Aggiornato il 27 Dicembre 2021
Our guest this month is a public outreach officer and astronomer who thinks science communication is primarily a channel to build a better world. Currently in charge of astronomy outreach at the University of Vienna, in Austria, Anahí Caldú Primo carried out several outreach initiatives in her native Mexico to create long-lasting bonds with marginalised communities, striving to bridge the gap between science and society.
As usual in this interview series, let’s start from your path: what led you to your current job in the public outreach of astronomy?
I originally studied physics because I wanted to become an astronomer. I got my degree and master’s at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and then moved to Germany for a PhD at the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg. Already before, while in Mexico, I had joined many outreach activities, starting from a massive observing event of a lunar eclipse in 2008 and the first “Noche de las estrellas” in 2009 during the International Year of Astronomy. That was my first encounter with outreach: I was standing there with a green laser, talking to people and showing them the stars we could see from Mexico City, which are not too many!
I always enjoyed outreach activities but then during my PhD I realised that, even though research is very cool, it was not what made me super happy. So I decided to continue my career in outreach: at the time I was in Germany and that was a bit complicated because of the language, so I first got a job in an optical engineering system company, then I moved to Mexico to be in charge of outreach at the Institute for Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics in Morelia, Michoacán. That was in 2017 and I’ve been working in outreach full-time since then. I was in Morelia for one and a half years, then moved to Mexico City as Director of outreach at the National Council for Science and Technology for about a year, but in the end that job was much more about politics than outreach so I did not enjoy it as much. I went back to the Institute for Astronomy at UNAM for another year, and now I’ve been in Austria since July, where I am in charge of outreach at the Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Vienna.
The astronomical community is actually very different in the three places I’ve lived in. In Mexico, the National University UNAM is huge: it’s all over the country with two dedicated institutes – the Institute for Astronomy and the Institute for Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics – and there are also other research institutes in different states. These are very different from similar institutes in Europe as there are many more full researcher positions and way less short-term positions: in the largest astronomy institute in Mexico there are around 50 researchers and only about 15 postdocs. It’s a large community and also very mixed: the women ratio, for example, is quite high. Astronomy in Mexico has a very deep tradition, long before Europeans arrived in the continent: people really care about the ancient pyramids and the position of the Sun and the stars relative to the pyramids, so there is usually a lot of interest in the general public towards astronomy. Outreach plays a central role at the institutes in Mexico: for example, the “Noche de las estrellas” usually takes place in November and there are around 120 places in the country that take part, involving not just research institutes but also astronomical societies and local science councils. So astronomy outreach in Mexico is really big.
My experience in Germany was only as a PhD student, so it’s a different way to interact with the community. The astronomical community is very large, it’s a rich country with a lot of research ongoing, but it was also the first place where I realised that groups are built with less senior researchers and a huge amount of postdocs and students, which is very different from Mexico. There are also less women: there were a few women as group leaders, but clearly the majority were men. In terms of outreach, I was at the Max Planck of Astronomy and right in front of it there is the House of Astronomy, a building entirely dedicated to astronomy outreach and education. For me, it was the first time I saw you could actually work in outreach, and not just do outreach as a side thing: this is really great. On the other hand, I think there were not many events at the Max Planck – maybe this is also because of the language so I did not get involved as much, but I recall there being only the Open Day at the institute every other year, and occasional student visits.
Finally, in Austria I’m quite new so I’m still getting to know the community. Something that really shocked me is that, here at the institute, there are six full professors and they are all men: it sounds like it’s from the past century. It’s a much smaller country than Germany or Mexico, but astronomy is well positioned, even though the institute is not so large: professors have groups with lots of postdocs and students like in Germany, possibly with an even stronger role of professors here. On the other hand, they have a lot of interest in outreach. There was a professor who did a lot of work in this respect: Thomas Posch, unfortunately he passed away a couple of years ago so I have not met him but I heard a lot of great things. He had two PhDs, one in astronomy and one in philosophy, had a great interest in the history of astronomy and pushed forward for a lot of outreach here in Vienna. I hope I can continue his work.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges for science outreach today?
In general, I think that one of the main challenges is to acknowledge that public outreach is important: it’s not just about organising events, and it really adds a lot having a science background to do this kind of job. Usually, when people think of outreach, they think about children: outreach is linked to children. I understand why that is and I think children are a very important group to attend, but outreach is much more than that. The way I see it, I’ve worked mainly in public institutions – as science often happens in public institutions – and outreach is about paying back to society what society pays to science with taxes.
Unfortunately not all of us have the chance to follow a scientific career and I think it should really be a first priority to give back in this respect. A great challenge is for other scientists to understand how important it is to be in such a position. Nowadays, with so many channels of communication available on the internet and so much fake news, it’s even more important to give people scientific information.
A few years ago, you ran a very interesting outreach project when you were working in Morelia, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Can you tell us about it?
In all Mexico there are a lot of inequalities, and I would say that Michoacán is a very clear case of this. It’s a very rich state: it’s the number one producer of avocados in the world, it’s a very fertile land and they are mainly exported to the US, but at the same time this makes it ideal for drug dealing. So it’s a region plagued with violence, there are areas where you cannot really go, it’s too dangerous. The capital city, Morelia, is very beautiful and safe, and there are two large universities: UNAM has a campus there, and there is also the Universidad Michoacana. But when you go outside, you really see the reality of the state: most people have no access to these universities, they are not in contact with any of the activities run on campus. So one of my aims there was to find ways to reach a broader audience, to reach people who usually do not have a chance to attend these activities.
The first project I worked on while I was there was called “La UNAM en Tenencia”. Tenencia Morelos is a very poor, marginalised neighbourhood just across the street from the campus. UNAM organises a lot of outreach activities at the university but people from this neighbourhood would not come to the campus. Our idea was to bring activities there, so they did not have to move, and try to build bonds with the community so that later they would feel happy coming to the university. The project was carried out in collaboration with other institutes so we covered lots of different subjects: ecology, mathematics, geography, and more. The reason was to have continuity, so that we could go to the neighbourhood every two months with different topics and activities.
How did it work out?
To let people know that we were coming, we really had to talk to people there and to the local authorities to find the communication channels they use: if we posted about it, say, on Facebook, and they don’t have Facebook or do not follow the institute, it would have been like talking to nobody! So we used the megaphone – well, we gave the information to the local authorities and they used the megaphone, as they do, to spread the information around the neighbourhood. We also went to the local meat shop and hung posters there.
It was a great experience, and this is also because we took the time to really be there. We did not just show up, give a half-hour talk and then leave: no, we really spent the whole morning or afternoon there, every two months, with many different activities. There were public talks but also telescope observations for astronomy, rock samples from geography, and so on. That gave us a chance to talk to the people: we were talking about science, but they were also telling us what they do in their life. It was very enriching. The way I measure the success of this initiative is that, after we started doing this, people from the neighbourhood started attending also the activities we carried out on campus. Last year, of course, activities had to stop because of the pandemic, but I really hope they can start again.
What about other outreach initiatives you worked on while you were in Morelia?
Another project I started there – and then had to “give up for adoption” when I left for Mexico City – was designed to reach communities outside the city. It was called “Knowledge exchange” and aimed to build bridges and bonds with communities that are very different than we are used to in the city. One of these communities is very well known for their work in wood crafts, another one is known for their ceramics. The project had three components: first, we brought outreach activities there, of course, but then we expanded these with workshops with local teachers. In this way, we could build communication channels with these teachers, provide them with astronomy materials and exchange contacts for future interactions.
The third part, which I found the most innovative, consisted in organising workshops with adults from the community. Often people wonder why we need universities if they don’t care about real-life problems, so in this part of the project we tried to understand the actual problems the community has and whether we could help from any department in the university: in agriculture or water management, for example. It was really successful: people attended the outreach activities and the exchange of information worked very well. Unfortunately, after this first stage ended, the pandemic came, so like with everything else, also this project is now in a limbo, but the plan is to go back there and try to bring solutions to address these problems.
In Mexico, most scientists usually like to be engaged in outreach activities. Of course there are always the odd ones who don’t care, but it’s always easy to find people who are happy to participate, and especially students find it very inspiring. So I would say the response was very good. In the “Knowledge exchange” project, we invited people from different departments: it was an interdisciplinary activity so astronomers could talk about their subject but they didn’t have to be involved in the community workshops – they could if they wanted to, but they didn’t have to. This particular project was carried out in collaboration with social scientists from the university, who were primarily involved in the conversation with the community. I think interdisciplinarity is really good in this respect: it brings a lot for everybody to be able to exchange different methods and ways to approach a community.
What are some good practices you could recommend or pitfalls to avoid that you learnt from these initiatives?
A good practice in general for science outreach is to get out of the bubble. This is sometimes very difficult to achieve with scientists: we live in research institutes, talk our language and have problems that are very far from the problems that society has, at least in astronomy. So the good practice in my opinion is to go to a community not necessarily wearing the scientist hat but rather presenting one’s own job and asking about theirs. We are all performing economic activities in the end, research is also an economic activity, and we should also acknowledge the importance of other people’s work.
There are other difficulties that one could encounter, for example Mexico is a very religious country. We should also understand that when we are talking to people about science we should not antagonize their beliefs. It’s very important to bring the message about what science really is, how it is built around the scientific method, but we should learn where not to cross a line because that is just going to close a door and end a conversation. We should try to be there with an open mind, not giving up the scientific ground but also not forcing people into science. Because that is just not going to work.
Are there any authors, scientists or events that influenced you along your journey?
It might be a bit cliché but I used to watch the old Cosmos series from Carl Sagan with my dad while growing up and that always inspired me a lot. Then at university I took a class with Julieta Fierro, an astronomer and science communicator who is very well known for her outreach work in Mexico and in Latin America overall, and that was also very inspiring. But it was not just science outreach figures that inspired me: I grew up with a social conscious background, my dad is from Argentina and he was there during the dictatorship, so I always heard and read a lot about social injustice. This is why I think outreach is a channel to bring more equality in the world.
What does your current job entail in Austria?
At the moment it’s a bit complicated, because I joined recently and there are still a lot of restrictions due to the pandemic. The Institute for Astrophysics in Vienna is located in a beautiful building inaugurated at the end of the 19th century. It’s not in the outskirts but not so central either – it was and it was the observatory of the university at the time – and there are still many historical instruments, including a huge refractor telescope in the central dome. There was also a museum in the building, which is now being renovated. Part of the job is letting people visit the institute and get to know the instruments; there are also public talks, which we started again but still in hybrid form because we are not yet back to full capacity, and we have a mobile planetarium, which is also complicated these days because it’s a tiny space.
I’m also interested in trying new outreach projects, so now I’m writing a proposal to run a project with citizen science and outreach in schools in Vienna. And I always encourage students – bachelor, master and Phd – to take part in outreach activities. Also professors, of course! But I think it’s especially great for students, as they can also gain a lot of soft skills for their later professional life.
What are the most exciting and most frustrating aspects in your job?
The most exciting thing for me is always when you see people’s faces getting excited after you tell them something they didn’t know about science: looking at this transformation of faces is something I love. Or when they see something they did not expect and say: “wow!” – that fuels me with energy to continue working.
What’s not so easy… well, writing proposals is not much fun anywhere, not just in science outreach, but we have to do it. In general, the fight to try, achieve and acknowledge the work done is not easy, having to explain we don’t just play with kids and to show the community that outreach work is important.
Is there anything else you wish to say to research and outreach colleagues in Italy and around the world?
As I mentioned earlier, nowadays we have so much information and so many communication channels available that it can sometimes be overwhelming. Everybody thinks that their research is the best and everybody should hear about it, but I think we have to be open to listen to what people really want to know, and then try to use this interest to broaden our perspective, trying to figure out how to bring people closer to science. One of the greatest challenges for us working in outreach is that there will always always be the core of people who love astronomy and follow all your activities, but we have to think how to reach other people. Think of people who love sports, for example, and find a project to bring astronomy to people who love sports – or cooking, or something else. We need to think outside the area where we are already working.