Universe World

A dream come true: communicating the James Webb Space Telescope

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Let's discover how public outreach works for a major space mission like JWST with Canadian astrophysicist and science communicator Nathalie Ouellette
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Nathalie Ouellette

This month we visit the Quebec province of Canada and meet Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette, astrophysicist and science communicator who, among her many roles, is deeply involved in public outreach for the greatest space observatory ever built: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

As usual on this column, can tell us more about yourself and your role?
I’m an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal where I hold many titles. I am the Deputy Director of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets: I run the outreach program but also the institute itself – hiring, budgeting and finances, I help with recruitment, the summer internship program. I’m also Deputy Director of the Mont-Mégantic Observatory, running operations for the largest professional telescope in the eastern part of North America. And on top of that, I am the Outreach scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope in Canada.

Wow, that’s quite a lot of titles! What led you to this position?
I received my PhD from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, working on galaxy formation and evolution. During my graduate studies, I was also running the campus observatory and eventually the entire astronomy outreach program. That’s when I really fell in love with outreach, so after my PhD I decided to see if I could make a career out of science communication and eventually ended up where I am now.

How do you manage all of these roles?
Luckily there’s a lot of overlap. The research institute where I work has a lot of people that also work at the observatory; the observatory also has a an experimental astrophysics lab which builds instruments, and one of the instruments built there was the Canadian instrument on Webb. So it’s very logical that a lot of us are involved in two or even three of these projects at the same time, but it is an immense amount of work.
I manage it because I’m passionate about it and I don’t mind going the extra mile. I’ve always wanted to be an astrophysicist and being involved in Webb is a dream come true! I’m a good multitasker as well so that helps a lot and I have a fantastic team who have helped me manage many of these different projects.

You mentioned you always dreamt about having a job like this. Tell us more…
Growing up I always liked science but also reading and teaching. In my friend group, we would pretend to be in school and I would be the teacher. It’s just something that came naturally to me. I also did a bit of theater, so I like being in front of people and putting on a performance.
When I was in undergrad, I always thought I would become a researcher: my dream was to be a professor with a research team. Then in grad school I realized I love research but I don’t love that you have to publish or else lose your job: the publish or perish mentality, I find very stressful. I was a good researcher but I think I’m a better communicator, and I felt that I could serve the community better in that kind of role. I’m a really good organizer and manager as well, so there are other people that are better at doing the research than me and they can do that part, while I can help by using my best natural talents.

Could you provide some context for our readers about the astronomical community in Canada?
We have a professional society called CASCA, the Canadian Astronomical Society, or Société canadienne d’astronomie in French, because we have to be bilingual. We’re around 400-500 members including many graduate students. It’s a relatively small community, especially when we compare ourselves to the Americans, who are at least 10 times more numerous. It’s really nice though, because our annual meetings feel more like family reunions than the giant tsunami of the American Astronomical Society.
Canada does a lot of international collaboration and is involved in big science missions, ground-based observatories and space astronomy as well. And we always like to mention that, per capita, Canadian astrophysicists are the most cited in the world.

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The Mont-Mégantic Observatory near Montreal, Quebec (Canada)

Let’t talk about the Canadian involvement in JWST.
Webb has four instruments and one of them, the Fine Guidance System (FGS)/Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), is provided by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The principal investigator of the Canadian instrument is the director of both the observatory and the research institute where I work at the University of Montreal, so we’re the academic heart of Webb in Canada. We also handle a lot of the outreach, together with the Canadian Space Agency of course, but also working closely with NASA and ESA.

In your opinion, why is JWST so special?
It’s a fantastic mission for the entire world. It’s the kind of telescope that you get once in a generation and it’s truly a successor to Hubble in that respect, even though it has a lot of similarity with Spitzer as well. Spitzer wasn’t so well known by the public unfortunately. I love Spitzer, it was the first space telescope data that I ever used in my career. But Webb really has the potential to latch on to the imagination of the population.

What are the main challenges in communicating JWST?
I think it’s challenging in two main ways. On one hand, what is infrared, what does that mean? The fact that Webb is an infrared mission opens up this brand new topic to the population: the electromagnetic spectrum. The other one, which is even more of a challenge, is that so much of JWST science will be in its spectroscopy, so you have to explain to people you’re breaking apart the light and finding secret information in there. Those are challenges but at the same time we can use those as gifts to teach new things to the population.

Do people ask a lot about the cost of the mission?
Yes, some people bring it up: why are we spending 10 billion dollars on a space telescope when so many other bad things are happening on Earth? In fact it’s a really small investment when you think of other things like military budgets, but it ends up having so many positive impacts through the inspiration that it brings to the population.
It brings people together, it encourages kids to pursue scientific careers, which is positive for society and you end up having really interesting, unexpected spin-offs. For example, the technology used to resurface the mirrors for Webb ended up being used in medical technology to help with eye surgeries. People don’t realize astronomy has provided lots of comforts in our daily lives, like Wi-Fi or cameras in your smartphones or GPS, and it’s because we’re doing very hard things that are pushing the envelope, forcing us to invent technology we end up being able to use for really good things on Earth. So I think it’s a really good investment.

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Nathalie Ouellette with the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California in 2019.

Let’s talk about your role as JWST Outreach scientist for Canada. How do you coordinate with the international partners and then balance the public engagement locally?
In general, NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) are mostly taking the lead on press releases and images. Anytime something new comes from NASA or STScI, it’s our job to disseminate that through Canada. My role then is to be available for media interviews and answer questions from journalists. It also goes in the other direction sometimes: if the Canadian instrument does something really cool or a Canadian team of astronomers have a new result, then we might lead the press release or we will be very much consulted during the process to bring a Canadian flavor to it.
I do on average two presentations every week to schools or the general public and that ends up reaching tens of thousands of people over a year. I’m there also to support the Canadian scientists so they can talk to the media. Not all scientists know how to talk to the media: some are nervous or shy, they are scared of making a mistake or don’t know what to focus on. So I help my colleagues a lot by providing slide decks and animations for presentations, and I give them lots of advice on how to do interviews as well.

What is the public perception of JWST in Canada?
I think the agencies did a really good job embedding into the messaging from very early on that this is an international collaboration between NASA, ESA and the CSA. Here in Canada we have taken every single opportunity to mention Canada is involved, that we provided an instrument, and I think that message has sunk in pretty well, especially in Quebec. We have the local center here in Montreal and there’s a lot of national pride in Quebec. It’s like a nation within a nation and they’re very proud this isn’t just Canadian, it’s a Quebec thing. So certainly in the francophone media in Quebec that message is very strong, but I think even in the rest of Canada and around the world it’s quite clear that it’s an international collaboration that involves Canada.

Certainly the stunning images help a lot with JWST outreach. What’s your favorite image so far?
My favorite image is The Pillars of Creation, because it was one of my favorite images from Hubble growing up. I grew up in Montreal, we don’t have a beautiful night sky so I fell in love with astronomy through pictures and documentaries. I grew up with Hubble in the 1990s, so to have one of my favorite objects taken by Hubble, now seen in the infrared in a completely different way, it really blew me away. It is still up until now my favorite image from Webb.

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The star-forming region known as Pillars of Creation, observed with Hubble (left) and Webb (right). Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

Is there any special anecdote you’d like to share about JWST communication?
Do you remember, during the first Webb release, that Canada was supposed to present an image during the livestream? I was supposed to present it and they lost the feed, so my part got cut from the programme! So that’s a sad anecdote. We still recorded what we would have said and it’s available online, so at least it exists somewhere. I was excited to show the NIRISS spectrum to the entire world, so that was a little bittersweet, but right after I did something like 25 interviews: I was going from journalists to journalist, from studio to studio and everyone was so excited about the images and the fact that Canada was involved, so I forgot about the livestream accident really quickly. I just felt so re-energized by the fact that all of these Canadian people were excited about this telescope that was finally launched and working.

This is quite an emotional story, but with a happy ending. What are the best practices and lessons learnt so far from the JWST outreach experience?
When I was hired in 2018, when they posted the job listing, this was still back when the JWST launch date was in October 2018, so they had only planned to have me around for a few months before the launch. Then over time it got delayed an extra three years, but to some degree thank goodness because there’s so much preparation that you need to do for this kind of mission, even for the outreach part. For example, I had to redo all of the astronomy pages on the CSA website to bring them up to date. You want to talk about the telescope but the first question someone might have is: What’s an exoplanet? What’s a galaxy? What’s a black hole? They need the basics and you need to prepare the terrain for this kind of mission.
Certainly a lesson learned – and something that I always advise people about outreach management – is to hire someone well before the start of a mission. There’s lots of stuff to do before the mission even starts.

How big is your team working on JWST outreach in Canada?
At the institute where I work I’m the only one who is really dedicated to Webb and paid partially by the CSA, but I have an outreach coordinator and an outreach officer, so two full-time staff that help a lot with Webb-related things as well. We try to talk about Webb whenever we can, not only in relation to exoplanets. Then at the CSA there’s one Communications lead that is attached to Webb and a team of a dozen people on the graphic side and social media: they don’t only work for Webb but also for the Artemis missions, the astronauts, lunar rovers…
I’m the only Outreach scientist for Webb in Canada so I’m the person that’s making many of these connections inside and even outside of Canada. I work a lot with the International Astronomical Union to try and translate Webb resources into many different languages: I also want to work globally to make Webb really accessible.

What do you think are the main challenges in the public outreach of astronomy today, both in North America and globally?
I think that, in astronomy, we’re lucky: we have a lot of natural curiosity from the public. But it’s a double-edged sword, because people invent a lot of fake news. Fake images presumably taken by Webb, which were not really taken by Webb, or discoveries that are supposedly being hidden by NASA, comments saying “it’s all CGI” (computer-generated imagery) or “they found aliens but they don’t want to tell us”.
Our challenge is navigating that while trying to be a source of reliable information that’s still fun. I think that is very difficult in the era of social media and global internet: people are struggling to figure out which are the reliable sources, what is the correct information and we have to find a way to go above that background noise of fake news.

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Nathalie Ouellette giving a talk at Quantino, a high-tech incubator in Quebec City

How do you manage bilingual science communication in Canada? Do you have any special recommendations for colleagues around the world working in more than one language?
Everything related to the Canadian government has to be in both official languages, French and English: that is a legal requirement, so everything on the Canadian Space Agency’s website follows that guideline. At the institute, we try to do that as well even though we’re in Quebec and the official language of the province is only French, but we cater very much to a Canadian and even a global audience, so we make everything in some way bilingual.
If some content is going to be available long term online, like a website or a video or a blog post, I recommend to write it in both languages when you are creating the content. If you do it in one language first and then a year later you go and translate, it’s more of a challenge, it doesn’t feel like a priority anymore. So we try to make it a priority when we are creating the content.
For in person events, it really depends on your audience. In Quebec there is a political sensitivity between the francophone and the anglophone population, so we have to be sensitive to the audience we’re talking to. It’s important to know your audience, especially when you’re doing something in person, but also online.
My advice is to try and be bilingual from content creation, to know your audience as much as possible and to be ready to have people criticizing you sometimes. Being able to be open to criticism, listening to criticism is important and it is usually very good advice in all aspects of science communication.

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Exoplanets in the Classroom resources

Are there any other outreach projects you’re working on that you’d like to mention, besides JWST?
We’re just wrapping up a project called ‘Exoplanets in the Classroom’. We received a provincial grant to create resources for primary and secondary school teachers so that they can teach exoplanets and astronomy. A bit of astronomy is in the curriculum, but even so a lot of teachers don’t even touch it because they don’t feel confident enough. We’ve created eight activities with resources they can print out: we could even send them resources such as posters or slide decks, so they can feel empowered to teach exoplanets and how Quebec is also involved in exoplanet research. Currently it’s only in French but this year it will be translated to English as well.

What would you say are the most exciting (and most difficult) parts of your job?
There are so many exciting parts of my job, it’s really hard to choose. I work for a NASA telescope mission, a once-in-a-generation telescope, so my job doesn’t feel like a job. I can’t believe I get paid for this! I really like talking to the public and knowing what their questions are. I give my presentation (which is a little bit different every time if something new came out, but a lot of it’s the same) but what I really find stimulating is the last 10 or 15 minutes where people ask you questions, because those questions are different every time. I really love hearing questions from people and especially kids because they don’t have a filter, they just ask me anything that they want.
In terms of a challenge, I’m so excited about my work that the line is blurred between what’s my work and what’s my private life, my hobbies and other things. My professional life bleeds into the rest of my life, so maybe work-life balance is a challenge that I need to work on.

Are there any special people that inspired you along this journey?
I always get asked this question and I find it very hard to answer because, when you tend to idolize someone and then you meet them, they can be a letdown because they’re just a human, just a person. In terms of people that I’ve worked with, someone that inspires me a lot is Amber Straughn, the JWST project scientist for communication at NASA Goddard. She’s very impressive, she’s an accomplished researcher and is so great at speaking to people. She’s done so much she could be really arrogant but she’s the sweetest, most down-to-earth person. That’s the thing I like the most: people who have accomplished so much but don’t act like they do. In that vein, John Mather is another person like that: the father of Webb, Nobel Prize winner, yet he’s just the sweetest guy. Anybody can just go up and talk to him, he remembers my name which I find mind-blowing. He’s just really a brilliant man but so wonderful and approachable. Those are the people that I find really inspiring.

Finally, are there any books you would like to recommend to our readers?
There is a book I read when I was a teenager that really stuck with me: “What If the Moon Didn’t Exist?” by Neil F. Comins. It’s a non-fiction book in which the author goes through a bunch of different hypotheticals: What if the Earth had no Moon? What if the Earth’s Moon was farther away? What if the Earth had two moons? It really made me think about the domino effect of the different conditions that are around us, that led to the Earth being the way that it is, and it made me ask lots and lots of questions. I was always a kid that asked a lot of questions, but it encouraged me even more.

Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette is the JWST Outreach Scientist, Deputy Director of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets and Deputy Director of the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic at Université de Montréal, Quebec, Canada. She graduated from McGill University’s Honours Physics program and obtained a Ph.D. in Physics & Astronomy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada with a thesis on galaxy evolution in galaxy clusters.

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Claudia Mignone Claudia Mignone

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

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