionate about science education and outreach, Tiffany discovered her love for planetariums at the Edinboro University Planetarium where she worked while obtaining her Master’s of Education in Secondary Instruction. She previously earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Physics at Penn State University, The Behrend College, where she conducted research on exoplanets using emerging data from NASA’s Kepler mission. This is Tiffany’s 1st term on the CSWA.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars.

Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown just a couple of weeks into the school year when I happened to be taking my first astronomy class. The power remained off in my neighborhood for over a month and I spent many of those nights on the hood of my car gazing up at an unpolluted night sky, counting meteors and marveling at the bright Milky Way stretching over my front yard. I used a flashlight (no it wasn’t red; I knew nothing!) to study the sky chart on the back cover of my astronomy textbook and found constellations, stars, and Messier objects. While that was a very difficult time for my family and community, I also remember it as a time I found solace in exploring the night sky.

How did you end up working in your current field?

In grad school, I was awarded an assistantship working at the university’s planetarium. It was my first time ever setting foot under a dome because there is no planetarium within a three-hour drive of my hometown. Once I realized I could make a career out of sharing the night sky with others, I never looked back.

Who inspired you?

My high school astronomy teacher was a huge inspiration for me specifically in the areas of astronomy and math. He argued with me anytime I said I hated math, saying “it’s how the universe speaks to us,” continuing to wax-poetic about it until I started seeing the beauty in it myself. He created all the problems in our homeworks and tests, sometimes making mistakes in his math. He would give out bonus points if someone corrected him. He demonstrated the joy of learning and had a wild sense of humor. I hope there are more Mr. Boffenmyers out there in classrooms today!

What is a planetarian?

A planetarian is a storyteller, a teacher, a highly specialized technician, a science communicator, an immersive media expert. We wear a lot of hats. We must know how to engage learners of any age and background on a variety of topics from astronomy to biology to art history. We are also responsible for operating and maintaining the planetarium equipment and developing programs for our guests. It is the kind of job that is always evolving so a love of learning is critical.

What community issues are important to you and why?

Building diverse and equitable teams continues to be an important goal for me. Today, many achievements in science and engineering are accomplished in large teams. Studies continue to show that diverse teams are more efficient, more productive and even more economical! The Center for American Progress finds that workplace discrimination against employees based on race, gender, or sexual orientation costs US businesses an estimated $64 billion annually. From changing hiring practices to learning better ways to communicate, there is a lot of work to be done in this area, but it is worth it. We will not solve the world’s problems with a room full of people that think the same way!

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

Once during a planetarium show for the public, a 6-year-old asked me if I could describe what will happen when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies collide. After giving some context to the audience about what our “future astrophysicist” was talking about, I shared a short visualization of what that might look like on the dome, sparking a fantastic discussion on galaxy collisions. A few weeks later, that same kid came back with a book he wrote and illustrated detailing why the planetarium was his favorite place to visit.

What do you do for fun?

I love to read, play video games, and craft. Whether it is knitting, crocheting, sewing, or building furniture, learning to make something is my go-to stress reliever!

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

I hope to bring a new perspective to the team. The planetarium community faces similar challenges and its goals closely align with AAS. It is my hope to encourage collaboration between the two communities as we work toward a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

On a larger scope, I also hope to promote planetariums as a powerful tool for professional astronomers, not only to share their research, but also actively analyze their research data. Planetariums can visualize and manipulate large data sets quickly and easily providing a unique and immersive perspective. There is so much potential in these two fields working together and I am excited to get started!

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