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Alyssa Gilbert
Picture of Alyssa Gilbert
Alyssa Gilbert
Outreach Coordinator, Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX)
Alyssa Gilbert in Peru.

Where are you from?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). I now live in London, Ontario, and I have been here for about seven years now.

"My favorite moment is when I explain
something and I hear someone
say, "Oh!! I get it!!!!" Those few
words make my whole job worth it."
Alyssa Gilbert

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
In my high school physics class! One day in class my teacher was presenting on elements, and he spoke about how each element has a different spectrum. In his explanation, he said that astronomers can use the known spectrum from the elements to understand the compositions of stars. I could not believe that someone could make those kinds of measurements from so far away -- after that I was hooked!

How did you end up working in the space program?
I was not sure what I wanted to do after I finished my undergraduate degree in physics. I applied to a few master's programs in astronomy and even an interior design program. I did not know if I would get in to any of the programs (my grades were not as good as I would have liked for my undergraduate degree), and so I made a deal with myself: I would go wherever I was accepted into a master's program. Lo and behold, I was accepted by the University of Manitoba, and so off I went! For my master's I studied a well-known X-ray binary star system, called SS 433. This was very interesting to me. However, for my Ph.D. I wanted to study something closer to home, so I moved to London, Ontario to study comets and asteroids (specifically main-belt comets) at the University of Western Ontario.

It was during my time as a graduate student that I became involved in science outreach. At the University of Manitoba, I coordinated the "Let's Talk Science" program. I was very lucky that, as I was moving to London, the Let's Talk Science program was also looking for a new coordinator at Western, so I worked with the program during my Ph.D. as well. Also, because of my outreach experience, I was asked to develop an astronomy outreach program for the department, which is still going strong!

As I was completing my Ph.D., I knew the regular academic track was not for me. What I really loved to do was engage students and the public in astronomy. Witnessing the astonishment and wonder astronomy brings out in people of all ages is addicting! A few months after I completed my degree, there were rumors of a potential opportunity to coordinate the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) outreach program, which was just starting out. I was pregnant at the time, but I was asked to apply for the job anyway. I ended up getting an offer, and started on my new and exciting career path in outreach in June of 2011.

What is an Outreach Coordinator?
I run the Education and Outreach program for the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. My job involves working with five graduate students to develop hands-on activities related to space science (such as impact cratering, space engineering, mapping of the planets, etc.) for students. We then interact and work with students of all ages (kindergarten - 12th grade) to do these activities in the classroom. We have a LOT of fun!

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
My favorite moment, which thankfully happens quite often, is when I explain something and I hear someone say, be it a student or other interested individual, "Oh!! I get it!!!!" Those few words make my whole job worth it.

Who inspired you?
Carl Sagan was a big influence for me. In an age when communicating science with the public was not as important as it is now, Sagan dedicated much of his time to it.

I also look up to Neil deGrasse Tyson and to Phil Plait and Bob McDonald -- two other scientists who dedicate much of their time to communicating science to the public.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Say "Yes"!! Many graduate students find themselves too busy to get involved in education and outreach on a regular basis. However, if it's something you love to do, grab any opportunity you can to get out into the classrooms or to public events. Since I had previous experience with outreach, I was asked to create an astronomy outreach program while I was completing my Ph.D. That experience opened up even more doors and led to my current position at the CPSX.

What do you do for fun?
I do a lot of reading and knitting, and I also recently started kayaking! I'm married with a young son, who definitely keeps me on my toes, and we spend a lot of time together as a family going to the park or on hikes, or just playing.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Take as many courses as you can in high school and during your first-year of university or college. The more classes you take, the wider your options will be if you should need to switch majors. Also, keep this in mind throughout your education and throughout your career -- it is always a good thing to have a bunch of transferable skills in your back pocket, especially since job security is not what it used to be!


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Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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