Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Hey everyone!

So today I thought I'd share the story of how I got where I am today.  For some reason, I've been asked the question a lot lately, so the twisted tale of my journey to running a planetarium and observatory has been much on my mind lately.  Besides, it's so bloody hot outside, no one wants to do any observing anyway (but you still have a good shot at seeing Saturn and maybe even Mars in the early evening sky if you want to give it a try...look to the southwest just after sunset!  Saturn is the golden yellow bright "star"...Mars is a faint, dull orangey-looking "star" just to the right a bit).

The night sky of July 18, 2012.  Facing South.

So, me.  Everyone loves talking about themselves, don't they?

I've always been interested in the sky and astronomy, ever since I was a little kid.  I grew up in New York City (New York City!!??!!???) so my skies were most definitely not the best.  Still, when I was old enough to travel into Manhattan by myself, I would spend long days at the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium (now the Rose Center for Earth and Space) enjoying the darkest skies around.

I also loved music, and as I headed into Wagner College on Staten Island, I thought I'd major in that.  But the summer before I began college, I realized that to be a professional singer I needed more talent and an agent, not a degree.  I was also good at math, so I thought I might major in that.  Had no idea what I could do with a math degree except teach, which didn't excite me.  So I went undeclared and sampled lots of cool courses during my first year...including a physics class.  I was hooked.  I majored in physics, doing my senior thesis on energy audits of buildings.

I knew very quickly that I wanted to take a higher degree in physics, and was accepted to the Ph.D. program at the College of William and Mary.  I eventually did my thesis in theoretical nuclear physics, but during my studies I got to do some papers on astrophysics as well.  More importantly, I found I really needed a break from the work, so I started volunteering in the observatory at the Virginia Living Museum, giving me 4 hours a week where I wasn't obsessing about my thesis.

Seven years later I was still plodding along on the thesis, but I was also panicking.  Years of working in the ivory tower had taught me that research was not at all my favorite thing.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  Luckily, an opportunity came up at the Virginia Living Museum.  Their part-time planetarium lecturer was leaving.  I'd love to say they begged me to work for them, but the truth is I begged them to wait for me.  I needed to finish the thesis...but then I couldn't imagine anything more fun than working in the planetarium and observatory every day.  They were willing, and I got the job.

Fifteen years later I've worked my way around to being in charge of all the astronomy stuff here at the museum.  My job is a wonderful mix of teaching, live performance, film & theater production, and occasionally blowing things up.  It's the best thing I could ever imagine doing.  Okay, maybe the second best thing.  See the image below for the best thing ever.

My husband Philip, me, and our little girl, Margaret.  Totally the best thing ever.

So sometimes it really does pay off to follow your heart and do what you love.  It's worth a heck of a lot to be able to get up everyday and be happy to go to work.  So, I guess the point of today's post is try to find a way to do what you love to do.  When I was trying to figure out what that was for me, I got great help from a book called What Color is Your Parachute?  - I highly recommended it to anyone out there who's trying to figure out what they'd like to do with the rest of their life.

Next time, we'll probably be talking about a certain Mars rover...but until then...
Carpe noctem!

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