The scientists next door

For Ada Lovelace Day, since it’s all about this idea that women are statistically likely to benefit from having female role models, I’m going to talk about a bunch of friends of mine.

When I went to university, there were female professors in our physics department, but the biggest science outreach effort centred on the campus observatory. When I was in my first year, most of the observatory staff (with the exception of our supervising professor and a couple of fourth-year students) was female.

Every week there would be public nights in the observatory, and private group tours for school classes, Brownies and Girl Guides. The women that I worked with in the observatory — Monika and Julie a year ahead of me, and Annska and Melissa in my class, and Sandy and Sarah a year behind — were a big inspiration to me both as a science student and as a wanna-be educator, and I could tell that the little girls looked up to them.

But the importance of what they did — standing there with the telescope, operating it in plain view, chatting with the kids while helping them up to look through the eyepiece — didn’t really hit home until one day when two preteen girls in a subway station yelled hello and waved at me. I didn’t recognize their faces (observatories tend to be dark!) but I waved back.

It’s only now that I can say in words why that was important. Traditionally, teachers and professors and such are seen as high above their students, to the point of being somehow apart from humanity, someone whose presence one can’t relax in. (Admit it, you’ve been weirded out by the thought of one of your profs going on a date or visiting family or something.) But the telescope operators and tour guides were scientists that people could feel familiar with. They were smart, but also normal and fun enough that preteen kids would wave to them on a subway platform. I felt like we were making science more accessible to these girls just by being accessible and approachable ourselves.

Amateur astronomers are also a fun bunch. These are people who do science just because they like it, not because they get paid. Some of them have post-secondary educations in astronomy or related fields; some studied other sciences or the arts. Some of them spend small fortunes on home observatories, some have more modest rigs that they can take out to dark-sky sites and parks, and others don’t rely on any equipment other than their own eyes and brain and maybe binoculars.

What they all have in common is that they love science and they love learning, and the vast majority of them seem to be very keen on knowing the difference between real science and pseudoscience. And a lot of them love to teach. Among the general public, the ones who need science education the most are the ones who haven’t had much science education yet. They don’t need a professor with ten years of degrees, they just need someone who can explain the basics and keep them from being bored.

My classmates at university were not the first women I ever met who were good at this. As a teenager I joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada after getting a brochure from them at a science fair. Despite the high-falutin’ name, this national organization consists of many amateur astronomers as well as professionals, and at ground level you’ll find lots of both groups eager to share their love of science. Through the RASC I’ve met women like Peggy and Kim and Katrina out on sidewalks with their telescopes to show people the sights, and Leslie with her carful of classroom materials that she takes to schools and clubs all over her city, and science museum gurus Sara and Kirsten, and Carolyn who has discovered more comets than any other human being.

I can’t name all of them, and I apologize to anyone I’ve left out. But if you’re looking for inspiration on how average people can do real science, or if you want to take your little girl to meet some approachable and smart and inspiring women, an astronomy club is the place to look.

You can read more blog posts about female scientists at the Ada Lovelace Day Mashup.


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