Meet the IBEX Team: Michelle Nichols
Hello, everyone! My name is Michelle Nichols, and I have been the "voice" behind the IBEX Monthly Highlights articles for about a year. Dave suggested that we turn the tables a bit for the September 2009 article. This month, I am the interviewee to give you a behind the scenes look into who I am and the role I play on the team.
I am originally from Minooka, Illinois, a town located about 45 miles southwest of Chicago. Many of my family members still live in and around Minooka and neighboring Channahon. I can claim to know with certainty the exact moment when I first became interested in astronomy - 1980. The significance of that year is something that many readers of "Monthly Highlights" might also identify with: the year that Dr. Carl Sagan's Cosmos series first appeared on PBS. I was hooked from the beginning. His words and images brought science to life for an eight-year old kid in a farm town of two thousand people, as well as millions of others all over the country. I can still vividly remember scenes from the show, including the Cosmic Calendar and how small was the portion of the calendar humans occupied, his demonstration of redshift and blueshift while riding a scooter, and his explanation of the definition of the word "google" using a long scroll of paper, well before that name was identified with a certain popular web search engine. In addition, my family used to stargaze from our backyard - in the 1980s, you could still see the Milky Way there - and I remember seeing Saturn for the first time through our small telescope.
I had wonderful teachers who helped me hone my interests along the way, including Mrs. McEvilly (third grade), Mr. Gaza (fifth grade), and Miss Bennett (seventh and eighth grades). All of them encouraged me, as did my parents. We were also Adler Planetarium members and came here often to see every show and participate in many different events. I can still remember several of the sky shows, especially "Journey to the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy."
While in high school, I attended Space Camp's higher levels for older students, Space Academy Levels I and II in Huntsville, Alabama. I was such a geek for astronomy and space exploration that when the space shuttle Discovery launched on the Return to Flight mission in 1988, I wore my blue Space Camp astronaut flight suit to school and begged my math teacher, Mr. Maas, to let me roll a television into math class to watch the fuzzy broadcast of the launch on television. I cringe a little now when I think about how geeky that really was, but at the time, I did not care! I was interested, and Mr. Maas did not say "no." Aside from my science focus, I was also involved in school plays, musicals, and swing choir.
For my undergraduate coursework, I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I am still a proud Illini, and two events there helped define my future. First, I struggled a little in my math and physics classes, and my advisor actually suggested that I choose another major, that I possibly was not cut out to continue on the path I had chosen. This only served to encourage me to do even better…and I asked for a different advisor. Next, one of my professors, Dr. James Kaler, whom I consider to be a valuable mentor during these years, suggested that I seek out a volunteer position at the Staerkel Planetarium, located at nearby Parkland College. That led to several fun years at Staerkel, helping the staff as a planetarium show presenter and, occasionally, as a production assistant. I later realized that the world's best location to learn how best to be a good public speaker was in a planetarium - because it is in the dark! Through my experiences at Staerkel and working summer jobs at Space Camp just outside Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I finally knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to educate people about space exploration. After graduating in May 1995 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and astronomy, I started a six-month temporary position at the Adler Planetarium in the Education Department…and more than 14 years later, I am still here! In 2002, I graduated from National-Louis University with a Master of Education degree in Curriculum & Instruction. Some of the major highlights of my time at Adler include seeing the 1999 total solar eclipse on the Black Sea, speaking live with astronauts on the International Space Station, and meeting (and educating!) all sorts of interesting people.
I have been on the IBEX Education and Public Outreach team for about two years. In addition to interviewing team members and writing Monthly Highlights, we work together to create the educational materials, such as posters, lithographs, lesson plans, and presentations, that are used by Adler and other planetariums all over the country to support the mission's educational goals and the IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System planetarium show. I consider myself very lucky to have been part of the team in Dulles, Virginia in October 2008 where we initiated, narrated, and produced a live Internet webcast of the IBEX launch activities. That was thrilling, and watching the progress of the mission has been just as exciting. We are all eagerly awaiting the first IBEX solar system boundary maps due out later this fall!
When I am not working, I enjoy spending time with my family. My husband Brian and I like to tell people that we met at a Poison concert in late 1990 - which is true! We have been to over one hundred concerts through our 18 years together, and we enjoy listening to music, traveling, and attending sports events, especially Chicago Cubs, Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks games. We have an eight-year old cat, Chaka, and she still has us laughing at her antics every day. I love to garden, read historical non-fiction, especially English and Russian history, and cook. We are foodies who love to try new things.
All in all, many things and many people have helped to shape who I am and what I do. I love the profession I am in, and I love seeing how space exploration is evolving and changing through the years. I have been lucky to meet several of the IBEX "crew" through Monthly Highlights, and I enjoy bringing their stories to you each month. I am also excited to continue working on the IBEX team as we help bring the science content and results of this mission to a worldwide audience.