SIRTF Profiles: Dr. Michelle Thaller
Manager of the SIRTF Education and Public Outreach Program
I suppose I'm one of those people who need a little drama in their
lives. That said, it seems fitting that my major inspirations for becoming an astronomer were movies and television. To begin with, George Lucas sealed my fate. I saw the original Star Wars when I was seven years old, and from the minute I stepped out of the theater in small-town Wisconsin, I knew I wanted to make astronomy the focus of my life. I just couldn't get outer space out of my head. The huge scales, the impersonal drama, the weird implications about the nature of reality; I was permanently hooked. A few years later I fell in love with Carl Sagan (even pasted up a picture of him in my middle school locker) and his view of the universe in his Cosmos television series.
I have always had a deep respect for people who can take complex ideas and make them seem profoundly simple and elegant. Instinctually, I've always felt that wisdom and eloquence are related. It's not just what you say, but now effectively you communicate the inner workings of your mind to another human being. I have a passion for communication and teaching, something that serves me well in my current position as manager of SIRTF's education and public outreach efforts.
Although I'm a professional astronomer (got my Bachelor's Degree from Harvard and my Ph.D. from Georgia State University), my interests have taken me in quite a different direction from most of my academic colleagues. Communicating the richness of science to the public has always been my first priority. I spend a lot of my time out on the road, helping to promote the SIRTF mission, as well as science in general. Sometimes I conduct teacher workshops to help educators include NASA materials and information in their lessons. I also speak to thousands of students every year, often with our wonderful infrared camera to illustrate what invisible light is all about. At other times I do large public talks for JPL or other educational organizations like the Challenger Center, and I've appeared on several television shows, from the Discovery Channel to the Young Astronauts Program. And, of course, there's tons of behind-the-scenes work to be done, organizing our entire outreach effort and trying to find the most effective ways that NASA and SIRTF can use their resources to reach as many audiences as possible.
This job is a wonderful fit for me. It allows me to spend a little time in the spotlight, while challenging my organizational and managerial skills while I'm working in the background. And I have other outlets for my dramatic tendencies as well. You can catch me performing as a member of Queen Elizabeth's court in the Santa Barbara Renaissance Faire during the summer.