Campus cool: Meet Dr. Fisher, astronomer and science literacy advocate

Science rules and you should know them, too

Whether you're new to campus, a super senior or a seventh-year grad student, you probably know about Astronomy 122 and the firecracker personality of its instructor, Dr. Scott Fisher. On the outside, Fisher embodies the ‘zany professor’ persona to a T: grand hand gestures, pacing and excited changes in volume, pitch and pace of speech depending on the topic. But there’s way more happening behind that fanfare: Dr. Fisher is a serious advocate of science literacy.

We sat down with the good doctor to talk about his path into science and science literacy that ultimately led him to the university :

How did you come into physics and astronomy?

As a little kid, I was a pretty hands-on guy. I wanted to build stuff. One time I built a dam in the little creek that ran through our town. That worked surprisingly well. I think that I had very strong curiosity. I was looking for something to really stretch that curiosity and physics was it. The last semester of my senior year, I took an astronomy class as an elective, and it blew my mind. I just absolutely fell in love with it. I stayed one more year at [University of] Florida and ended up double-majoring in physics and astronomy. I stayed at Florida for my undergraduate and my graduate degree. I was there for about six years on my PhD.

And after grad school, you went to work for Gemini?

Yeah. During the time I was a grad student, this camera that we built, OSCIR, was so unique that we were invited to bring OSCIR to use on various telescopes around the world. And one of the telescopes we used it on was Gemini. As a graduate student, I got to use Gemini, and when I graduated with my PhD, I was sort of recruited by Gemini to come out there and finish some of the stuff that we started.

What sort of research did you do up there in those 11 years?

Half of my time was dedicated to supporting Gemini and the astronomers that came to use it. One quarter of my time was doing outreach for Gemini, and one quarter was my own research. I am very interested in star formation, more specifically star and planet formation. OSCIR the camera was very, very good at looking at young stars that had very early solar systems in them, and what we studied was the dust, literally the dust in the big clouds around the stars that form planets like the Earth. We made maps of these things and found hints of planets hiding down in there, that subsequently folks have gone back and actually seen the planets hiding down in these disks.

It sounds like outreach started [at Gemini]. What brought you to UO?

I had a lot of opportunities to go into local schools and local radio stations and I started representing Gemini at meetings. I was kind of the booth guy, and I would go and set up the Gemini booth. That’s what made me realize that I wanted to do outreach kind of as a profession. While I was at Gemini, I was sort of recruited to go and do this thing at the National Science Foundation for three years. While I was at NSF, I was responsible for funding programs and basically all of the programs that I funded were educational programs, student research, outreach programs and I got really embedded in that world of science outreach.

When I was leaving DC, a colleague of mine said, "By the way, have you ever heard of the University of Oregon? They're looking for a person right now and you might be good for the job." They sent me the job description and it was 'astronomy lecturer and outreach director' and I thought, "I like astronomy, and I like outreach…ah, I’ll apply for it, let’s see what happens!" I just thought it was a good fit. I feel in some sense I gave up 'the big glass.' But what I’ve gained is access to Pine Mountain and students and now I feel that I can use my outreach skills in classes like ours like [Astronomy] 122. And when I heard about [the Science Literacy Program], I thought “oh, I gotta get my class involved!”

This has obviously been part of your life for so long, and you won a teaching award early this year. What brought you to science literacy outreach and why that advocacy is so important for you and what it means for you to give that to people?

There’s two personal reasons that this became so important to me. The first one is, being an astronomer is a funny thing. I can only give you and example. You get on an airplane and sit down and somebody sits down next to you, and you’re making small talk and like, “oh, what do you do?” and like, “Oh, I’m an astronomer.” The first thing is maybe half of the people think you said 'astrologer.' And I’m not mad at those folks, but it’s a little discouraging where you say, “I’m an astronomer,” and they’ll go, “Oh, I’m a Scorpio!”

And as I lived in Hawaii…I got a wide range of input, and it really bummed me out that a lot of the folks outside of the astronomy world did not know what we were doing at the telescopes. I think I just recognized that I’m a pretty personable guy and I'm not afraid of public speaking and I'm good in front of a crowd, and I thought, “Look, Fisher, how can you help this?” And for me, it was try to use those skills…and so I felt that I became a little bit of a bridge between those two worlds, and I find that personally fulfilling. It makes me feel like I'm doing something good.

Why is it important for you to be advocating for science literacy right now?

It’s extra important right now. Politics aside, we’re in a funny time right now when it does seem that there’s a little 'anti-intellectualism' thread that’s going through our society right now, and that bothers me at a very fundamental level because it’s detrimental to all of us. We live in a highly technical society. Computers are never going away. We’re making incredible strides in science, and not just astro. If you don’t have at least a little bit of an understanding of that science, you can get tricked. And I don’t want anybody to get taken advantage of. I want people to be able to make informed decisions. If you don’t understand the technology in your life, you’re giving that power to somebody else, and that I don’t like.

You don’t have to be a PhD Calc 3 wizard to understand the cool stuff that’s happening and why it’s important to us. I’m trying to make the science relevant to the people in the class. And that does not mean calculating the speed of something orbiting something else. And that’s the thing I think we’re losing, is how is science important to my day-to-day life? Science is so embedded in our lives that we’ve forgotten about it.

Featured image courtesy of University of Oregon Physics Department

University of Oregon