The Planetary Society
Visions Artists Engineers & Astronauts Scientists Systems
Cherilynn Morrow  –  astronomer and educator
Click for larger image " When I was 5 years old I read a children's book called Ann Can Fly."
How were you originally motivated to become an astronomer?
  Becoming an astronomer and a science educator evolved out of a youthful passion for aviation and space. When I was 5 years old I read a children's book called Ann Can Fly. I enjoyed a special identification with the little girl in the book because my middle name is Ann, and my father told me I was so named after Ann Morrow Lindbergh – a great adventuress and personal heroine of mine. The book made an especially indelible impression on my young mind when little Ann took the controls of a small airplane and had her first chance to fly! From this point forward I started becoming more aware of the sky and the things in it, whether they be human created, such as airplanes and spacecraft, or natural objects, such as the Moon and stars. When I was eleven I remember how the first Apollo moon landing captured my imagination, and how I bargained with my parents to stay up very late to watch Neil Armstrong make his "giant leap" onto the lunar surface. Subsequently I can recall gazing up at the bright full Moon and marveling that people could actually walk there – there on a completely different world!

When I asked a school counselor what I had to do to be involved in space exploration, she said take as much math and science as you can. This I did. My first idea was to become a jet pilot and astronaut. In high school I read biographies about John Glenn and Jackie Cochoran. I was nominated and accepted into the Air Force Academy in 1977, but disqualified at the last moment because of a heart murmur that has since become undetectable. My next strategy was to become a scientist and learn to fly on my own. I decided to major in Physics as an undergraduate, and I received a Daedalian Society scholarship for flight training. I earned a private pilot's license just before leaving for graduate school at the University of Colorado (CU) in 1981.

My graduate plan was to study atmospheric physics to complement my aviation interests, but eventually scientific research on the Sun became the right blend of earthly and extra–terrestrial interests. From 1983–1988 I enjoyed a graduate fellowship at the High Altitude Observatory – the solar physics division of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). While there I was deeply inspired by the science and humanism of NCAR's founder, Walter Orr Roberts, who taught me the value of examining science in society and communicating science to the public.

My PhD thesis was about helioseismology, the study of waves on the surface of the Sun that allow us to infer things about the interior of the Sun. My work helped to discover that the Sun was rotating beneath the surface in a way quite different from that predicted by computer models. This result had important implications for the Sun's cycle of activity. During my graduate years I traveled to Mauna Kea – an observatory atop a volcano in Hawaii, and to Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory in south–central New Mexico in support of my research activities.

After graduate school, I continued to pursue research in astronomy with a postdoctoral appointment at the Institute for Astronomy at Cambridge University in England. There I continued my work in helioseismology and had opportunities to observe and interact with other extraordinary astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees. My Cambridge experience also included opportunities for amateur performance in music and theatre to enrich the professional opportunities in scientific research. I was becoming deeply intrigued by the potential at the interfaces between science, public education, and the performing arts.

In 1992 I took a position as a Visiting Senior Scientist in NASA's Office of Space Science to work at the interface of science and education. I spent two years at NASA Headquarters developing strategies for engaging the space science community more effectively in science education and public outreach. While at NASA I assisted the new NASA Administrator in writing his first space science policy speech for an American Astronomical Society meeting in Phoenix. I also enjoyed the special privilege of meeting my heroine Ann Morrow Lindbergh and telling her the story of my middle name. At another memorable meeting I had occasion to dialogue with Carl Sagan and Mae Jamison – our first African–American woman to become an astronaut. I was also delighted to brief Barbara Morgan (our next Teacher–In–Space) on NASA's astrophysics programs, including results from the Hubble Space Telescope and the dramatic first repair mission (an event that was almost as exciting to me as the moon landing had been). These sorts of interactions stirred me even more deeply toward a professional path in science education and communication. In addition, my encounter with Bruce Alberts, the President of the National Academy of Sciences, further fueled my convictions about the importance of involving scientists in improving science education at all levels.

Toward the end of my NASA stint, my intensifying interest and satisfaction in education led me to take a leave of absence to teach astronomy and environmental science to undergraduates on a ship called the SS Universe that traveled around the world in one semester (Fall 1994). This "Semester at Sea" experience was not the same as orbiting the Earth, but it was a close second and nonetheless as life–altering and adventuresome. During our stop in Sri–Lanka, all 500 students and faulty were inspired by a ship–board visit by Arthur C. Clarke who shared his personal view that art often leads science. He offered the example of communications satellites that he'd imagined in a science fiction novel having eventually become a commonplace reality. When I asked him then about the human exploration of Mars, he thought we would have people there in 20–30 years.

After NASA and Semester at Sea, I returned to Boulder, Colorado to work as the Education and Outreach Manager for a non–profit organization called the Space Science Institute (SSI) and to teach part time at the University of Colorado. At SSI we work to engage the space and earth science community in partnership with educators to create museum exhibits, curricular materials, and workshops for scientists and educators (including K–12 teachers, Girl Scout troop leaders, and Outward Bound instructors). In addition, I enjoy making public presentations, such as my recent talk to physicians on NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins. In August of 1999 I was fortunate to collaborate with a production crew from the Exploratorium to webcast the total solar eclipse from Amasya, Turkey. The eclipse reminded me poignantly of how real is that other world we call the Moon –– that world where humans had walked –– that world that could blot out the light of the Sun at mid–day.

The eclipse experience was one of many highlights on a career path that is a work in progress. What I am doing with my doctorate in astronomy is distinctly different than most of my peers. I am finding that my closer connections to education and outreach fuel my ability to integrate my astronomy with other personal interests, such as music, dance, and exploring the wilderness and the world. Such integration is at the heart of my creative process.

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    To me, creative ideas and solutions are like gifts born of process that is probably impossible to describe in words. Nevertheless I will try. I feel that experiencing creativity is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being alive and conscious. I think it is quite remarkable that our brains and bodies are themselves creations of the Universe that enable us to reflect on our own creation story as well as to create new life and knowledge. For me, creativity is highly correlated with deep involvement in something that I consider meaningful. This may be characterized by spending countless hours immersed in an activity without feeling fatigue or being particularly aware of the passage of time. I tend to be an integrative thinker, alert to the possibilities of relating or synthesizing apparently unrelated subjects or ideas. I like to mine the interfaces and overlaps between various areas of endeavor for how they might inform or enrich each other (e.g. scientific research and science education, astronomy and music or dance). For example, I have written and performed a blues song called Starman Blues that teaches about astronomy while lamenting the lack of a suitable earthly lover and expressing the hope that one might be found among the stars. I am also engaged in the development of curricular materials called Kinesthetic Astronomy which use carefully choreographed movements and body positions to teach basic astronomical concepts.  
What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  I would establish an adventure travel service with a meaningful astronomy and Mars science educational emphasis. This idea derives from involvement with two professional projects. The first is my wonderful experiences giving workshops to Colorado Outward Bound instructors about teaching astronomy in the wilderness. The second project is our Institute's 5000 square–foot traveling exhibition, MarsQuest, where the design concept is Mars as a wilderness. MarsQuest treats several extraordinary features on Mars analogously to America's national parks. So, for example, I would offer the broader Mars community educational opportunities to visit and explore the Olympus Mons wilderness area, the South Pole, the historic Viking and Pathfinder landing sites, the cratered highlands, and so on. I could also imagine excursions into Valle Marineris or perhaps even more intriguing, flights over portions of it. It is also true that Mars experiences total solar eclipses as we do here on Earth, and so one could imagine eclipse expeditions. Of course the angular size of the Sun and Mars' moon Phobos in the Martian sky is only two–thirds the size of the Sun and Moon in our earthly sky, but it would still be an intriguing and mysterious sight to behold! Perhaps we could even provide a "webcast" to Earth!  
Imagine Mars | Art/Sci/Astro Entrance | Visions | Artists | Engineers & Astronauts | Scientists | Systems