Interning at Adler: Alyssa Hui takes on astrojournalism

September 15, 2014

This summer, a CSP scholar earned a highly selective internship at the Adler Planetarium, where she spent eight weeks mixing two unlikely fields: journalism and astronomy.  But Alyssa did not merely straddle the gap between the arts and sciences; her daily projects, which involved transmitting research into articles for popular consumption, also connected the realm of scientific inquiry to the public interest. Her efforts to make astronomy’s groundbreaking insights more accessible to Adler’s visitors contribute to a broader public engagement enterprise called Citizen Science. The words that follow are an account of this unique and incisive young woman and what she accomplished at her equally unique summer internship.

            Mention sun spots or Alyssa Hui, Adler Internexoplanets; her eyes light up. Mention her two sisters Kayla and Jacqueline - sources of unfiltered, constant inspiration - and watch the corners of her mouth rise and a grin emerge. My message is simple: Alyssa Hui is the sort of Collegiate Scholar whose entire demeanor is set to full-shine 24/7. In turn, she has the effect of visibly brightening the faces of those around her in seamless, contagious transmission. Though her frame is small (Alyssa is a committed cross country runner), her distinct optimism fills the room. Alyssa attributes this confident edge to her family. Raised primarily by her grandmother who, though she struggled with English worked hard and encouraged her three granddaughters to pursue esteemed Chicago Public Schools, Alyssa felt considerably shy and isolated growing up in an unconventional background. But her older sisters persistently pushed her to have pride and to be bold – both in school and in her social circles. They have since continued to stoke the embers of confidence that brought Alyssa into the Collegiate Scholars and the Adler Planetarium Internship Program.

            This summer, Alyssa performed a novel function as an astro-journalist, an internship opportunity she discovered through one of the Collegiate Scholars monthly newsletters. When she wasn’t doing research and writing, Alyssa was dabbling in web design, filming and video editing, and communicating her research to museum guests. The appeal of the internship, she says, was the creativity and flexibility it gave students. Interns were encouraged to indulge in a wide array of transferable skills, develop those skills, and share them with guests and other interns. In that way, Alyssa formed a necessary and often missing link in the chain that connects scientists and the public. Choosing research topics that were both relevant and interesting to a wider community, she said, was difficult but gratifying. Equipped with the freedom to determine the structure and length of articles, Alyssa focused on learning how to put scientists’ research into her own words, words that would reach broad audiences who, like her, had little or no previous experience with the topics.

After working in the Space Visualization Lab, an exhibit involving software that provides users with estimates of the time it would take to travel via spacecraft to planets in other solar systems, Alyssa discovered her favorite topic: exoplanets. In her blog post on the topic, she describes how citizens are invited to use data gathered from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft to identify patterns in the light curves from deep space that mark the presence of distant planets in other galaxies.

“The question was always, ‘How do I get people to pay attention to my writing?’ This wasn’t a class. There was no grade, essay prompt, or a mandatory 5 paragraph structure. But I overcame it because it brought out some of my best skills – leadership and time management.”

            Inspiration from the museum’s labs would later beget a more in-depth research process. Alyssa browsed and later closely examined specific articles on Zuniverse to explore topics further, compile both experiments and scattered research into blog posts, and later share her posts with Adler visitors on an iPad. Alyssa became very comfortable with giving group presentations, noting that her interactions with TAs and faculty at the University of Chicago had prepared her to confidently engage others and work with a diverse group of interns from different high schools around the city.

Over the summer, she continued taking classes at CSP while interning at Adler. Initially, she did not believe reconciling the two commitments was possible nor did she want to leave the CSP program, even for one summer. “I wanted to stay part of the CSP family,” she said fervently, recalling the challenges of negotiating the two. Alyssa later found that the two programs were actually mutually compatible: having a few days in the classroom would inform her work at the museum with a different network of individuals, and vice versa. Beyond doubt, she has clearly sought diversity and community across multiple dimensions of her life.

            During our interview, Alyssa dutifully sipped from a large glass water bottle to hydrate for an evening run while thinking deeply about how to explain where the internship fits into the broader contours of her life’s path. In doing so, she described herself as a “floater”. But Alyssa floats not in a state of couch surfing or transient indecisiveness, but in a different sense, that of acting on a deep, internal drive to constantly seek new groups of people and different networks to experience rather than sticking to one clique at Lincoln Park High School. She realized early on to keep pushing the outer bounds of the circle of individuals who inspire her. The internship opened up yet another diverse network of individuals thrown together for a summer.  Taking in 16 highly motivated interns every year to work across a broad spectrum of program areas and interests, Alyssa described the Adler interns as having shared a singular mentality: “We’re here. We’re in this together. Let’s really engage each other.”

When in need of inspiration during the writing or editing process, Alyssa and her fellow interns would frequently pace the exhibit halls of the museum or sit back and star gaze through the beveled glass of the Dome, soaking in the view from the world’s highest resolution digital theater powered by a supercomputer and 20 military-grade projectors. The theater gives guests immersive galaxy tours in real time and with an eye-wateringly intense resolution.

            Immersed in such an engaging, collaborative environment, Alyssa independently identified important projects to execute at the Adler Planetarium. For example, when she found limited information on the Planetarium’s website regarding the interns’ work or links to social media, she thought, “People need to know what we’re doing.” Rather than voicing concern about it to her supervisor, Alyssa immediately decided to design and take on the project herself. She and the other interns were given the independence and responsibility to coordinate such projects and activities among themselves.  Working closely with another intern from a neighboring high school, Alyssa was tasked with creating the layout, content, quotes, and pictures for the Adler Star Spread magazine. She also created and edited a video showcasing Adler’s summer programs, which tasked her to incorporate all of the interns’ work in a comprehensive, yet simultaneously concise way. The first cut was about nine minutes long; her supervisor challenged Alyssa to shorten it to two and a half minutes. Alyssa struggled to cut what she knew was great material but found the process of editing and shaping the video to be invigorating.

            Altogether, Alyssa’s experience at the Adler Planetarium shows her ability to excel across varied social environments and untapped skill sets, bringing the same compassionate energy to each one. “If I had one word for the experience, it would be ‘meaningful’. I got the opportunity to hang out in a museum every day, where I met new people, explored topics I’d never been exposed to before, and learned more about myself and my skillset.” We’re excited to see what Alyssa does next.

Find and read Alyssa’s articles here: http://adlerastrojournalists.wordpress.com/

For more information regarding the Adler Internship program and the work accomplished by previous interns: http://adlerinterns.weebly.com