From Drawing To Telling the Stories of Space

From a very young age, Tamsyn has enjoyed drawing the solar system.

I’ve always dreamed of becoming an astronaut. As a kid, I loved to make crayon drawings of the solar system. My pictures always had to be accurate: I never forgot the asteroid belt, Uranus’ tilted rings, and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. I loved the thought of a huge, mysterious universe — to be honest, I still do.

But if I’m being really honest, the process of becoming a bona fide space cadet isn’t a journey that I was ever prepared for or even willing to take. I’m very nearsighted. I have a largely unacknowledged fear of heights. I don’t want to major in engineering, hard science, or math. I also can’t do a pull-up.

I still fantasize, though, about seeing spaceship Earth hanging alone against a backdrop of a darkness punctured delicately by stars. I wonder about what it would be like to let Martian dust slip through the fingers of my spacesuit glove. I think about leaving my footprints on the Moon.

Over a decade after I stopped using crayons, 16-year-old Tamsyn got a position working in the Zukin lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY. As part of a high school class, I’d complete a short-term experiment under the supervision of professional scientists and write a brief paper about it. Over the course of a summer, I removed mouse hippocampi and conducted Western blot analyses on those tiny slivers of brain tissue. What I found to be the best part of the entire experience, though, was writing about the cellular mechanisms behind neuronal death as a result of stroke. I wanted to advance the field (if ever so slightly), but more importantly, the public deserved to know the work being done to ultimately benefit humans.

My passion for science is only outdone by my urge to tell people about it. During my crayon solar system era, I used to proudly recite the names of the planets (going in order from closest to farthest from the Sun and defiantly including Pluto even past its demotion) to anyone who would listen. In the first weeks of my junior year of high school, I worked diligently on my neuroscience paper in the hopes that it’d resonate with my classmates. The next summer I worked again at a lab — the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine — but now my job was to write about science full-time for the lab’s website. I was thrilled to reach a much larger audience than my classmates. By my senior year of high school, I knew what I wanted to do.

Tamsyn Brann is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Science, Technology, and Society

I’m a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. I know that STS as a course of study sounds pretty vague, but I’m using that to my advantage: I can craft my specific focus as a writer by choosing classes where I could practice communicating science in an educational setting. I can tell you about the scientific legacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — if you genuinely want to hear about the potential Lamarckism of epigenetics and whether genes really are “selfish.” I could talk for hours about detecting biosignatures on exoplanets and what to do once we’ve found them. At school and outside, my encounters with science taught me intellectual fearlessness and a desire to question. When science is communicated, society can absorb the information and advance.

I look forward to focusing my future more specifically toward communicating the astronomy I’ve always loved, and at NASA Goddard, I can do exactly that. The opportunity to interview the very people behind cutting-edge space science is an enormous privilege. Writing about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter brings me to the Moon (where I hope to see humankind walk in my lifetime, even if I can’t). I’ll visit Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids as I research the 2021 Lucy mission. I can soar past the boundaries of the solar system interviewing scientists specializing in exoplanets. Though being an astronaut may not be my calling, science storytelling is.

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Liz Wilk: Getting the Picture at Goddard Space Flight Center

Ten years ago, I never imagined where I would be at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Graduating from high school in the far south suburbs of Chicago, I received my bachelor’s degree in history, taking film production classes along the way. After spending a summer at an archaeology field school deciding what to pursue for graduate school, I became aware and frustrated with the lack of educational, factual engaging media in regards to history. That led me to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Science & Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

The Science & Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State University is the first program to offer a Master’s of Fine Arts in the area of science and natural history film. Students and alums work on various projects from blue chip films with BBC, programming for National Geographic, independent films about environmental issues and videos for the National Parks Service, NASA and more. The MFA was founded to teach scientists how to make films in a response to watered down science and pseudo-science programming that became prevalent.

While attending Montana State University, I worked on a multitude of projects from a feature film to smaller documentaries on the wildlife of the greater-Yellowstone ecosystem, geology and more. It was while working on a full-dome planetarium film about gravitational waves when I became interested in interning at NASA. While working on the shoot, I had the opportunity to visit Goddard to film 360 video for the film, Einstein’s Gravity Playlist, where I met and learned about the projects that video producers at NASA work on.

Working in videography at NASA has been a great experience with its own challenges that are rewarding when they are conquered. It is hard to compare to other internships, but doing videography is always interesting. One day I might be interviewing an astronaut, the next day I might be helping to broadcast interviews with scientists across the country, and later that day working on the latest edit of a video we might be working on. It’s always exciting to see what each day brings. One thing I would say to remember or point out with film as part of science communication, is how important it is. Most people tend to only think of science communication as strictly journalism, but there are so many more mediums to communicate through which is why I am drawn toward 360 video and virtual reality to explore how it can be used to communicate in a more immersive way.

While at NASA, I had the opportunity to help with live shots in Goddard’s broadcast studio, and recently finished a video piece for the Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate some of the women who are connected to spacecraft. While working on the film, I met many inspiring women who carry the same message of perseverance paying off.

With only a month left, I will be concentrating on 360 video content for Goddard.