Man leaning against a car with a bright, glowing green aurora filling the sky behind him.
Chris on an aurora spotting evening. Credit: Chris Ratzlaff

Education

Cochrane High School
University of Calgary
Industrial Design

How did you become a NASA citizen scientist?

As a leader in the Alberta Aurora Chaser community, for years I've been focused helping spread an appreciation of the science behind aurora. We formed a relationship with space weather scientist Elizabeth MacDonald, in which I encouraged our science-loving aurora chasers to contribute our observations to the citizen science efforts of the Aurorasaurus project. But I think I really started thinking of myself as the Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE) discovery started to unfold. The discoveries associated with STEVE originated from citizen observations, and the detailed observations from the Alberta Aurora Chasers helped convince scientists from the University of Calgary and NASA that we were seeing something unique that warranted investigation.

Chris Ratzlaff wearing funny round yellow glasses.
Credit: Chris Ratzlaff

What are your favorite citizen science projects to work on?

My favorite citizen science projects are those that engage and challenge the citizens involved, and leverage their passions, projects where citizens can make significant contributions and where the community can be proud of its accomplishments.

What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies!

Honestly, the science I do with NASA is my “hobby,” my passion. Chasing and photographing the aurora is what I do whenever the opportunity presents itself. The best part about the citizen science I do with NASA is that I'd be doing it anyway! I describe myself as a “chaser of elusive things.” Aurora are one of those things. I also enjoy photographing severe storms and the wonderful things that happen when it gets really, really cold outside.

What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?

I've discovered that scientists can be far more approachable than many of us assume.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

Heck, as a kid, I loved everything to do with space. I watched every space-related movie I could. I watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos faithfully. I obsessed over all of the "World of the Future" books, and tried as many of the included experiments as I could. I still have my copy of National Geographic's “Picture Atlas of Our Universe.” “Contact” is my favorite story of all time!

Wispy, bright green aurora in the night sky.
Credit: Chris Ratzlaff

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a NASA citizen scientist?

“Managing” a large community of citizen scientists can be a pretty big challenge. But, really, the Alberta Aurora Chasers community is encouraged to self manage, and it runs like a well-oiled machine. Involvement from our community in citizen science efforts is often fairly ad-hoc, without any need for management. Our passion is the contribution!

What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA?

You don't need to be an accredited scientist to be a citizen scientist. None of the Alberta Aurora Chasers involved with the STEVE discovery are accredited scientists...we've just be chasing a passion. Don't be afraid to reach out! Scientists are regular people, and they love collaboration. Don't be discouraged if the first scientists you reach out to aren't as open as the above statement suggests. Look for opportunities that align with your passions.

Who inspires you?

Honestly, every member of the Alberta Aurora Chasers community inspires me. These people are some of the most dedicated, friendly and supportive I've ever met. And their desire to learn the science behind their passion is awe inspiring.

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