A day at Mount Wilson Observatory
PLASMA 6 article
On the 8th of March 2020, the Global International Women’s Day we met Jessica Rodriguez, STEM program coordinator at Mount Wilson Observatory and strong advocate for diversity and equality in STEM. Jess’s everyday job involves bringing students from across LA to visit Mount Wilson, the mountaintop where humanity discovered its place in the Universe.
During our visit to the Observatory Jess showed us the 100-inch telescope, one of the most famous telescopes in observational astronomy of the 20th century, and the 60-inch telescope which was the largest operating telescope in the world when it was completed in 1908. We also had the chance to visit the Snow solar telescope, the oldest one in the mountain. There was something magical albeit eerie about walking up the huge metal towers, science sanctuaries above the city of Los Angeles. On our way up we reminisced of other times when scientists like Einstein and Hubble walked those steps towards their next discovery.
We sat down with Jess under the 100-inch telescope, from which astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble observed the expansion of the Universe. His calculations allowed scientists to prove our position on the Milky Way and suggested that our galaxy was one in billions, part of an expanding Universe.
PLASMA: What got you interested in astronomy Jess?
JR: I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a kid. I think I recall sometime in elementary school when I was trying to understand how the Earth was just a spinning rock in space, and that opened up a whole lot of questions for me to try and understand how the solar system works! I then went ahead to study astronomy and was very well involved with Griffith Observatory and Carnegie (our sister observatory). At the moment school is at a pause but I’d like to restart again and perhaps do a PhD at some point. I’d really like to get into the moons of the solar system because I think there’s going to be a lot of discovery for example in Europa… those are the peak interests for me!
PLASMA: Did you have any role models growing up?
JR: My favourite movie that definitely influenced my career was Contact, which I think is the case for a lot of people! I also used to listen to a lot of radio interviews with Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist. He does a very good job with science communication and astronomy. The way he explained things was just so fascinating! And when you can understand more about a science that seems to be very intriguing then it really makes you fall in love with it more because you can see the possibility of you being involved with it. Which is why I loved the idea of being involved with the STEM programme because it’s so important to understand the basics of the science you enjoy! You cannot really advance in any way unless you have the basics down.
During our exploration of the Observatory we run into a picture of Henrietta Lewitt that Jess had been hoping to include in the programme. After the surprise, Jess told us a bit more about what Henrietta means to her and the rest of the scientific community….
PLASMA: When did you first hear about Henrietta?
JR: I first learned about Henrietta Leavitt in my astronomy class in college, and i didn’t know that she had any contribution to the discovery of the Universe at Mount Wilson observatory. Henrietta was a graduate of Radcliffe and ended up working as a computer at Harvard, as many other women of the time thanks to their eye for detail and calculating capacity. Henrietta was one of many women that contributed to astronomy in this way, and it was the beginning of me realising how many women were behind it and just haven’t had a lot of credit. Mount Wilson really presents the opportunity to show younger generations of that imperative involvement that these women had in history. It is not just Hubble, as much as Hubble is also extremely important in this discovery, I think the women were just as much. Henrietta was nominated to get the Nobel Peace Prize but she had passed away of cancer already so it wasn’t possible, but I think that today she has gained more popularity, both in the media and educational programmes like the one up here.
PLASMA: What motivates you to do your work every day?
JR: I just love this job, I love talking to students! There’s been many moments in which as a woman in STEM I’ve found myself inspiring other younger generations. I’m very interested in this ripple effect and how, through seminars, events, role models and public engagement we can get more and more people interested and inspired by science.
I just went to a ‘Girls in STEM’ event on Friday and that was a lot of fun because I got to talk to a lot of students that were particularly interested in STEM. It was really great to see them so engaged with the questions and they were so happy to see a female that works in STEM. It was really inspiring; these things are great to remind me why I do this! I also really enjoy working with the astronomers at Carnegie, and working with them on the curriculum and volunteering schedules. It’s extremely inspiring to be in their facility and learn what they’re working on. Everyone there is so passionate about what they do!
PLASMA: How do you find it to work with young people? What gets them excited about science?
JR: There’s a challenge in trying to make this an enticing subject for some areas of LA more than others. We definitely like to use participation, we encourage that they feel comfortable asking questions. We like to have them think about things they haven’t thought about before with astronomy before they come here, and ask them what they personally want to know about! The STEM programme runs at Mount Wilson Observatory every year. To learn more about Mount Wilson’s STEM Educational Program for your school, contact Jessica Rodriguez.
full article in PLASMA 6