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Interview with a planetarium and observatory coordinator

Ms. Brenda Culbertson is the Observatory and Planetarium Coordinator at Washburn University in Kansas, USA. Lydia interviewed her to find out what motivates her to work in astronomy and the challenges faced by women in the field. Ms. Culbertson holds the distinguished honour of Astronomer of the Year for 1991 and 1994 - awarded by the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomer's League. She designed, and taught at, the first Beginning Astronomer Field School for the Nebraska Star Party (NSP) a few years ago. She was the keynote speaker during the 2001 NSP on the subject of prehistoric and early historic observing methods.

Ms. Culbertson, what piqued your interest in astronomy? How did you begin to observe?

Brenda Culbertson:
"I consider myself to be an astronomer, even though I do not have a Ph.D. in the field. My interest in astronomy began during the years that I was a child. Very few people had air conditioning. My family had none, and we would sleep outside in the summer. As I would lie under the summer skies, I would search the heavens and watch the events going on there. That was when I knew I was called to the night sky."

"Going through high school was not very fun since girls were supposed to take domestic courses instead of science and math, so I did not quite fit in with the other girls. I did not like talking about boys, clothes, or dating. I wanted to discuss space flight, exploration, and that type of thing. Some of my high school friends called me professor and encouraged me to keep up with my studies on my own. A mathematics teacher helped me by allowing me to take math early in my coursework. I would have passed my older brother if I had continued, and that was not quite acceptable, so I left off before getting into calculus."

Ms. Culbertson, can you tell me please how challenging it was for you to secure the position of observatory and planetarium coordinator? How long have you held this position?

Brenda Culbertson:
"The college years came very late for me. I did not have the funding to pay for tuition until I was older. I went to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas and studied accounting. It was something I could make a living doing had I kept with it, which I did not. I was bored so I left the School of Business and headed to Natural Sciences and Astronomy. I had taken so many astronomy classes, I was offered a position with the Department of Physics and Astronomy conducting planetarium programs and assisting in the observatory. The faculty there came to trust my work and depended upon me to conduct most of the planetarium tours as a student assistant until I graduated the first time.

"After I obtained my first degree, I obtained a position with the State of Kansas as a member of the archaeological dig crew at some point in time between my college years. My favorite sites were the prehistoric Native American dwellings. I had found my second calling before long, and I worked at this position until government funding disappeared. At that time I went back to school studying mass media. Mass media was fun, although I was the odd duck since I had a science background. The fun part of going through the coursework was when we were assigned to write articles for publication. The topic I almost always chose was astronomy, and almost every article I wrote was published somewhere. None of the faculty with the mass media department understood what I was writing about. I could have written anything and they would not have known if any of it was accurate.

"While working on this, my second degree, I went back to work in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Washburn as a student assistant conducting planetarium programs and open house viewing. I had no problem being rehired for the position. When it came time for me to go to graduate school, I was offered a staff position at Washburn to run the planetarium and Crane Observatory to keep me. I have been there since."

Sometimes women feel left out in some areas of science; did you ever experience this feeling during your studies and at work?

Brenda Culbertson:
"Being a woman in the male dominated field? I have found no more difficulties with that than with any other area of life. I think women are harder on other women than men are. It's a shame, too, because there is enough space for everyone."

What does your day-to-day work involve and what is it like working with the telescope at Crane Observatory?

Brenda Culbertson:
"My position includes designing and implementing planetarium programs and training assistants. I have public viewing sessions in Crane Observatory one night a week most weeks during the spring and fall semesters as well as special event viewing. I recall one total lunar eclipse when over 300 people came to the observatory. Although they could have stayed home and looked through their windows, they preferred to come in below freezing temperatures to look through the telescope.

"Besides running the planetarium and Crane Observatory at Washburn University, I like to keep myself viewing the real sky. Sometimes I will invite friends to my house to observe with me from my home built observatory, but often it will be just Mike, my husband, and me.

"Our telescope at Crane Observatory is a prize to have. It is a Warner and Swasey refracting telescope with a John Brashear Lens. The lens has an effective aperture of a bit over 11 inches (slightly over 28 cm). The telescope and lens was made in late 1889 and came to Washburn University in 1903. There is a very long history behind the telescope. I believe it is one of the last of its kind still open for public viewing. It has nearly all its original components and works perfectly. Two feature articles I wrote were about the telescope and refurbishing it. One article, with photos, went to the Antique Telescope Society journal, the other article, with photos, went to Mercury (magazine)."

Is there anything you would like to do in the future involving astronomy?

Brenda Culbertson:
"One thing I would like to do is to go to the Moon and observe from there. Other than that, I feel I have succeeded in the field of astronomy."

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Author: Lydia Lousteaux

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