Ellie White: Observatory is vital to West Virginia’s future
As I look back on my high-school years after graduating this spring, I feel that I’ve gained a greater perspective on how I came to be where I am now. I think about my parents, who have taught me what life’s about from the time I was born, and I also think about all of the other wonderful teachers I’ve had through the years.
And I cannot think of my past or my future without thinking of one very special place - the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. For the past few years I’ve split my life between my home in Cabell County and the Green Bank Quiet Zone.
My relationship with the observatory began when I started making dolls in the likeness of famous scientists and selling them at the observatory’s gift shop at the age of 14 so that some of the profits would benefit the facility. Ever since then, my family and I have been returning to Green Bank on a regular basis.
From the time I was 13 years old I have been fascinated with the field of astronomy, and my experiences at the GBO have helped me learn and grow tremendously. I have participated in many of their open-to-all STEM education programs ranging from Radio Astronomer for a Day - where student groups get to operate a 40-foot-wide radio telescope and learn the basics of radio astronomy and data analysis - to the Skynet Junior Scholars program, in which students are trained to remotely observe with optical telescopes from around the world as well as the 20-Meter radio telescope located at Green Bank.
And as a result of a chance encounter with astrophysicist Dr. Richard Prestage, who was giving a telescope control room tour at the annual Green Bank Family Science Day in September 2015, I had the opportunity to work on research projects to optimize the performance of the Green Bank Telescope and to learn more about the wonders of the universe around us by interacting with the scientists and students onsite.
I’m not the only student who has been impacted by the observatory - far from it! Thousands of students participating in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (jointly run by the GBO and WVU) have had the chance to learn about data analysis, how to operate a radio telescope, and how to give professional presentations.
Young women in particular have been positively impacted by the observatory’s long history of inclusivity in its educational programs. For example, Dr. Hanna Sizemore, who was born and raised in West Virginia, got her start in astronomy by working as a student intern at the GBO when she was 15 - and she is now a senior scientist at Planetary Science Institute and an adjunct researcher at the GBO working on various NASA projects.
Stories like mine, and like those of Dr. Sizemore and the PSC students, are happening every day at the Green Bank Observatory. I am writing this article to tell you, as fellow residents of West Virginia, about this amazing treasure we have right here in our own backyard so that you, your children or grandchildren can benefit from the wonders that this facility has to offer for students and visitors of all ages.
While it may seem that the observatory may only appeal to science and technology-minded folks, in fact this is far from the truth. The observatory has had a profound impact on people from all walks of life, from artists and writers to welders and mechanics. People at the observatory go out of their way to mentor students of all ages and interests, sharing their skills and imparting the joy of learning, problem-solving and hard work with the next generation of innovators.
Everyone I have ever met who has visited the observatory for the first time comes back amazed at the beauty of the facility, the vast scope of the research that is being done there, and delighted at the welcoming and extremely knowledgeable staff. I hope that you too will investigate what the observatory has to offer. A visit to the facility is an inspiring, and for many, a life-changing experience.
Despite its tremendous importance, the Green Bank Observatory has recently been facing potential funding cuts from the National Science Foundation. I urge you, if you feel strongly about the observatory’s vitality to our state, please raise your voice and let your representatives and the NSF know that the Green Bank Observatory is vital for the future of West Virginia.
As I start my journey at Marshall University this fall, I hope to continue to work closely with the observatory to help students in our state and region to find their passions and reach for the stars.
Ellie White is a resident of Barboursville.