gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Lara Eakins

Lara Eakins is a science and tech geek, skeptic, history buff and needleworker. She does astronomy outreach and instructional technology as a day job and is probably best known around the internet for her passion of Tudor history. You can find links to all of her internet exploits at

To start off, I want to thank Gillian for inviting me to guest blog here as part of Women's History Month. I was quite flattered to be asked! I went through several drafts of this post but it ended up long and rambling because I had tried to include a lot of stories of women important to the history of astronomy and discuss the current state of women in science. But I realized that I didn't need to include all of that since a lot has already been written and will continue to be written on those topics by people a lot more knowledgeable than me. So, I decided to just keep it to my own personal story. I hope you find it interesting!

On March 2, 1972, two things launched into the universe - one into space and one into a hospital in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The former was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and the latter was - probably no surprise - me. Although I don't believe that this is a case of correlation equaling causation, I have always taken great pride that a child born the same day as the launch of the first spacecraft to fly by Jupiter later went on to take part (a very small part, but a part nonetheless) in the first mission to orbit Jupiter in 1995.

The 1970s were the start of a golden era in the exploration of the solar system and from an early age, up-close pictures of the solar system were part of my life. One of my earliest memories was looking through National Geographic magazines filled with pictures from the Viking missions to Mars. When I was 8 years old, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" first aired on television and now hardly a year goes by without me re-watching the series. (I had the great pleasure of seeing Carl Sagan speak several times and I cherish the copy of the "Cosmos" companion book that I had him autograph at a lecture.) Although there were a few women scientists that I could point to as an inspiration in my childhood - Astronaut Sally Ride and Planetary Astronomer Carolyn Porco primarily - one big reason that I was exposed to science and science fiction from an early age was because of my mother. (And as another interesting coincidence, my mother's birthday is March 8 - International Women's Day.) I think it was when I was around 12 years old that I started playing around with my mother's telescope and later my parents bought me a small telescope of my own, beginning my love of observational astronomy.

Early in high school I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut (I even went to Space Camp!), but when the time finally came to actually start my career path, I ended up deciding on astronomy. Although if someone offered me a trip on one of the new private space vehicles, I certainly wouldn't turn it down! And it was convenient that one of the larger undergraduate astronomy programs in the US was in my hometown of Austin, Texas since I didn't have a whole lot of money for college.

While I was a student, I began working with the team of astronomers in our department doing work in a sub-field known as astrometry. If you know your word roots, you can probably deduce it is a field that studies the positions of celestial objects. We primarily measured asteroids and comets and the satellites of the outer planets so that precise orbits can be worked out. Part of our funding was from NASA in support of the Galileo mission to get good orbits for some of the small outer moons of Jupiter as well as getting good positions on two asteroids that Galileo would fly past as it transited the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Our other work was on Near Earth Objects, and you can guess from the name why they are important to study. (I've jokingly referred to it as one of the most boring jobs on Earth where you can honestly say you've done your part to save the planet.) The best example of why understanding the dynamics of comets and asteroids is important came when we did some of the follow-up measurements of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, discovered in 1993, and confirmed the preliminary calculations that indicated it would impact Jupiter in July 1994.

After graduation, I continued my work with the astrometry team for another year and then in the fall of 1995 I began working full-time in our education and public outreach office. Although at times I miss doing research, I feel that communicating science to the public and helping the next generation of students understand astronomy is very important. Two duties of my very hodgepodge job are running a public viewing night on one of our campus telescopes and conducting school field trips centered around our solar telescope, which are often some of the most fun and rewarding parts of my job. Besides trying to do my part to raise the level of science literacy in the US, it's also my chance to encourage young girls who express an interest in astronomy or science in general. And I'm happy to say there have been quite a few!

Perhaps it's a big selfish of me, but I have to admit that my favorite groups are those from all-girls schools and camps. A few years ago I was leading a group of girls on a tour and we were talking about how just a couple of days before - for the first time ever - when the commanders of the space shuttle and the International Space Station greeted each other after docking, it was two women shaking hands and hugging. And one of the girls, probably about 12 years old, said "It will be great when that doesn't have to be big news". I could have hugged her! Not only was she right, but if more girls her age have that attitude then it truly won't be a big deal someday. And I hope it's a day that we see sooner rather than later.

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