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Andrea Schweitzer '90 Organizing a Year of Astronomy

After earning her Ph.D. in astronomy, Andrea Schweitzer ’90 didn’t find a career in traditional astronomy; rather, she went into industry so she could return to her home state of Colorado, becoming an engineering project manager for Honeywell. She later started her own consulting firm, project managing for aerospace and astronomy. This year, her two worlds have melded perfectly in her role as project manager for the U.S. arm of the International Year of Astronomy.

The International Astronomic Union selected 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s observations with his first telescope. Endorsed by UNESCO and the U.S. House of Representatives, the year will be full of both grassroots events and more organized celebrations of astronomy. And then ending event couldn’t be more perfect: A blue moon (the second full moon in a calendar month) on December 31.

“We have more than a dozen working groups and projects in the United States, and I help to oversee that,” explains Schweitzer, who was offered the only full-time position on the U.S. IYA team serendipitously as a previous contract with NASA ran out. “We have approximately 150 professionals who are active volunteers, whom I also help to coordinate and support.”

The IYA kicked off in early January with a ceremony in Long Beach, and it promises to be a year full of astronomical education events. One upcoming event demonstrates a scope that includes both large-scale displays and DIY opportunities for individuals and educators. “From Earth to the Universe” is an exhibition of dramatic astronomical photos that will take place in airports, parks, art centers and other pubic venues in 30 countries. At the same time, individuals may visit the site to print their own high-resolutions images for display in schools and libraries.

Other initiatives include the Globe at Night, a program that enlists people to count the stars at night to measure light pollution. On the final evening of the star count, people and cities are asked to turn off as many lights as possible at 8:30 p.m. in that time zone. “Then kids can do a final star count when it will hopefully be even darker, and [they can] see what a difference it makes when you reduce light pollution,” says Schweitzer.

The 100 Hours of Astronomy program in April is a worldwide endeavor to inform the public, for 100 hours straight, about what different observatories are doing via live webcast. One year-long initiative is star parties, where local amateur astronomers set up their telescopes to allow the public to observe. “We’re hoping to have a lot of final star parties [on December 31] to celebrate the end of the year, [so people] will get a chance to look through telescopes at the full moon.”

Managing such a large effort is a complicated task but one that Schweitzer credits her Pomona education with preparing her for. “One of the important things I got from my education at Pomona was a broad base of training because the job I do now didn’t exist when I was a student,” says Schweitzer. “Being able to work from home and coordinate a whole nation of effort through e-mail and teleconferences and the internet—those tools simply didn’t exist or they were in their infancy.

“It shows how important a liberal arts education is, even in the sciences, to prepare for whatever opportunities there might be in the future by giving you a broad base to work from.”