Profile of an Astronomer

Tanya Hill

Tanya at the prime focus of the
Anglo-Australia Telescope.

Tanya Hill

Senior Curator of Astronomy
Melbourne Planetarium
An experienced science communicator, Tanya develops award-winning planetarium shows that are screened world-wide.

What does your role at the Melbourne Planetarium involve?

Something I really enjoy about my job is the wide range of activities I'm involved with. My top priority is creating planetarium shows - these are high-quality films that explore the science of astronomy and inspire people to know more about our universe. The Melbourne Planetarium is the only planetarium in the southern hemisphere that creates full-length planetarium shows for world-wide distribution and our shows are screened in over 50 planetariums across 16 countries world-wide. You could say, I've grown from being a scientist into a film director, and I certainly love the creative aspect of making planetarium shows. Each show develops differently and I need to tackle new challenges and find innovative ways of presenting astronomy that best suits the style of each production.

What other outreach activities are you involved in?

Another aspect to my role is to create opportunities for the general public to find out about astronomical events and learn of new discoveries about our universe. I regularly give radio interviews and occasionally make an appearance on TV. I write an astronomy column for The Conversation called Look Up, which has proven to be very popular with over 1 million readers. I write and present the Melbourne Planetarium's yearly astronomy series Discover the Night Sky, which combines science with an interesting night out. Also very popular at the planetarium are the special events we host for observing specific astronomical phenomena such as eclipses.

What first sparked your interest in astronomy?

As a young child, I was afraid of the dark and I'll always remember my dad showing me the stars. That moment changed the darkness into something magical and I still get inspired by the beauty of the night sky. It's got a way of lifting you out of the day-to-day and sparks a moment of curiosity and wonder. We need those moments, because that's when we start doing science - we begin to ask questions about the world around us and are motivated to seek out the answers.

What helped to grow that interest into something more?

Probably my first look through a telescope. My high school dragged a telescope out of a dusty cupboard so we could see the return of Halley's Comet in 1986. But it wasn't the comet that captured my attention. It was my first glimpse at all the stars I could now see, beyond those I was used to watching in the night sky. Some friends and I set up an astronomy club and we had weekly observing nights where we challenged each other to find more and more distant star clusters and galaxies.

When did you start thinking of astronomy as a career?

The turning point that made me consider astronomy as a career was when I was offered a 12-week student fellowship at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). I was in the third-year of my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Sydney and my supervisor for the fellowship was Dr Charlene Heisler. I found Charlene to be a fantastic role model, she was someone I could easily relate to and she was incredibly passionate about astronomical research. That fellowship eventually led to me completing a PhD in astronomy at the University of Sydney.

What was your area of astronomical research?

I've always been fascinated by extragalactic astronomy, which is the study of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. For my PhD I asked the question: "How can we tell if a distant galaxy contains a black hole at its centre?" To find an answer, I put together a sample of galaxies and studied them using a range of telescopes including the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the Australia Telescope Compact Array, the Parkes Radio Telescope and the Tidbinbilla Telescope. I love observing and the idea that I'm gathering new information to better understand the universe. One result from this research was the discovery of supermassive black holes at the centre of five galaxies in my sample.

How did your interest in science communication begin?

While studying for my PhD, I also worked as a Guide Lecturer at Sydney Observatory where I led tours of the historic observatory, showed people how to use telescopes to see planets, stars and galaxies, and gained valuable experience communicating astronomy to a wide range of audiences. I was also appointed the 1998 Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) Youth Lecturer, which gave me the opportunity to promote physics to senior high school students and science teachers.

Why did you choose to move into science communication?

Before I had even thought of a career in astronomy, my original plan was to go into teaching, by adding a teaching qualification to my science degree. I highly admire the teaching profession, and since my very first day of school I have always look for opportunities to share my learning insights with others. It was my high school physics teacher who suggested that I do a science degree first, rather than follow my other option of entering directly into the field of education. It has been the twists and turns, the people I've met, and the unexpected opportunities that helped shaped my career and I feel very fortunate that my role at the Planetarium allows me to combine my two passions of astronomy and education/outreach.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy working with such a diverse range of people - the animators, designers, writers, actors, composers, musicians and sound designers. There's a lot that goes into producing a planetarium show and it's an exciting creative outlet to be involved with. The opening nights of our planetarium shows are always really special. They bring together everyone who has worked on the show and we get to celebrate seeing the end result of all our hard work. It's also exciting to get the audiences' reaction for the first time and to give people a new opportunity to connect with astronomy.

What attributes have you found important for science communication?

Being motivated and enthusiastic is important. It's also necessary to work well with people. Science communication is about being able to explain things well, but a key aspect of that is the ability to engage your audience. Your audience needs to have a reason to listen to you and therefore it's important to always make an effort to understand where your audience is coming from. I find that being approachable is a really good start for building connections.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

I love interacting with the public and introducing people to the wonders of the universe. Astronomy is a great field to work in, as I've found that everyone to some level, has an interest or curiosity about space. Astronomy is able to break through many barriers to science. Part of that is because astronomy seeks to answer some really fundamental questions. It's also because we can all enjoy looking at the night sky. But I think its real advantage is that it is such a beautifully visual science. I've loved astrophotography since it was pioneered by David Malin at the AAO. There is now such a wealth of great astronomical imagery available. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't come across an image from the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. The Hubble's images and others, have a strong atheistic appeal that readily engages the public. On the one hand, they are other-worldly and they capture our imagination about the possibilities of what's out there. But there's also something about the images that makes them feel completely natural; we are drawn in to cosmic landscapes that are surprising in their familiarity. Astronomical images are rarely jarring or off-putting. With astronomy people from all backgrounds can be hooked in with the imagery, and then it's my job to draw them towards the science.

What do you hope to achieve as a science communicator in astronomy?

What's up there and are we alone? Those are two questions that have been around since ancient times and they still inspire us today. I want to give people that spark of curiosity and wonder that I still feel every time I look up at the starry night sky. It's about taking time to stop and think about something that's bigger than our fast-paced world.

I also value science communication, because it helps develop the public's ongoing interest in science and through that, gains public support for funding scientific research. I'm really passionate about making sure the public know of the great expertise we have for astronomical research here in Australia.

See the ASA Factsheet on How to become an Astronomer for more information on life as an astronomer and more profiles of Australian Astronomers.

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