I am a blind observational astronomer from Australia. After finishing my PhD in 2014, I moved to the UK and soon discovered that I actually enjoyed leaving my office to talk to people about astronomy more than I enjoyed staying in it, stuck behind a computer writing code and papers. I also realised that as a scientist who has had a vision impairment from birth, I had a unique perspective that I could offer.
I made the transition to working as a public engagement and outreach officer at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, where I now spend half my time working as an Ogden Isaac Fellow; helping upper highschool aged students improve their physics problem solving skills using resources provided by the UK’s Department for Education funded project ‘Isaac Physics’, and the other half working on the Tactile Universe project.
My role in the Tactile Universe project is as Project Lead. I oversee many aspects of the project, am involved with the majority of its delivery and dissemination, act as a public face and role model for the project’s vision impaired audience and advise on issues of accessibility. I also provide external consultations for other groups who want to run similarly accessible projects of their own.
Where the idea for the Tactile Universe came from
Sometimes it surprises me that nobody has ever said to me ‘But you’re blind! Why did you choose astronomy as a job?’. I hope that if they had, it wouldn’t have changed my mind. To be honest, it might have made me doubt myself though.
I’m a little unusual in that I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up at the age of 5. The Voyager space probes had just sent their beautiful pictures of our Solar System’s gas giants back to Earth, and I was watching a documentary about this, nose right up against the television screen (that was the only way I could see any of what was going on). I remember seeing the beautiful pictures of Jupiter’s banded brown clouds, Saturn’s rings, and the striking green and blue of Uranus and Neptune, and being blown away by just how far away these planets were from Earth. There were lots of interview with astronomers, striking dramatic poses at mountain top observatories, all seeming genuinely excited about all of the new stuff they were going to be able to find out with this new data.
From that moment on I was hooked. My parents were always really good about this, and they helped me find books I could read, pictures I could see easily, and went out of their way on holidays to find little public observatories in the middle of nowhere that would offer stargazing nights where I could talk to people and learn more. Going through school, I was always interested in maths and science, and my teachers were all great at supporting me in that as well. Things weren’t always easy though, and were often very visual in nature. Looking back, I realise just how few accessible resources were available to help me learn about physics and astronomy, and how much easier it would have been if there were more. This theme carried on through my time at university, with teachers and lecturers helping where they could, but a lack of specific resources making things difficult at times.
During my second attempt at a PhD in astronomy (I quit my first PhD after 2 years due to crippling anxiety and depression, something that many VI people deal with throughout their lives) I found a project that mostly involved playing with big data sets and lots of numbers. In astronomy, lots of the physical parameters that galaxies have can be represented by number schemes. Obvious things like mass, star formation rates, but also less obvious things like colours (how blue or red something is) and galaxy shapes (we often use something called a T-type). This made things much easier, but I would often have to double check the actual images of galaxies to make sure my numbers were actually telling me the right thing. This side of things was often very challenging, and my frustration probably planted the seed of an idea for the Tactile Universe project, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
I didn’t start thinking about this again until I had moved from full time research into public engagement and outreach. My boss at the time, Dr Karen Masters (an academic who is heavily involved with the Galaxy Zoo project, and is the Tactile Universe Faculty Advisor) suggested that I should talk to a friend in the US who ran an astronomy education program that focused on teaching vision impaired students. My first conversation with Kate Meredith (former Director of Education Outreach at Yerkes Observatory, now Director of Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS)) was inspiring, and got me thinking about what I could offer to the blind and vision impaired community because of my experiences.
After more conversations with Karen, Kate and Jen Gupta (the ICG Outreach and Public Engagement Manager and the Tactile Universe’s Public Engagement Advisor) and lots of time pondering this, I decided I wanted to make learning about galaxy shape and colour easier for blind and vision impaired people. My basic idea for this was to turn a galaxy image into a sort of relief map, making the height of the map scale with the change in brightness across the galaxy. This idea resulted in our first 3D tactile galaxy image, digitally produced by Coleman Krawczyk (the team’s Technical Lead) which Coleman will tell you all about in his blog post, our successful application for funding to run a six month pilot through SEPNet, and our ‘baptism by fire’ where we tested our models for the first time and changed a primary school student’s life, an experience which Jen will relate in her blog post.