Conference Musings, and Making a Difference

For a natural introvert, conferences can be a tricky experience. There is an almost overwhelming constant interaction, listening, talking, speaking, questioning, and collaborating. However, that’t the thing that makes conferences incredibly valuable. Meeting and gathering in person is still crucial to ideas and projects even in this age of virtual meetings and presentations. This might not be good for the planet’s carbon footprint, but it is good for creativity.

I’m at the 126th annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. It’s not a very large meeting with roughly 100-150 participants, and it focuses on astronomy outreach and education, particularly in the Uniter States. There are several plenary sessions on a wide range of topics from new science standards to issues of diversity to training scientists to be good public communicators. I’ve gotten to know quite a few people in this lovely group over my last couple of years working in outreach and education.

Conferences like this get me excited and inspired. Sometimes it’s a solid idea, but more often it’s the very first stirrings of a concept along with a desire to get out there and really “make a difference.” It’s all too easy to forget those drives when you’re working day to day, especially if you don’t make time for creativity. That’s a thing I need to learn to do, still.

My ideas may not be grand, but I do have a wish-list of sorts of projects I’d like to accomplish or good ideas that need spreading. I’d like to widely tell the story of Grote Reber, the second ever radio astronomer and probably my favorite citizen scientist. A man who built a radio telescope in his spare time in an empty field and mapped the galaxy when the rest of the astronomy community didn’t think that the radio astronomy was even possible? Yeah, that’s a story to share. I’d like to help my friends at Dark Skies, Bright Kids finish writing up and disseminating their great ideas for hands-on astronomy lesson plans. There’s almost no end to the amazing things that can come out of graduate student enthusiasm, especially when you feed them.

On a much broader level, I want to share the story of science. Now, there are lots and lots of us that are working on that, but I’d love to share particularly how darn COOL radio astronomy is. The science is interesting, the Universe is bizarre, the techniques are clever, and the people who do the work are interesting in their own right. For a time, I did work in the field, but I’ve turned more towards education and outreach to the point where I don’t actually do research anymore. It’s been a weird transition for me, though it’s clearly what I enjoy. But I’ve been there, even if for a little bit, and I’d like to share that story and experience. Not that I’d never like to do research again; I still have things I want to observe and questions I’d like to see answered! But that’s taken a back seat to the communication of science as far as my priorities go.

I’m involved in several projects where I get to do that, but I need to flesh out the details. Sometimes it takes just jumping in and starting something. Other times, I need to hang back and do a bit of research first. Most of all, I want to be effective at what I do, and that is a sentiment shared across the science education and outreach community. We like evidence, including evidence that we’re teaching something, that someone is learning something, and that we’re making a difference. Assessments and testing get a bad rap (often for good reason) but evaluating your impact is an important skill, one I’m just beginning to grasp.

So that’s my story, figuring out how to get the most bang for my communication buck. Speaking of bucks, I need to figure out how to pay the bills while I do it. I know I’m in the right place because if I was independently wealthy somehow, I’d keep doing all these things.  I know I’m lucky, despite the anxiety and impostor syndrome that creep up once in a while.

Maybe you’re reading this and want to make some cool science communication happen with me? Let me know!