Sharing the story: Aurorasaurus Intern Vince

My backstory with the Aurora and Aurorasaurus

The moment I saw my first aurora is forever ingrained in my memory.  The Halloween Storms of 2003 left the night skies above my Minnesota house dancing with green and purple lights, and seeing them at four years old as I walked down my neighborhood street, trick-or-treating with friends, left me mesmerized and in awe.  When I received my first DSLR camera as my 14th birthday present, my already-strong connection with science, nature, and astronomy turned to capturing the night sky with my camera. Memories of that night in 2003 came flooding back.  In 8th and 9th grade I truly started to delve into how to chase the aurora, becoming part of online aurora-chasing communities, learning how to read solar wind data, and exploring how to successfully capture an image of the aurora.  In 2015, the groups were buzzing about a solar storm that had just impacted Earth, and according to Aurorasaurus.org, many in my area were seeing the aurora.  Grabbing my camera, I drove out of the glow of local light pollution and captured my first-ever image of the aurora:

A colorful photo of a flat landscape shows faint green and red aurora pillars

My first aurora photo – June 22, 2015 at 1:00 UTC near Baldwin, WI

That night, because of citizen science, I was hooked—and since then, aurora chasing and studying the elusive lights have become a way of life for me.  Throughout my high school career I would drag my friends and family on late-night excursions to see a faint glow on the northern horizon.  Although this meant many sleepless nights for me, the privilege of seeing such a rare and beautiful phenomenon then sharing that experience and emotion through photos was worth it. Choosing the University of North Dakota (UND) as my undergraduate institution, I was an avid aurora chaser. Because campus is located miles away from some of the darkest skies in the country, and at a relatively high latitude, I have a unique opportunity to observe the aurora almost every week (in some form).

As part of an REU program over the summer of my freshman year, I was re-introduced to Aurorasaurus, and immediately after hearing the name, old memories of using the website during my aurora chasing came back.  I reached out to Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, the founder of Aurorasaurus, and offered to volunteer—Aurorasaurus had such an impact on my life as an aurora chaser and even encouraged me to pursue physics as a career.  Photographing my first aurora in 2015, the overwhelming emotion and awe I felt was enough for me to realize physics was in my future.  I felt like it was my responsibility to inspire others in the way Aurorasaurus inspired me.  

I volunteered for the project in fall 2019 and officially became an Aurorasaurus Ambassador in November.  While volunteering, I used my skills in graphic design and science communication to create infographics and media that helped support Aurorasaurus’ campaigns and educational efforts. At the fall American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference, I met Liz in person and saw for myself the great impact Aurorasaurus had on the field of aurora research. I heard from countless scientists and aurora chasers how Aurorasaurus and citizen science had impacted them.  After volunteering with the project all that winter, I was offered an internship for the summer of 2020, and I gratefully accepted.

My Aurorasaurus internship

Interning with Aurorasaurus was a valuable experience that taught me important science communication skills, broadened my career horizon, and deepened my appreciation for the impact Aurorasaurus has had and will have on professional science, citizen science, and the public.  I originally planned to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic my internship was moved remote.  I was extremely grateful for this since many of my friends’ summer internships were outright canceled due to the coronavirus, but because I was working remotely, staying motivated was a real challenge.  Luckily, Liz and Laura Brandt, Aurorasaurus’ project manager, prioritized health and well being over deadlines given the circumstances.  Reflecting back on the summer I realize that my time with Aurorasaurus helped me develop remote working strategies that I will be using this school year while I learn remotely at UND.

As an official intern of Aurorasaurus, although I was not directly working for NASA, because Aurorasaurus is a NASA-affiliated project, Laura and Liz worked hard to include me in the NASA Heliophysics Division (HSD) intern program.  By doing this I was able to interact with the other remote interns working at Goddard, attend lectures for interns provided by top NASA and NOAA scientists, participate in agency-wide intern workshops and opportunities, and provide input into NASA program meetings like the NASA Space Science Education Consortium (NSSEC), where I could share my unique perspective as an aurora chaser and citizen scientist.  Although it’s not as personal as in-person lectures would be, these remote meetings and events made it possible to network with other scientists and students.  Of note was the Coupling, Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions (CEDAR) conference, where as an attendee I learned more about auroral physics and the many ways in which Aurorasaurus has contributed to real science.  Earlier in the spring while an Aurorasaurus Ambassador, I presented at the HamSCI 2020 conference, detailing the aurora camera project that would become the focus of my internship that summer.

Although my internship was remote and a short 10 weeks, I accomplished so much.  My main focus was the North Dakota Dual Aurora Camera (NoDDAC) project, in which I, partnered with Aurorasaurus, my university (UND), and the aurora camera network LiveAuroraNetwork, will be fielding both an all-sky and a north-facing aurora camera at my university’s Martens Observatory.  Throughout the summer I sought advice from Liz and Laura about how to manage the project, seek funding, and communicate my goals and timelines to our partners effectively and professionally.  Project management and effective leadership skills are not taught explicitly at my university, so my internship with Aurorasaurus was a great way to build this expertise.  NoDDAC will be a great project to benefit the vibrant aurora chasing community and invigorate the rapidly evolving field of aurora citizen science.  I will be installing the cameras in October 2020, and will be presenting first-light results at the Fall 2020 AGU conference.

Besides the aurora camera project, as part of a growing movement to make aurora chasing a more inclusive activity, we designed a “safer aurora chasing locations” Google form to collect a list of family-friendly aurora chasing locations.  This form is being tested with Aurorasaurus Ambassadors and will be incorporated into online aurora chasing groups and Aurorasaurus.  Although maybe not obvious at first glance, aurora chasing is an activity that is easier for some groups of people than others.  In the future with Aurorasaurus, I want to make sure aurora chasing, the very activity that drove me to pursue this as a passion and career, can be enjoyed by everyone.

Being an effective science communicator is so important in the modern era of science, and given that science communication and education were some of my career interests before heading into my internship, working with Aurorasaurus was the next step in honing my skills.  Over the summer I created many informational graphics and educational tools to help Aurorasaurus teach the public about citizen science and the aurora.  I also created two blog posts on the Aurorasaurus website: “Solar Cycle 25 is Coming: What You Need to Know!” and “Aurora Chasing and the OVATION Prime Model” (coming soon!).  Writing for Aurorasaurus taught me valuable literature review skills and how to break down complicated physics concepts and topics to a point where many different audiences can understand and be inspired.

Interning for Aurorasaurus made me realize the importance of science communication, public engagement, and citizen science to aurora chasing and science disciplines in general.  It was an amazing experience working for Liz and Laura, and I can’t thank them enough for the support they provided.

My future with Aurorasaurus and beyond

As I pursue my physics major, I plan to continue volunteering with Aurorasaurus as an Aurorasaurus Ambassador. I am especially excited about the upcoming solar maximum and all the possibilities for aurora chasing and citizen science that it brings! Next month I’ll add NoDDAC to Martens Observatory, so keep an eye on the Aurorasaurus blog for a post with more details about its design and installation! 

 

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