Name: Kim Arcand
Science outreach and visualization coordinator for high-energy astrophysics
Newbie co-author (“Your Ticket to the Universe” coming out April 2013)
NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was little, every year I would pick a new career, and they all had something in common: science. Nurse, doctor, astronaut, environmental scientist, veterinarian, microbiologist. My parents were supportive, and each Christmas there would be some special gift, a chemistry set, a microscope, a stellarium. I loved science, or what I thought of as science: the idea of discovering something new, of figuring out puzzles, of contributing to people's lives in some significant way. That first crush never went away.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It’s hard to pick just one! Can I have two? I have to start off with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It's an engineering and scientific marvel. A sister telescope to Hubble, Chandra orbits the Earth out to about 1/3 of the distance to the Moon. The phenomena it studies are exotic – black holes, exploding stars, huge clusters of galaxies to name just a few. And the incredibly beautiful images and the discoveries they lead to are awe-inspiring.
Working for Chandra led me down a new path in scientific outreach. I organized a project called "From Earth to the Universe" that brought astronomical discoveries into unique locations – picture large images of planets, nebulas and galaxies set up in public parks, metro stations, shopping malls, art festivals, and even prisons. My colleagues and I created a framework for organizers around the world to easily adapt the free materials for an exhibit in their desired locale.
We started out hoping for a couple dozen exhibits that would be run during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. We ended up with about 1,000 different sites all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica and translated in over 40 languages. Some of the exhibits are still ongoing today. We could never have personally disseminated astronomy to so many people, but by enabling others we were able to reach exponentially more people.
Role models and heroes:
My mom. Growing up, I watched her juggle kids and family, going back to school for nursing, and working the late shift as a waitress. I would sit near her as she did her anatomy homework on the dining room table, or go with her to the local community college to buy the mammoth-sized books for her class. She made it seem completely normal and doable. I secretly hope that my own son and daughter might feel even a tenth of that for me some day.
Why do you love working in STEM?
Our collective scientific viewpoint is always changing, as new discoveries are made, old discoveries shift, and cultural frameworks evolve. So we're always learning and adapting to new things. It’s exciting to work in a field that is so dynamic, and that touches everything, everyone, everyday in some way. In my day-to-day work, I am most directly involved in astronomy, of course, but science is so much bigger than one specific field. There are connections everywhere.
My colleagues and I are just about to launch a new project that celebrates that fact. “Here, There, and Everywhere” will explore the connections that exist between the seemingly incongruous - how are a bumblebee, farmer and starburst galaxy related? Can you think of how a neon sign in Las Vegas, an Aurora in Norway, and an exploding star light years away from us might be somehow connected? The intent of the program is to help to demonstrate the universality of physical laws and the connections between our everyday world and the Universe as a whole.
 http://hte.si.edu (Goes live on August 27, 2012)
Advice for future STEMinists?
Find something you're passionate about. Your passion will help you succeed, even if it's something that's difficult. I don’t know how many people can say that science is an easy subject in college, but it wasn't easy for me. At university, I would breeze through my literature courses (I was and still am a Jane Austen junkie), but struggle in my science classes.
I managed to get through the physics, chemistry, microbiology and anatomy courses, but I can vividly recall getting a D in genetics. I had never gotten a D before, and it made me doubt my abilities and that I should even continue with a degree in science, never mind a career.
But I stuck with the degree in biology, rounded out my skill set in computer science to be safe, and eventually found a niche that I was very comfortable in – communicating science with others, and researching how people respond to certain aspects of science (mostly imagery). I had the background to feel at home in the scientific content, but also an understanding that science can be alienating, or frightening, or just plain boring to some.
And to me that is such an exciting opportunity. How can we help others find their niche in science? I'm interested not only in people who might want to pursue a hobby or career in science. I also want to help foster the larger population's perspective on and awareness of science as a whole.