Catching up with Astronomy Intern Andrew Boyle

Astronomy intern Andrew Boyle and visitors in front of the Nevada Railway Star Train at night

We recently caught up with Andrew Boyle, who finished his Scientists in Park (SIP) internship earlier this month. From May to August, Andrew lived and worked in Great Basin National Park supporting the interpretation team and leading weekly astronomy programs. Andrew graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2018, where he double majored in physics and astronomy. After his graduation, Andrew worked as a Science Data Analyst at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at California Institute of Technology.  Andrew has also been involved in Caltech’s astronomy outreach programs.

Q: What was your day-to-day work like?

A: As part of the astronomy team, we held astronomy programs 3 days a week, usually consisting of a half hour long ranger talk followed by an hour & a half of stargazing. Stargazing included operating telescopes, pointing out constellations and chatting to people about what they were seeing through the telescopes. I also had more general ranger duties - I gave cave tours a few times a week, helped visitors at the front desk, and roving [patrolling the trails throughout the park].

Q: What is a project you worked on this summer you’re most proud of?

A: Over the summer I got to develop my own astronomy program, a presentation I gave six or seven times. When I first went into Lehman Caves, one thing I was really struck by was how much sound matters. As you move from a large room in the caves to a tight passageway, sound is more dim and muffled. As you open back up into another room, you hear many more echoes. I really liked how much information you could gain about what’s around you just by listening to the sounds of the cave. I started thinking about how in astronomy, a lot of times for public outreach talks, we just flash up some pretty pictures on the screen. So I tried to bring a new point of view, a new sense, into our astronomy talks. For my presentation “The Sounds of Space”, I played recordings of wind on Mars, the Mars rover driving around on the surface, even a black hole eating the surrounding gas and stars and planets that fell into it. And I played sonifications, where we take astronomical data and convert it into sound waves that help us better understand what’s going on in that data. That’s the thing I worked on I’m happiest with.

Q: How did/will this internship inform your continued studies and beyond?

A: I just started graduate school at the University of North Carolina, and I think it’s going to help in a number of ways. One is getting more comfortable with public speaking. Much of science is communicating results and communicating your ideas to others. I think there’s a shift in scientists realizing how important that is and prioritizing it more… but a lot of scientists are still bad at communicating! This summer has helped me learn better how to more effectively engage with my audience and better share what I’m researching with whoever is interested, and I plan to employ some of these techniques in my professional life, like more demonstrations and incorporating multiple senses as a way to interpret information. Personally, I’m really interested in public outreach. I think it’s really valuable to help share science and get people more interested in science, and why it’s something cool and not just something nerdy. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple years working in public outreach trying to do exactly that - the summer in the Park helped me improve and cemented in my mind that I want it to be part of my science career going forward.

Q: Out of your non-astronomy projects, what was the most fun thing about being in the Park?

A: I love hiking, trail running, and just being outside. The Park is such a playground for being outdoors. I spent a lot of the summer exploring it and taking in what the Park has to offer in terms of trails and mountains. I had plenty of time in the morning to go for a nice long run or hike, go up to see a pretty lake, I really enjoyed that. I also had a lot of fun giving the cave tours and getting to know people on each tour and interacting with them.

Q: Did you have any particularly interesting interactions during your presentations?

A: Well the Great Basin is pretty isolated which is one of the draws of the Park, so I didn’t expect to run into anybody really. About a month into my internship, there was a woman at my first astronomy talk, who came up to me at the end and asked a lot of technical questions. So I asked her, “What do you do? These are really good questions.” She said “Oh I’m an engineer at JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory]!” When I did research at Caltech, we worked really close with JPL, and I had managed a trail running group for both organizations. Shannon (the woman) had actually come to my trail running group a few times! But because enough time had passed and it was night, I didn’t recognize her at first.

Q: Anything else you want to share for future SIP interns?

A: To future interns, I’d say remember to have fun with it. There’s a huge amount of things you can do to make your programs fun, engaging and creative, so really let that creative side of you loose. Go wild with it and talk about things you’re passionate about, come up with cool ways to keep people engaged. In terms of trails, I really loved the trail up to Baker Lake, that whole area is really nice. Also the trail from the Snake Creek trailhead that goes up to the Mt. Washington bristlecone grove, the Snake Divide trail. You’re on a ridge most of the time - you can see Wheeler Peak one way, and really cool rock formations the other way.

Photo: Andrew leading stargazing from the NNRY Star Train.