Behind the Science: An Interview With Our Planetarium Specialist

June 13, 2024

Ellen Thompson

Planetarium Specialist

From San Diego, CA

Ellen was first hired as a student Planetarium Presenter six years ago, and they’ve been working full-time at The Lawrence for two years now.

Q: What do you do at The Lawrence?

A: I present and develop live, interactive planetarium shows. Show development consists of software programming and contributing to writing program scripts. I also play a role in training student planetarium presenters.

I believe that understanding the magnitudes of the universe helps learners build their sense of compassion.

Ellen on unexpected connections to science

Q: What is your favorite exhibit at The Lawrence?

A: What’s my favorite exhibit at The Lawrence? Why, the Planetarium, of course! OK, perhaps I’m biased, but I do genuinely love learning about outer space, as well as other sciences we explore in the dome. Even when I’m watching a student practice a show I’ve presented hundreds of times, I still feel the magic of being an audience member in a Planetarium.

Q: Describe your path to science/education

A: I’ve known I wanted to be an Astronomer ever since I was six years old when I read The Magic Tree House book Midnight On The Moon. My mom had gotten me a set of Magic Tree House books with nonfiction companions, so I also had a little book of space facts that I was obsessed with. I worked very hard from elementary to high school to get into college; I was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley as a First-Generation, Low-Income student. I majored in Astrophysics and was briefly enrolled in an Astronomy PhD program at New Mexico State University. I discovered my love for teaching throughout my higher-education journey: I loved working at The Lawrence as an undergraduate, I was a volunteer astronomy tutor for middle school students, and my favorite part of my graduate school stint was being a Teacher’s Assistant for an introductory Astronomy laboratory course. So, a year after completing my Bachelor’s degree, I decided to pivot my career from astronomy research to astronomy education; this turned out to be the best decision I ever made!

Q: What is something new you’ve learned at The Lawrence?

A: While developing this summer’s new Planetarium show Diving Into The Blue Planet, I learned a lot about marine biology and conservation efforts, such as coral restoration projects. I was previously familiar with (and saddened by) the decline of coral reefs due to climate change; it was news to me that scientists are working very hard to grow healthy corals and outplant them to sick reefs. Coral restoration projects make the reefs (and me!) feel a lot better!

Planetarium Specialist Ellen Thompson observes Jupiter with a young visitor in Planetarium Pilots
Ellen observing Jupiter with a young visitor during free exploration in Planetarium Pilots.

Q: What was your first “aha moment” at The Lawrence?

A: On my first day of training as a student planetarium presenter, I watched a program about constellations (“Imagine The Sky Tonight”), which has a visual of Ursa Major as seen from interstellar space. I had been familiar with the fact that because space is three-dimensional, constellations would look different many light-years away from Earth, but seeing that Ursa Major visual in the planetarium was the first time I could say, “Aha! I understand this!”

Q: What is one unexpected thing you’ve connected to science?

A: I love connecting science (especially astronomy) to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I believe that understanding the magnitudes of the universe (both spatial and temporal) helps learners build their sense of compassion. It’s very important to understand just how fleeting our existence is compared to the lifespan of the universe, as well as just how small our planet Earth is—to quote Carl Sagan, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another, and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Q: Who is your favorite fictional character and why?

A: My favorite fictional character is Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s an android who endeavors to be as human as possible, a goal which highlights the beauty of humanity for the human audience. He’s also an icon within the neurodivergent community – as an ADHDer myself, I can certainly relate to Data’s tendency to infodump (i.e., talk at great length about his work and hobbies). My girlfriend is Autistic; she relates to Data’s difficulties with social cues and understanding idioms.

Q: If you could be any animal, real or imaginary, which would you be and why?

A: Continuing with the unsurprising theme of my being a big science-fiction nerd, I would love to be a star whale from Doctor Who. They’re giant cetaceans who live in outer space! I would love to live in outer space and think it would be fun to be a gigantic creature.

Q: Do you have an unrealized project you’d like to talk about?

A: I have a dream to someday build a Planetarium show on Filipino Cultural astronomy! I’m Filipino, and while I was at Cal, I took cultural history courses as well as Tagalog language classes; I actually double majored in South & Southeast Asian studies! I would love to bring such a show to planetaria in the Philippines, as well as to become fluent enough in Tagalog that the entire show is in the language!

Q: If you could amplify one thing at The Lawrence, what would it be?

A: I would like to amplify The Lawrence’s accessibility and programming for low-income community members. I love how busy and beautiful the museum is when we have Five Dollar Days! I’m very proud that my exhibit Planetarium Pilots does not require extra tickets (which the regular Planetarium shows do). I always let folks know about free online resources for learning astronomy, like the virtual Planetarium website/app Stellarium, as well as the astronomy visualization software OpenSpace (which is used by my planetarium programs Planetarium Pilots and Diving Into The Blue Planet).

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