Universe World

Astronomy and space on a small Caribbean island

This month we meet Cheyenne Polius, an astrophysicist, science communicator and social media director from the Caribbean island country of Saint Lucia
Cheyenne Polius
Our guest this month is, in her own words, a small-island girl with big dreams. Astrophysicist and science communicator Cheyenne Polius is the president and co-founder of the first national astronomy organisation in her native country, the small Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. Currently based in the UK, she has been working in finance technology since graduating from her Master’s in Astrophysics a couple of years ago, but everything she does outside of work is still very much connected with the astronomy community, from speaking engagements to mentoring, volunteering and public outreach on social media.

In this column, we always start talking about people’s paths and what brought them to their current passion and occupation. So, what led you to astronomy and science communication?
I always knew that I’d have to travel somewhere for university because Saint Lucia doesn’t have a university. Once I decided I wanted to do astrophysics, even the University of the West Indies, which is shared between some islands, only had a physics course with some astronomy modules in it, but not as much. I knew astronomy is what I wanted to do so I wanted to do as much of that as possible. Looking at degrees abroad, it was either the US or the UK, and having family in the UK I kind of gravitated towards coming here. My course was pretty good, it was almost 50/50 physics and astronomy, which is what I was after.
Science communication, well, I discovered that I was passionate about it in my second year of university. I always loved presenting and I loved doing outreach events but I never heard the term ‘science communication’ and the thought of actually sharing knowledge and excitement about science, I didn’t really have a name for it. I just knew that I loved astronomy and I loved talking to people.
I did my first outreach event in my second year of university and it was for children between 5 and 11. It was about all different science and engineering subjects: they had different stalls in a garden, I was on the physics one and just seeing the excitement of these little children! We had slime and I was talking about something like non-newtonian fluids, they didn’t quite get it but the fact that they had slime… they would just be playing in the slime! That was a really good day and I thought: wow, I really want to do a lot more of this.
So I volunteered to actually organise that same event the next year, in my third year of university. That’s when one of the projects for my course was Physics Education and Outreach: it was all about how physics is taught in schools, why fewer girls end up doing physics, answering those kinds of questions and looking at ways to do effective outreach. That’s how I discovered science communication and the fact that this was a field that people could go into and get jobs. That’s when I decided I actually really do enjoy this, and it couples up with the fact that I love astronomy as well, so I discovered that I really loved science communication and I wanted to continue doing that.

The Pitons, two mountainous volcanic plugs on the island of Saint Lucia. Credits: James White – CC BY 2.0

You’ve been living in the UK for several years now, but we’re actually also really curious about your native country. Can you tell us more about Saint Lucia?
Of course! Saint Lucia is a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean. I guess one of our most famous facts is that we have two mountains, we call them the Pitons, the name is actually French. It’s a world heritage site: from afar, they look like they’re right next to each other so we actually call them the Twin Peaks. They’re two volcanic plugs, formed from previously active volcanoes and they’re right up on the coast of Saint Lucia, which is amazing because most mountains tend to be in the interior of the islands, and not so much on the coast. If you ever do visit Saint Lucia, you can get a tour guide to hike up the Pitons. You can also see them while the plane’s landing into Saint Lucia and it’s just a really amazing sight! You can always recognise an aerial view of Saint Lucia because you see those Twin Peaks.

What about astronomy there? Are there clear and dark skies for stargazing?
Saint Lucia is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky because we’re really close to the equator, so we can see a lot of what’s in the northern and the southern hemisphere. It’s a tropical island so the weather is fairly consistent in terms of temperature. We do have a rainy season and a dry season but it’s not anything that’s too drastic. I would say you can find really clear skies most days and because it’s a small island there’s not much light pollution either. In some of the less populated areas you can get completely dark skies and easily see the Milky Way, which is really a privilege! Especially for me right now, I live in London and sometimes even seeing one star from a big city is impossible. So Saint Lucia is definitely one of the best places to view the night sky just based on its geographical location.

Saint Lucia (marked with a red circle) in the Caribbean Sea. Crediti: Kmusser – CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s the status of astronomy outreach and education in Saint Lucia?
In terms of astronomy on the island, I left in 2015 and there wasn’t anything at all, not even in the curriculum. I did all of my schooling up until university in Saint Lucia and there was nothing in any of the curriculum about astronomy. I know they want to change that and they want to develop some advanced courses in the community college, after secondary school, but I haven’t heard of anything changing. This is one of the reasons I started the Saint Lucia National Astronomy Association.
Since then, once I started the association and people started talking about it, there’s been quite a lot of interest because space is interesting, space is exciting, most people take some sort of interest in it. The association’s been growing and I’m trying to keep the traction with that so at least the people who are interested have a place to share their curiosity, ask questions and learn more about astronomy and the space sector in general. I’m also hoping that it increases or sparks interest in people who are not interested in it at all, people who don’t know very much about it, and that it can become something where the population, the whole population has at least a basic level of astronomy knowledge or a basic level of interest, even if it’s not to pursue a career or to take up a hobby or anything like that. So right now not much is going on a national scale, but I’m trying to do my part to change that slowly.

Can you tell us more about the association’s goals and objectives?
The Saint Lucia National Astronomy Association was founded in 2018. At that time, I was a volunteer in the Space Generation Advisory Council, a global organisation that partners with the United Nations to help raise awareness of the benefits of space exploration and space technology to the whole world. Every country has spots for two National Points of Contact and I was the first representative for Saint Lucia, so I was trying to build a network of people who were also interested.
I found a small group of people who shared that interest, people from all different backgrounds. Some of them were engineers, some of them were scientists, some of them were from completely different backgrounds but they all had that interest. While brainstorming different activities we wanted to do for the council, I brought up the idea of having a National Astronomy Club because we didn’t really have that, and everybody was really excited about having a presence in Saint Lucia that is actually our own. Representing the Space Generation Advisory Council was great, they are an amazing organisation, but this is something that is much more connected to Saint Lucia. The reason we went for Association and not Club is just because our acronym is LUNAA which we thought was quite nice, but it’s really just a big national astronomy club.
We have various youth clubs on the island but nothing space related. So the mission for LUNAA is to connect people but also spreading awareness of astronomy in general: anything that is interesting, fun facts, space news and also how space exploration and space technology can benefit the Caribbean. When people think about space they go to rockets and missions on Mars, but satellites – like weather satellites, for example – are actually a really big part of space technology and for the Caribbean’s location, being prone to hurricanes and other natural disasters, that is actually really important to our island and to our region. Being able to spread awareness so people can have a different perspective, so that when they hear space they don’t automatically think: oh, this doesn’t matter to Saint Lucia because we’re tiny and we don’t build rockets, we can’t compete with the bigger countries that are building those rockets and those exciting missions – that’s another one of LUNAA’s aims.

Outreach event organised by the Saint Lucia National Astronomy Association. Credits: LUNAA

What are the main activities of LUNAA?
Right now, since things are finally getting back to normal after the pandemic, we’re trying to get back out there, doing things like stargazing events. We did pop-up stargazing events, just bringing telescopes to a big parking lot for example, for anybody walking by who wanted to look through the telescope. We also want to launch a stargazing training program soon: there’s so much to be explored in our night sky and it’s actually really sad that there’s not more going on because, like I said, it is one of the best places to view the night sky all year round, because we don’t have to worry about the different seasons. Getting people interested in that, being able to take it up as a hobby, so that people can really just go out and explore – once they learn – whenever they feel like.
We really want to get to a point where we’re teaching people who are interested in it, actually teaching them how to use a telescope and how to identify different constellations, different things in the sky, knowing where to look for planets and all that kind of stuff. Overall it’s really just to give people a place to explore that curiosity, but also bringing awareness to the importance of space to Saint Lucia: it’s great that it’s a hobby and people can have fun with it, but we also want to drive home the fact that it’s more than that. It should be something that’s on the agenda for governments and big organisations because it matters to us and will matter to us especially when you think of climate change and the weather changes that come along with that as well.

Besides getting people excited about space with LUNAA, you are also very active on social media, bringing astronomy online on your own channels. Tell us more about this other outreach activity of yours…
A lot of what I do is scattered all over the place! In terms of personal stuff, my Twitter page has a lot of threads that I’ve done over the last couple of years, just explaining different concepts. The first one was explaining my Master’s research, which focussed on supernova enrichment of planetary systems.
There are different audiences that you’d want to do science communication with. My favourite one is just anyone who can read and understand words! I don’t have a specific audience but I want anyone who comes across it to find it interesting and exciting. So I think that’s why I gravitated towards doing it on social media, because so many people would come across my threads and say: wow, I didn’t even know that I would enjoy reading this and by the time I got to the end I was really excited about this topic. A topic that you think doesn’t really have anything to do with everyday life, like talking about stars and young planets and things like that. What really excites me is getting people feeling connected and feeling they can actually understand what’s seen as a hard subject, like physics, astronomy, maths.
Apart from that, I am volunteering for different organisations, doing webinars and podcasts. There are bits and bobs in different places, sharing my story out there, talking about space and how it can help the Caribbean reach the sustainable development goals for a technical or policy audience.

Stargazing in Saint Lucia. Credits: LUNAA

What do you think are the major challenges in astronomy outreach today?
I feel like one of the biggest issues is making people, everyday people feel connected to the astronomy community. It’s one thing to put out some kind of educational content, but if people feel like this isn’t for me, this is not going to be interesting or this is not something that affects my life then they wouldn’t really engage with it. So bringing things down to the level that scientists are people too, people who do astronomy are also normal people, it’s not a specific type of person that does astronomy. I’ve heard a lot of people say: I was really interested in astronomy but I’m not smart enough, or I wasn’t good at maths, I wasn’t good at science, just having that mental barrier before even trying. I think science communication, effective science communication connects the audience to a person or a message that says this is important to you too, this matters to you too.
A lot of what I like seeing in the science communicators that are coming up, especially the ones in astronomy on social media, is that they’re talking about different aspects of their lives and they’re bringing out different aspects of their identity, sharing different parts of their story that doesn’t just have to do with their PhD or with whatever they’re doing astronomy related. If they like dogs, if they like tattoos, anything like that adds to their identity: I’m a person too and that can help somebody connect to whatever they’re talking about because they have something in common and they’re more interested in what they’re talking about.
For me, I’m Saint Lucian, so if somebody who is Saint Lucian sees something astronomy related and hears my accent or they see the fact that I’m Saint Lucian, they might be curious about what I’m talking about. That’s why I’m always very proud to say that I’m Saint Lucian and I always talk about that, because there are not very many Caribbean people that I’ve met in this space, especially born and raised Caribbean who migrated somewhere else.

How does adding little personal details help communicate science?
It’s people bringing out the unique parts of them that actually make them, that just humanises whatever the content is rather than being just an article or a voiceover. That’s not to say that those cannot be effective as well, there are different ways to reach different audiences, but I think if we’re trying to have the widest reach, it’s really about connecting to people back on a human level.
You want to communicate science but you’re talking to people who are just living their lives as normal people, so show them that scientists are also normal people and we come in all different flavours, from all different walks of life and all different colours, all different upbringings. I know a science communicator who has a lot of tattoos: the stereotype is to see that in a negative light but somebody who likes tattoos or has tattoos would come across his videos and say: what’s this guy talking about? He’s talking about astronomy! So that would be something intriguing and exciting and they would actually listen to more of what they had to say because it doesn’t feel like somebody’s talking down at them. It doesn’t feel like I’m smarter than you so I’m telling you this thing, it just feels like somebody’s here to share something exciting with you.
I think that’s the most effective method I found, that’s the kind of science communication I enjoy. My favourite science communicators just share who they are, even some really vulnerable and sensitive things, how we’re all just going through life, figuring it out. So you can enjoy astronomy too: it’s not that, because you’re not a scientist, you can’t enjoy astronomy.

Sunset in Saint Lucia. Credits: Cheyenne Polius

On the basis of your experience, what are some good practices you could recommend or pitfalls to avoid?
Something that’s really stuck with me through my science communication journey is that, if somebody doesn’t understand something, you didn’t explain it well enough: so putting that back on to the person who’s trying to communicate the message.
A lot of the time you might think that a person didn’t understand it because they didn’t have the background knowledge or they didn’t read it well enough, they didn’t listen or didn’t pay attention enough while the video was playing or whatever the situation might be… But actually it’s possible to break down anything for anybody to understand, so if someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, then you didn’t explain it in a way that they can understand.
Especially now, with the pandemic, trying to explain to people about masks, vaccines and all the information that health organisations are trying to get to the public: many scientists say that people don’t understand science, but whose job is it to explain it in a way that they can understand? I saw so many science communicators who were not health officials, sharing their versions and their explanations, and people saying: wow, I’m really happy you explained it in this way because now I understand it, now it makes sense and I’m going to do xyz. That can actually make a difference in people and how they behave.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that, if somebody doesn’t understand, you need to change the way that you just explained it. Try explaining in a different way, try a different medium. There’s a whole viral culture on social media now, things just blow up and it’s usually very short entertaining videos or very vibrant pictures. A lot of it is adapting the way that we communicate to reach different people, not just sticking to the traditional way to disseminate information and then complaining that people are not following protocols, not doing the things they’re meant to do. That’s definitely a big one for me.
Another tip that might be a bit obvious is just doing things that you enjoy and sticking to the science communication and the topics that you enjoy talking about. If you’re in a certain field and something happens in that field, you might feel some pressure to share something about it. For example, I’m an astrophysicist and I really like stars and planets, but when stuff comes out about black holes, I find it interesting for me to learn about but not to the point to explain it to other people. For me it’s interesting but it’s not the thing that I’m most passionate about, and I’m okay with that. Stick to what you enjoy, because if you get to a point where you’re doing something you don’t enjoy then you might not do it as well, and then it kind of defeats the purpose of doing that. It’s okay to have a niche and not branch out outside of that, if that’s what you enjoy and that’s what you do best.

You are also the social media director of Black in Astro. What is that?
Black in Astro is a movement that was founded in 2020 by Ashley Walker. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of talk around Black people’s experiences in different places and eventually it got to Black people’s experience in academia and then to specific fields, specific disciplines. That’s when Black in Astro started off.
It started off as just a hashtag – #BlackInAstro – to share your experiences, your stories but over the last two years it’s grown into a movement and a community where we really want to support Black people who are interested in getting into the field, any astronomy related field, but also aerospace engineering and any space related fields so space law, space policy, space entrepreneurship – it is not just limited to STEM subjects.
It’s about being able to support that community, bringing them together, whether it’s people who want to get into the community, people who are currently pursuing a degree or looking to have a job in the industry, and keeping them there as well because there have been quite a lot of negative experiences. Trying to support people if they are having a hard time whether it be something happening in their organisation, in their institution, or whether it be finances as well, so support with grants and fellowships: these are things we want to be able to offer.
The aim is really just to build a big community of support and have a tangible way of really helping Black people get into astronomy fields, stay in astronomy fields, and if they decide they want to get out of astronomy or move on to a different part of the astronomy fields, actually supporting them in doing that as well. So it’s really grown into a movement. At first it was a lot about amplifying voices – and it still is that, amplifying Black scientists, amplifying Black creatives and what they’re doing in their work and really getting our voice out there, our experiences – but now also actually converting that into making sure that we achieve the success that we can, and that we have the support to do that, counteracting some of the disadvantages that we face just from our identity.

Cheyenne Polius
Cheyenne Polius is an astrophysicist, science communicator, president and co-founder of the Saint Lucia National Astronomy Association (LUNAA) and social media director for Black in Astro. Originally from Saint Lucia, she graduated from the University of Sheffield, in the UK, with a Master’s degree in Astrophysics in 2020. Since then, she has been working in finance technology, using her technical and communication skills as a data analyst. Outside of work, she is still very active in the astronomy community as an international speaker, mentor and science communicator, with a wider career goal of increasing gender and ethnic diversity in STEM fields, especially Physics.

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Claudia Mignone Claudia Mignone

Astrofisica e comunicatrice scientifica, tecnologa all'Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica.