PNAS: Mike Sperry, Planetarium Specialist

i-f51c36470f592f58f1a4af84c866a107-sperry.jpg(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Mike Sperry, who works for a planetarium company.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am a Research Specialist/Scientist for Sky-Skan, a planetarium company. The company focus on everything from the software and scientific datasets up to projection systems for grade schools, museums and universities. I focus on the software and datasets side of things. My job is on the science side of science education and science visualization. My main goals are always to be accurate in what I put out there and to help educate the public about science. I have a habit of carrying those over to my out of work life as well. I once taught my barber all about exoplanets while getting a haircut.

2) What is your science background?

I earned my BS in physics from Virginia Tech (2005) along with an astronomy minor. I’ve taken a few graduate level physics classes, and am starting an astronomy masters program this fall. I’ve also taken a few crash courses in programing, since during my college years, I foolishly avoided it like the plague.

3) What led you to this job?

Good luck. I had moved far from home for graduate school, decided it wasn’t the program for me and met my nice young lady, leading me to a frantic job search. As I applied for all sorts of lab tech and entry level research jobs, my Astronomy minor stood out to a recruiter. She called me up and set up the interview, and as it turned out, I got to stay put with a fun job and am now married to the nice young lady.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I work in a fairly normal and relaxed office environment, other than the fact that we have a machine shop downstairs and a planetarium in the middle of the building.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

When at the office, I spend the day programing, reading research papers, or testing new datasets or features in the in house dome. Much of the work I do is collaborative with programmers and artists, so it will often take two or three of us to achieve the goals we’re looking for. When I travel, it’s usually for one of two reasons. The first is for conferences and customer support, either of which usually end up with all nighters in the dome, since there are always public planetarium shows during the day. The second is to meet up with scientist, learn from them what they are doing, what their research means, and develop a plan to get it into the planetarium. Thanks to this job, I’ve had the pleasure of standing in the ATLAS detector, visiting the larges interferometer in Japan and touring the inside of Gemini in January (sideways icicles should have no place in Hawai’i, even at an altitude of 4200 meters).

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Aside from the obvious, like understanding how a pulsar works or being able to do calculus, problem solving ability is the biggest asset of having a science back ground. Sometimes it helps with something simple like figuring out how to reroute the AC away from my cold office mate and towards me, or it could be using on the on screen results to work backwards and figure out where I put a wrong decimal point in my code.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Aside from having a background in science (not just physics, but chemistry, biology and Earth science too) I would say some knowledge of programing or of art programs (photoshop or 3D studio max) are certainly pluses, but not required. The best thing to do is to find your local planetarium and get a job or volunteer there as a presenter. There might be a few positions like mine with some of the planetarium software companies, but many university or large museum planetariums have a staff dedicated to producing planetarium shows, and someone with a background in planetarium presenting and formal science training could be a big asset. There are also some very talented people who do free lance work on science visualization for institutions as diverse as NASA and the pharmaceutical industry.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

How to follow a chain of evidence and understand if an argument is well supported or not. In my line of work, I end up intereacting with the public more than I though I would, and topics like the demotion of Pluto, Global Warming, alien life and the moon landing come up often. I always want to give accurate information to people, but short of knowing the information myself, it’s useful to be able to recognize when an argument is not supported by evidence. Even if you can’t give a good answer, sometimes debunking a bad answer is enough to make someone go back and do the research themselves.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

I gave this advice two years back when I was on a panel of recent physics grads. Learn to program. It will pay off in almost any job you end up in.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

I don’t want to get to specific, but I’m comfortably in the middle of the range for someone less than 5 year out of college with a physics BS, at least according to the APS numbers.