Inspiring Success Stories
Former East Lyme students share how the ELHS planetarium helped inspire them to pursue STEM careers.
STARS to STEM is proud to recognize East Lyme alumni who pursued careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Graduates who continued their studies in astronomy and other space sciences agreed to share their inspiring success stories. These former East Lyme students possess a common passion in space exploration and an unlimited curiosity about the possibilities that lie beyond our planet Earth.
An interview with Dr. Erin Boettcher, East Lyme High School Class of 2008
Erin Boettcher was born in Skokie, Illinois, and attended Devonshire Elementary school where her interest in science began. As a first-grader she observed the life cycle of butterflies and watched chickens hatch from eggs. She enjoyed these hands-on lessons that piqued her interest in the natural sciences. Frequent family trips to local museums introduced her to the world of dinosaurs that extended her curiosity to include paleontology. Fortunate to live near the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Erin learned about space exploration and how to make sense of the night sky. Her love for astronomy was launched!
After moving to East Lyme in the eighth grade, Erin's first high school astronomy class was a junior-year elective taught by Mrs. Stephanie Mickle. The classes in the planetarium helped her to understand the field of astronomy and the research practices that are so critical in modern astronomy. Erin enjoyed the problem-solving solutions she developed in her astronomy, physics, and chemistry courses. Now a budding scientist, Erin's career pursuit began.
As a college student at Haverford College, Erin considered majors in either astronomy or biology. Introduction to astronomy research taken during her sophomore year cemented her interest in astronomy. After graduating from Haverford with a B. S. in Astrophysics in 2012, she continued her formal education and earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2018. Currently a postdoctoral student in the Astronomy & Astrophysics Department at the University of Chicago, she focuses her research on the evolution of galaxies.
What are some of your memories of learning in the ELHS planetarium?
The planetarium was an integral part of my experience in the astronomy class that I took at ELHS. Using the planetarium to visualize the concepts that we were learning about, such as the phases of the moon and the reason for the seasons, helped to bring those ideas to life. The planetarium made abstract concepts more concrete and helped us to build intuition about physical processes that operate on vast and sometimes incomprehensible scales.
How did those experiences help shape your ultimate career goals?
In the planetarium, I was introduced to the kinds of questions that astronomers are pursuing with modern research facilities. This was one of my first encounters with the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is now central to my research. Mrs. Mickle also took the class on a trip to the Haystack Observatory, which was my first experience at a professional observatory. These experiences helped me to better understand what it means to do modern astronomy research and sparked my interest in one day using these state-of-the-art observatories myself.
What are your thoughts about schools that continue to build, update, and utilize planetariums and related technologies as vital components of science curricula?
It’s great to see schools supporting STEM education by investing in the use of planetariums in the science curricula. Astronomy is different from many other sciences because we can’t interact with the subjects of our study in the way that a chemist or biologist can work with samples in a lab. Planetariums are very valuable because they provide that interactive, immersive experience for learning about objects and ideas that may feel remote. I also think that astronomy has the ability to spark interest among students who may not consider themselves particularly science oriented, and planetariums can play a key role in this. Once that interest is sparked, students can develop greater comfort with scientific reasoning skills when they’re applied to problems that are presented in the accessible and dynamic ways that planetariums and other technologies provide.
What was the “light bulb” moment when you realized your passion and knew that you were destined to study the sciences?
I don’t think I experienced a “light bulb” moment as much as repeatedly experiencing fascination with the natural world as a child and young adult. I’ve always felt curiosity about the way that things work and wanted to understand how we know what we know about the universe and our place in it. Throughout school, I always enjoyed problem solving in science and math classes, and I found that this translated well to a research environment when I had my first research experiences in college. These first research experiences - and especially my first trip to a professional observatory to take and analyze astronomical data - confirmed for me that I truly enjoyed the day-to-day process of being an astronomer and motivated me to go to grad school so that I could pursue that path professionally.
What individual has had the greatest influence on you?
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of inspirational people who have motivated me to pursue astronomy professionally. My parents were always very supportive of my interests from a young age and provided me with resources and experiences to pursue them. My undergrad advisor at Haverford College, Prof. Beth Willman, was also very influential in introducing me to the research process and helping me to develop the skill set I needed to pursue astronomy professionally.
Describe your current work and challenges you encounter.
My current research focuses on studying how galaxies evolve by examining how gas circulates into and out of them. Galaxies are vast collections of stars and gas that grow and evolve by turning their gas into stars. At the same time, galaxies can expel their gas back into their environments through energetic processes associated with star formation and supermassive black holes. I use observations taken with telescopes on the ground and in space to study the properties of gas in and around galaxies to better understand how this gas recycling process shapes the properties of galaxies over cosmic time. One of the biggest challenges that comes with being an observational astronomer is the breadth of the skill set required to do our work. We draw on a wide range of skills in our day-to-day work - computer programming, statistical analysis, science writing, etc. - to understand and communicate the nuances of our data sets and the physical processes that they trace. The need to continuously learn new skills in a quickly evolving field is both challenging and one of the reasons that I feel lucky to be on this career path.
How do you remain passionate about your work?
I find that a big part of staying passionate about my research is sharing it with others. I enjoy building collaborations with colleagues who inspire and challenge me, and these relationships often spark new questions and new opportunities. I also enjoy mentoring students and I find that participating in their process of discovering their passion helps me to remember and reconnect with my own.
How do you influence others and share the passion about your work?
I’ve enjoyed participating in public outreach since the start of my career, including giving public talks, volunteering at observing nights at local observatories, and contributing to a weekly radio program in Madison, WI when I was a grad student there. I’ve also been lucky to be able to volunteer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, where I remember being inspired when I was young. It always feels energizing to be part of other people’s excitement at seeing Jupiter through a telescope for the first time or trying to wrap their minds around the size of the universe. These experiences remind me of the reasons that I wanted to become an astronomer in the first place, and I’m grateful to be able to be part of other people’s processes of wonder and discovery.
What are some activities you enjoy doing in your non-work time?
I have a lot of family members who run marathons and half marathons recreationally, and they’ve gotten me into running and occasionally training for half marathons. It’s been a good way to spend time outside and see the cities that I’ve lived in on foot, and traveling for races is a fun way to experience new places. I also enjoy cooking, going to the theater, and watching soccer and basketball.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years?
I hope that my career path will allow me to continue contributing to active research in astronomy while also working with students in some capacity. I’m currently a postdoc, which is a relatively brief (several year) stage of one’s career, so I’ll be applying for a permanent position over the next few years. I’m interested in pursuing a faculty position at a small, undergrad-serving institution where teaching and mentoring play a significant role in the day-to-day work. The field of astronomy will continue evolving rapidly over the next several decades as new and more powerful telescopes come online on the ground and in space, and it will be exciting to see and hopefully be a part of this transformation in action.
What is some advice you would give to a student with an interest in science?
I’d encourage anyone with an interest in science to spend time exploring what ideas and questions most spark their interest. There are a lot of great resources out there - online, at the library, at museums, etc. - as well as opportunities to get involved through after school programs or summer activities. I’d also encourage students to build a broad skill base. There are a lot of skills that scientists use on a daily basis that we often learn outside of science class, including math and statistics, computer programming, and writing. Students will benefit broadly by investing time in these areas and will be well-prepared for a wide range of career paths.
What advice would you give STARS to STEM for creating a successful planetarium experience?
I think it’s great that the planetarium aspires to reach so many people at a range of life stages in the local community. Bringing elementary and middle school students to the high school to use the planetarium and offering public outreach events will help maximize the impact of the facility. The planetarium could also partner with local astronomy groups who have access to portable telescopes to offer outreach events where visitors can learn about the night sky in the planetarium and then participate in public observing.
Jack McDonald, East Lyme High School Class of 2017, is guest speaker at STARS to STEM 2019 Launch Gala
Hello and welcome. I’m Jack McDonald. I graduated East Lyme High School in 2017 and I am currently going to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida for Astronomy and Astrophysics. I was actually in Mrs. Swan’s first and second grade class in Niantic Center School. She asked me to speak tonight about my experiences in the East Lyme Public School system and in college.
In Mrs. Swan’s second grade class I remember we were assigned to do a presentation on a book of our choice. Naturally, my choice was a pocket handbook to the solar system. I carried that thing everywhere and would try to memorize the facts of each planet. That was only the beginning of my affliction of outer space.
When I was in 3rd grade, the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet. A children’s book was written called, “Poor Pluto” and my mom read it to my 3rd grade class. Little did I know, I would later learn the specifics of the Pluto demotion from one of my college professors who was one of the IAU members who voted Pluto a dwarf planet.
Jack McDonald, ELHS Class of 2017
In 8th grade our science class had a month-long space unit that I was looking forward to for a year. At the end of the unit we were tasked with creating a presentation of about something space related in a group. While some of my classmates were pairing up and choosing topics such as the moon, the sun, the space program, or poor Pluto, I chose to work alone, and I tackled the topic of the universe. I focused on the evolution of the universe which is highly debated. I explained a few theories about the end of the universe in my presentation which ended up being double the average time of the other presentations. Most of the class fell asleep and the teacher gave me an A plus with the comment, “It felt like a college lecture.”
Unfortunately, when I got to the high school, they had just taken down the planetarium. I had biology class with Mr. Harfenist in the planetarium room where the reclining seats were replaced with desks and chairs. The next year I took the astronomy class with Mr. Harfenist in the same room. By then, both he and I accepted the fact that the school wasn’t planning on revamping the planetarium. It was a sad reality, but I was going to do everything I could to give back to the school system that gave me so much.
I decided to develop an hour-long astronomy program for the town’s 3rd graders as a WISE project my senior year. For those of you that do not know about this unique class at the high school, a WISE project is a capstone class where a student develops their own program of their choice. They can either get an internship, do a project around the school, or do community service. The teacher of that class, Mrs. Gianakis, is supportive no matter what you do and is one of the nicest ladies I have met. With her and Mr. Harfenists help I made an interactive, informative presentation. It included an explanation of the moon phases with a flashlight and a moon globe.
Next, I tried to explain the seasons to the 3rd graders, but it seemed that is was a little too complicated for them. Then I went into a slideshow of the solar system, starting at the sun and ending with the dwarf planet Pluto. The last 10 minutes of the program was reserved for questions. I will never forget a particular question I got. So, these presentations I did were right before the Christmas break and I gave out candy canes to the last class that came. This little girl, while eating her candy cane asked me, “Is there Santa on Jupiter?”
Naturally, I paused to try to think up a valid answer. Mr. Harfenist gave me a look saying, “be careful”.
So, I said to the girl, and the class itself, that “Santa lives on the north pole of Earth, however, every planet has a north pole, therefore, every planet can have its own Santa. But so far scientists haven’t found any evidence of life on other planets and why would Santa exist on another planet if there are no kids to bring presents to?”
Satisfied that the answer was too complicated to be understood and that it still left the imagination to tackle the question, I moved on to the next question. The next question was one that I received from each class, “Why is the ceiling a dome?”
That answer was always, “Well it used to be a planetarium, where I could’ve showed you the sky how it will be any night of any year.” I always winced a little bit giving that answer; I always hoped I could’ve given a planetarium show to them.
I later graduated high school and went to college. In college I started my astronomy classes, and one of which was on the history of astronomy. In this class the professor brought us to a planetarium in the Museum of Arts and Sciences just down the road in Daytona. The planetarium technician was actually a former student of that very same professor and they ran the show together. In the show they used the planetarium to visualize the evolution of the constellations over time and how the precession of earth has moved the north star over millions of years. Later the show brought us to exoplanets and other stars, and we got to see just how far away everything is.
If anything has ever helped me visualize my area of study, that show was it. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to sit through one of those shows and fully understand the magnitude of the sizes of space. Objects can range from the size of Manhattan to double the radius of the solar system. Outer space is one of those concepts that is hard to understand because there are no valid parallels to draw to real world experience. A planetarium allows for a parallel to be drawn, it brings together your mind and imagination to the scale and wonders of space.
I will give you guys an example: in the last semester I did a report on magnetars. Long story short, these objects are of similar mass of the sun, but have a radius of 12 kilometers. The only denser object in the universe is a black hole. These objects spin rapidly, completing a rotation every 5 seconds or so. Because of this they have strong magnetic fields that are over a million times the strength of the Sun’s field. To put this into perspective, if a magnetar was placed where the moon is, the iron would be ripped out of your blood while you are on Earth. These objects are hard to visualize, as no one has directly taken a picture of them. They are incredibly small and very far away. We can only imagine what they look like and the environment they exist in.
This is what a planetarium could do, it would allow for anything in the universe to be brought before your eyes. In the very near future, the richest of the rich will be paying for tickets to space. I don’t think I, or anyone I personally know will be able to afford a ticket. But why pay millions of dollars to sit in a tin can around earth when you could pay the price of a movie ticket to sit in a comfortable seat and watch the universe come to life before you, going from solar system to solar system, galaxy to galaxy? A planetarium show can include anything from an exploration for life in the universe to a mission to the black holes of the universe. You could think of it as East Lyme’s very own space program.