If you pay any attention to astronomy news on the internet or follow much of the astronomy and space geek communities on Twitter, you’ve probably run across Dr. Nicole Gugliucci over the past few years. With her perfect pseudonym, Noisy Astronomer, her infectious enthusiasm for much more than just her chosen fields, and her ability to “translate” complicated science news into something just about anyone can read and understand, it’s no surprise she’s contributed to well-known science blogs like Discovery News.
Since receiving her doctorate she has been working as a Post Doctoral Fellow at the STEM Center for Research, Education, and Outreach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and on Cosmoquest, a collaborative outreach and citizen science project. On the cutting edge of using new technologies to communicate and collaborate, Cosmoquest produces a large volume of media as well as managing massive projects, like mapping our Moon, Mercury, and the asteroid Vesta, that anyone can participate in. This means everyone involved in both her programs fills many roles, and Nicole is no exception. A typical week might include producing and co-hosting a few webcasts, writing newsletters and blog posts, co-hosting star parties (both virtual and traditional), studying the effects of outreach and education, and so much more behind-the-scenes. She’s had to learn on the job and make it work, a great example of continually pursuing your goals while taking advantage of unexpected opportunities to gain new skills and interests.
Nicole and I met at the launch of the Solar Dynamics Observatory and again at the launch of STS-133 and at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012. Whether gabbing about launches or the cosmos or the importance of critical thinking or women’s rights or Doctor Who, you can’t help but have fun with her. She makes you laugh while making you think – exactly the qualities that make for an effective science communicator.
Still, underneath it all, she’s just a Geek Girl who really likes to listen to the stars. And you should listen to her.
Craft Lass – You grew up on Staten Island, not exactly known for dark skies. How were you first exposed to astronomy?
Nicole – Ha! Yes, lots of lights there. My first memory with astronomy, though, is of a small telescope that I got as a gift when I was 5, so we set it up and looked at the Moon. Much later, when I was in high school, I really tried to use a telescope and found it pretty frustrating, but I already liked the subject by then.
Craft Lass – Ha! Yes, for us urban astronomers, the moon is at least a very reliable subject.
Nicole – Moon and planets! And… that’s about it.
Craft Lass – Were you a fan of sci-fi growing up?
Nicole – Actually, I wasn’t exposed to sci-fi much when I was a kid. I just had very few role models in my life who could introduce me to it. I’m making up for it now with Netflix binging! My first sci-fi experience was with the X-Files, and I thought Agent Scully was amazing.
Craft Lass – Would you say she had a role in turning you into a skeptic? Did you always have a skeptical bent?
Nicole – Actually… strangely… it was the opposite for a while. I was pretty easily convinced by shows about the paranormal that purported to be real, and my new found love of the internet (with little research skills) didn’t help. So I was more of a believer in the paranormal at first! But the more I dug, the less satisfied I was with the answers, until I eventually became very skeptical.
It was Carl Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” that finally made it click that I was a actually a skeptical person.
Craft Lass – What age were you when you first got access to a computer? The internet?
Nicole – It was right before high school, so 12 or 13. I’m kind of late for our generation
I split my time between researching how to be an astronaut, looking at grainy UFO photos, and X-Files chat rooms
Craft Lass – Do you remember the first space mission you followed? Or the first launch you watched on TV?
Nicole – I don’t remember any live launches or anything like that, but they used to play NASA-TV on cable so I used to watch the Earth Views video that would roll by occasionally. It’s so funny now because they are doing that again with a streaming HD video cam from the ISS!
The first mission I really followed was Pathfinder and Sojourner, the Mars rover and lander from 2003. That kicked off a wave of successful (and some not so successful) Mars missions that continues to today
Craft Lass – When did you realize that this space interest was more than just reading about being an astronaut, but was a passion you wanted to pursue academically?
Nicole – I got it in my head in late middle school that I liked astronomy in our Earth sciences class. We were talking about how stars have different colors and that indicated their temperatures. And that just blew my mind. We can find out what stars are like from so far away just by their color?! Anyway, I had always liked science, but focused in on astronomy, and somewhere along the line teachers told me that astronomer was a legit career option. So that was it; I wanted to be an astronomer. I went specifically for a science heavy program in high school. Sometime ever earlier than all that someone told me the best way to be an astronaut was to be a scientist. I guess they knew even then I’d never be test pilot material!
Another factor around that time (late middle school/early high scool) was seeing the movie version of “Contact.” (So, Thank you Sagan, again.) Little Ellie Arroway knew she wanted to be an astronomer when she grew up, so I could do that, too
Craft Lass – Sometimes I wonder how many female radio astronomers, specifically, were created by the existence of that book and movie.
Nicole – Ha, i know, right?
Craft Lass – What drew you into radio astronomy?
Nicole – The fact that I ended up in radio astronomy after all is kind of random, but it sure was cool to actually GO to the VLA where they filmed the scenes.
I was applying for summer internships near the end of my sophomore year in college and got into two programs. For one of them, the scientist in charge personally called me and so I thought, hey, they’re probably cool. Plus my project had “black hole” in the title. Really, I had no idea what I was in for. I had a VERY steep learning curve that summer but I loved it and continued to work on similar projects for the next two summers. And that was it; I was hooked.
Craft Lass –
What do you think was the main hook, or the thing that made you realize this was a good fit?
Nicole – I don’t even know what it was… Maybe it’s because I never had a really strong tie to optical astronomy anyway, or maybe it was because I LOVED those big dishes out in the desert. But also it was challenging and not intuitive, and so taking the time to figure it out helped me feel, I don’t know, more connected to it.
It’s really weird… radio astronomy concepts just make sense to me now but I actually struggled to get through the optical observing class in grad school
Later on I was also able to appreciate that it had such a different background, one rich in electrical engineering and one that has a much more accessible history, since radio waves from the cosmos were only discovered in 1933
Craft Lass – That grad school was University of Virginia, of course. How did you choose that for graduate work and why did you stay for your PhD program?
Nicole – Well, I was already doing my summer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico. I wanted to keep working for the NRAO but more towards the East Coast. Their headquarters is in Charlottesville and affiliated with UVa, so that was at the top of my list. I got in and had an amazing time during the visiting weekend, because the people in the department were so welcoming. So I went there with the intention of doing a PhD in astronomy, specifically radio instrumentation. And it took 7 years but I actually finished!
Craft Lass – What was it like having a big swath of the internet space community celebrating your doctorate with you?
Nicole – Oh my goodness. I needed you guys. I really did!
It was hard. and sometimes I wasn’t sure I would make it.
But having people be awesome and encouraging and knowing that there is an audience out there FOR science, that really helped. and that’s why I’ve dived into the education and outreach side of things.
Craft Lass – Ah, yes, outreach – that leads me to: You’ve managed to participate in research and do outreach simultaneously. Some think that outreach is “a waste of time” for scientists (as illustrated in the Big Bang Theory episode “The Herb Garden Germination”) and frown upon those who try to do both. What would you like to say to people who hold that opinion, like the fictional Sheldon Cooper?
Nicole – Well I learned something very important at the VLA. At the end of the tour you see a big sign that says “National Science Foundation” and that reminds people that their tax dollars pay for this amazing science. And so it’s our DUTY to share that. Now, EVERY scientists may not be the best communicator so they don’t all have to. But it’s good that we have so many voices in science communication today
Sheldon Cooper should stay out of the classroom. But there are plenty of us that can do it and we love to.
Craft Lass – Yes, it’s very important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. You have shown a real talent for both written and verbal/video communication of science to many different audiences. Did you ever take any classes in communication and/or writing to strengthen those skills?
Nicole – Thank you! No, but it’s something I’ve considered. My significant other just finished a Masters degree in Communication Management so I’m always picking his brain.
Craft Lass – A perfect team!
Nicole – Right now I’m trying to learn more about education research, as in how to research how people learn. And I may be taking a coding class on the side to strengthen my computer skills
Craft Lass – Those sound very interesting!
Back at University of Virginia, you co-founded Dark Skies, Bright Kids, an outreach program for local children. What inspired you to create this program and was it your first major foray into outreach?
Nicole – UVa Astronomy was always big on outreach, which I loved. DSBK started as an outreach initiative from an NSF proposal by Dr. Kelsey Johnson to start an asfterschool astronomy club. And she reached out for volunteers. And a bunch of us said YES! And it just grew into this massive thing of its own that is still going and doing super great work in the elementary schools there.
It also taught me, and all of us really, that we had a lot to learn about education and outreach itself
Craft Lass – Fantastic! What was the best lesson you learned from the kids?
Nicole – That they ask the BEST and most difficult questions.
Oh, also giving a kid a camera to document their own experience is one of the most entertaining things to do
Craft Lass – Watching them take the pictures, or seeing the pictures, or both?
Nicole – Both.
And video too. somewhere I have one of two girls acting as reported for a water rocket launch.
I don’t think I ever released it because we may not have parental release forms. Sadly.
Craft Lass – Oh! That’s too bad!
How was the transition from your UVa experience to working at your current position?
Nicole – On the one hand it’s been great; I eased right into doing education and outreach almost full time because I love it. Other parts have been more challenging but allow me to learn new things, such as human participant protocols for education research, or video Hangouts, or learning enough about our planetary science projects to accurately explain it.
Craft Lass – Did you ever expect you would be working on-air in any form? Is that something that interested you before you did it?
Nicole – Nope! I was convinced I was bad at people in general. Turns out, I like talking with people about science. I still do media in a very amateurish way compared to many out there, but it’s great that the tools are so readily available, plus we get support from great editors who put out the podcasts after the Hangouts.
I still like hands-on, interactive things best, since you can get a sense of what people are getting out of it
Craft Lass – What is it like working with Dr. Gay?
Nicole – It’s been really cool. It’s weird that we met through Twitter and at Dragon*Con, but that actually perfectly encapsulates what we do: We use social media to share science and we bring citizen science to unique places like sci-fi/fantasy conventions. It’s been a nice blend of my science geek life and my fiction geek life.
It’s great that she’s been able to build a project and a program through CosmoQuest that does and communicates science and does it in such interesting ways.
Craft Lass – Do you think citizen science projects make people who participate feel more connected to the scientific community than straight outreach?
Nicole – I think it does, and I hope it does. We’ve found that people definitely want to make a difference by participating in the science. But just doing to action may not be enough for some people, so that’s why we provide a whole lot of educational content around the projects, like blogs posts and videos, that let people really understand what they are doing
we’re right now starting interviews with our users to find out more about what they get out of citizen science, so I’m looking forward to those results
Craft Lass – That should be very interesting! I’ve noticed that a lot of the community around citizen science projects is very much made up of adults. There is often an attitude about outreach and age – that reaching towards adults has little value and focus should be on young children who can still grow up to be scientists. What value do you see in adult outreach, beyond just explaining why government programs like the NSF need to be funding?
Nicole – Well, a lot of adult citizen scientists are really passionate about science, and astronomy in particular in our case, but didn’t pursue it as a career for one of a number of reasons. So this gives people a chance to participate in science without having to go through the entire schooling process.
Plus there is just the additional thing that lifelong learning is COOL. And I’m so happy that people are willing to learn and be curious throughout their lives
Craft Lass – I suspect our audience would absolutely agree with that!
You recently wrote a piece talking about working in a department with a higher-than-usual female-to-male ratio, especially for the sciences, and the difference it makes when people see women in the sciences. Did you experience any pushback about your choices as you were studying, due to your gender?
Nicole – You know, I never really noticed any issues when I was younger. But, I went to an all-girls high school with a strong science program, so there’s that. Plus I had very encouraging male professors in college, and very studious and intelligent female and male classmates.
But I did notice the drop-off starting in grad school, and in that department there was only one tenure track professor that was a woman. And I admit I even felt out of place when I was often in all-male groups for research. But none of that was blatant or purposeful, but it’s still important.
On the other hand, I have witnessed very blatant sexism and discrimination of other women around me and it ranges from annoying to disgusting. And I think it’s important to point that out and stamp it out when it happens.
Right now I’m also concerned that our citizen science users skew heavily male, and I’d love to reach out to more women who may want to do astronomy in their spare time!
Craft Lass – As a scientist, skeptic, and geek who happens to be female, you’re right in the center of a Venn diagram of harassment targets online. I know you have friends and colleagues who have experienced this, have you, personally? How do you deal with trolls and worse?
Nicole – I’ve only dealt with minor things, like inappropriate comments about appearance when I’m doing a Hangout about science. Thankfully I’ve avoided much of the really vitriolic stuff, but I also tend to stick to “wow this astronomy thing is cool!” and not delve too much into the more controversial issues. I may more in the future as time allows, but we’ll see. I do appreciate discussion that doesn’t devolve into name-calling.
I do get really angry when I see the kind of nonsense that people I work with get. I get all Hulk-smashy, but it hasn’t been public.