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Alyssa Gilbert says, “Say Yes!”

September 10, 2010

Alyssa GilbertAlyssa Gilbert is a postdoctoral fellow, a recent Ph.D., and the head of a independent committee trying to develop an education and public outreach program for the nearby Elginfield Observatory, a telescope currently slated to shut down at the end of 2010.

Alyssa blogs at Apple Pie and the Universe.  Two of her other most recent publications are:

Gilbert, Alyssa M. and Paul A. Wiegert, “Updated Results of a Search for Main-Belt Comets Using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Legacy Survey.” Icarus, in press, 2010.

Gilbert, A., P. Wiegert, E. Unda-Sanzana, O. Vaduvescu, “Spectroscopic observations of new Oort cloud comet 2006 VZ13 and four other comets.”  Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol 401, iss 4, pages 2399–2405, February 2010.

1. When did you first become interested in space science?

Besides having a book or two about astronomy as a kid, I was a late bloomer in this respect. It wasn’t until I was in grade 12 that I got really interested in astronomy.

My high school physics teacher really liked using examples from astronomy to demonstrate the physics concepts being taught in class. At one point, we were learning about the different spectra of the elements, and he mentioned that we could look at the spectrum of a star and figure out what it’s made of. We did an assignment where we had to classify stars based on their spectra, and I was hooked!

Interestingly enough, even though I changed my research area throughout my education (see below), all of my projects involved spectroscopy at some level.

2. Did you change topics in your graduate and postdoc years?

I did! In my undergraduate degree (which was in physics), I did my fourth year thesis on laser cooling and trapping of atoms (which did involve some spectral analysis). However, I was always intrigued by X-ray astronomy, specifically black holes and neutron stars. So, for my masters I studied the well-known X-ray binary system, SS 433. I used archived RXTE (Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer) data for a spectral study of the system itself, and I used Chandra data for an imaging study of the surrounding supernova remnant, W50.

For my PhD, I felt that I wanted to “come home” in a way, and decided to go into planetary astronomy. I was really interested in how our solar system formed and evolved, so I contacted a friend of mine who was in the field. He gave me the names of a few professors in Canada who were doing this type of research, and I met with them. I ended up at The University of Western Ontario (UWO), working on a project that was mostly dedicated to the search for a new class of objects called main-belt comets. We searched for these objects using both spectroscopic and imaging techniques. I also worked on a smaller project where I took spectroscopic observations of known comets.

Now, I’m working as a post-doctoral fellow in Earth Sciences at UWO, studying risk-assessment associated with earthquakes in Canadian cities such as Victoria and Vancouver.

3. What were the challenges and benefits of changing fields?

There were definitely a few challenges with changing fields so often. One was getting used to new jargon! As an incoming PhD student with a masters degree, most people assumed that I had already been in the field for 2 years. The same thing happened with my transition to my post-doc. Jargon was abound. I had to get over my fear of “looking stupid” and ask people what they were talking about!

Another big challenge was familiarizing myself with a new research community. All of a sudden I didn’t know who were the big names in the field, what the important papers were, or even what conferences to go too. It was a steep learning curve.

On the flip side, I felt that my experience in other fields allowed me to bring a fresh, new perspective on things that others might not have thought of. Plus, even though the fields seemed different, much of the background information and analysis techniques were the same.

I also thrive on change, so I wasn’t scared or intimidated by a new field – it was exciting and challenging for me.

I may end up as a “jack-of-all-trades” and a master of none, but I think that makes me unique and I don’t believe it has hindered my career in any way.

4. How did you get involved with outreach?  What programs have you worked with, and in what capacity?

While sitting at my desk at the University of Manitoba (UofM, where I received my masters degree), an officemate came up and asked me “Hey – wanna make some extra money next semester?” and I said “Sure?” Not exactly the most ideal start to my outreach involvement!

So, in January of 2004 I became the coordinator of a general science outreach program called the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (LTS). My officemate told me very little about it, but soon I found out that this was a national (Canadian) program with sites all across the country. My general duties were to recruit graduate student volunteers, K-12 teachers, and community groups to take part in the program. The graduate students would go into the classroom and run hands-on science activities to get children interested and excited about science. I ended up staying on as a coordinator for the program for the duration of my time at UofM, and also during my 4 years as a PhD candidate at UWO.

About a year into my PhD, a faculty member approached me about creating an astronomy outreach program. She received funding from an NSERC PromoScience grant, and thought my outreach experience with LTS made me a perfect candidate. So, I had free rein to design the program, called Exploring the Stars (ETS), from the ground up. I developed all the presentations and hands-on activities, and decided how the program would be run. I was in charge of the program for three years, and in that time it reached over 5,000 participants. Out of everything I accomplished throughout my graduate school career, this is what I am most proud of. 

5. What’s next for you?

During my PhD I realized, although I liked astronomy in general, the research aspect was not for me. However, I really fell in love with teaching and outreach during my time with LTS and ETS, and this is the direction I hope to take my career.

Right now I am the head of a independent committee (i.e., not officially associated with the university) that is trying to develop an education and public outreach program for the nearby Elginfield Observatory. This telescope is slated to shut down at the end of 2010. When I first heard this in the fall of 2009, I knew I had to do something to try and “save it” – how can we let such a wonderful facility just go blind, when there is such a huge public interest in astronomy?

So, this summer we hosted two open houses to get an idea of the public interest in keeping the observatory open. Over 500 people came to the first open house, and 350 came to the second! My hope is the results from these two open houses, and my other work associated with developing an education and outreach program for the facility, will help get funding to keep the observatory open. Time will tell!

6. What advice would you give an undergraduate or graduate student interested in planetary science or science education as a career?

For a career in planetary science, my one big piece of advice is to read! Get familiar with the literature so that you know who is doing what in your field. Then, when you go to conferences, talk to those people – don’t be shy! Everyone loves talking about their own research! The more people you know, the easier it will be to move up in the research world. Connections are everything. It’s much easier to get a post-doc by asking someone you know or have collaborated with than to send out 100s of applications.

For a career in science education and/or outreach – just get out there and start doing things! If your department already has a program in place, ask how you can get involved. If it doesn’t, get something going on your own (or with a small group of people). Even if you only organize a couple events a year, it looks great on your CV. Make sure you send reports of the events to your department head as well as to the dean of your faculty so they know what you’re up too.

Also, take as many teaching workshops as you can! Many universities will have a teaching center (at UWO it’s called the Teaching Support Center) that offers such things to graduate students, post-docs, and faculty. If the website says it’s only open to faculty members, email them and ask if you can attend anyway.

Also, if you’re really interested in teaching, ask if you can teach a course. If not, ask your supervisor or other faculty members if you can guest lecture in their classes, or if you can give a talk or workshop to the department.

Lastly – say “yes”! Once you start doing outreach events, people will probably ask you to do more – say yes! The more you do, the better position you will be in once you start applying for jobs.

Thank you, Alyssa!

If you’d like to be featured as one of our 51 Women in Planetary Science, just send in an abstract of a recently published paper and we’ll send you five questions.  If you’re a student, send in a question and we’ll forward it to successful women scientists who can answer your questions about career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success.  This feature will run every Tuesday and Friday, as often as we have submissions.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 10:59 am

    I just wanted to update my status: I am now employed as a full-time outreach coordinator for the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (www.cpsx.uwo.ca) at The University of Western Ontario. I am LOVING being able to do outreach for a living!

  2. December 2, 2010 9:39 am

    getting a masters degree is of course necessary if you want a wage increase and improvement in your career ;:,

  3. September 11, 2010 11:21 am

    Thanks, Alyssa!

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