STEMinist Profile: Sarah Scoles, Public Education Specialist, The National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Sarah Scoles

Public Education Specialist
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved astronomy, from the time that I knew the word “astronomy. ” I decided in elementary school that I wanted to study science and, eventually, do science myself. I was just fascinated that there was a whole universe outside our atmosphere, and that by looking at the light from objects billions of light-years away, we could learn things about them.

I was inspired that although we will never be able to touch, say, a black hole, or to change or affect or test it in any way, we have nonetheless developed a way to investigate it. I wanted to be a part of that investigation. Now, my job is to communicate the results of other people’s investigations and to help students learn what an investigation is, and that “science” isn’t memorizing the textbook glossary.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest projects I have worked on are ones that allow students really to do science, sometimes for the first time. At the observatory, students often come for a couple of days and learn to use our 40-foot radio telescope. They take their own observations of hydrogen in the galaxy, and at the end of just 24-48 hours, they can describe how hydrogen and the Doppler effect show the galaxy’s spiral structure, which way it’s rotating, and approximately where we are. It’s inspiring to see how quickly students can become “experts” in a field when given the opportunity.

We also have a similar program called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, in which students analyze never-before-seen survey data and analyze it to find never-before-seen pulsars. It’s gratifying to see them become so invested in the data and the discoveries. And it is definitely a process, in both cases. They start out nervous and tentative, and then as they begin to see themselves doing science and acting like scientists, they begin to believe those parts of their identity. In our evaluations, there’s been an especially impressive change in girls’ ability and willingness to identify with scientists, and to identify themselves as scientists.

Role models and heroes:
I’m a big fan of my dog, who is a girl, and definitely a feminist, and who would probably be a particle physicist if I would let her drive the car to work. She is as excited to learn about and explore the world around her as Jeanne Baret, and that inspires me to want to do the same. Or something.

Advice for future STEMinists?
I think the most important thing to remember if you want to go into a STEM is that it’s not just important to learn how to answer questions, but to come up with questions. You need to look at the world and think, “Huh, I wonder why X works that way,” or, “What if I did Y to Z?” And then you can use your STEMinist skills to figure out how to find the answer to that question, to replace the wondering (but not the wonder) with critical thought and data and observations.

Favorite website or app:
I love the app/website Evernote. I use it to clip and organize sites and articles I want to remember, and I use it to collaborate with other STEM professionals and with students, and I use it to jot down all my “deep thoughts” that might otherwise be lost to the either. It’s one of those great cloud tools that makes the information part of the “information age” something you can eat a bit at a time, and something that helps you remember what you wanted to take a bite of in the first place.

Site: Smaller Questions is the blog I co-write with my microbiologist friend. We write about journal articles that aren’t making much of a popular news splash, trying to make more cutting-edge science available to everybody.

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  • Ana Ray
    April 25, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    So good to hear of what you are doing Sarah.