Aggiornato il 7 Giugno 2022We start the new year with an astronomy researcher who is also a co-founder of the very first national Science Festival in his native Romania. Sandor Kruk, now a post-doctoral researcher in Germany, studies the evolution of galaxies and has extensive expertise in the design and implementation of citizen science projects.
Let’s start from your journey: can you tell us what your research work is about and what led you here?
I come from a small town in the north of Romania and discovered my passion for astronomy in high school: it was in the 10th grade, when I took part in the first national astronomy competition. I discovered that astronomy is a combination of physics, mathematics and other sciences that I really liked. I participated in a few Astronomy Olympiads as a student, representing Romania at international level, and then I decided this is what I want to do in the future.
So I moved to the UK to study physics and astrophysics at University College London (UCL). I really enjoyed the observational side: nowadays the UCL Observatory, which used to be in the outskirts of London, is in the middle of the city because London has expanded a lot, and I was fascinated that even from London you could actually observe the transits of exoplanets. Then I started a Phd in observational astronomy with Professor Chris Lintott and the Galaxy Zoo team at the University of Oxford. Galaxy Zoo is a citizen science project to classify galaxies online: it’s the most successful citizen science astronomy project so far, with over a million volunteers over the years. I studied galaxy evolution with classifications from the project, looking at barred galaxies and the influence of galactic bars – bars are a linear feature across the center of some galaxies – on their host galaxies. This is important because our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is also a barred galaxy.
Later I moved to ESA, the European space agency, in the Netherlands for a research fellowship, continuing the same extragalactic studies but with a new telescope: Euclid. Back then, it was supposed to launch in 2020 but it has been delayed, so I didn’t actually get to see the data but I prepared new tools to measure the shapes of galaxies with it. In the meantime I worked on other exciting projects, introducing citizen science to the ESA archives. Now I’m continuing research in extragalactic astronomy and galaxy evolution: activities are ramping up as we get closer to the Euclid launch in 2023, so I’m working on creating new tools based on citizen science and artificial intelligence, and catalogues that scientists will use to classify galaxies, and also on calibrating the distances to the galaxies that Euclid will observe.
Yes, I had to leave Romania if I wanted to study astronomy, and I know many people in a similar situation. Over the years I’ve met quite a few Romanian astronomers abroad, in the US, in the UK, in the Netherlands… There is a growing community of Romanian astronomers abroad, I’m trying to create a network and hopefully in the future we can meet in an annual meeting and discuss how we can bring astronomy closer to the country.
Unfortunately there’s no opportunity to study astronomy at university in Romania, not even at the Master’s level. You can only study physics, there are one or two universities with astronomy as an optional module but for historical reasons it’s still linked to mathematics, not physics.
There’s a small astronomical community in the country with only a handful of places where you can work in astronomy. The Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy is the biggest center, with a few tens of employees in Bucharest and an old observatory in a very beautiful location. I visited them this summer. Their research is mostly on Solar system objects like asteroids. There is also an Institute of Space Sciences in Bucharest, and they focus more on space missions, mostly on developing software tools for space missions: Romania is a member state of ESA, so there is some involvement in space missions at the European level.
Besides astronomy, one of your projects is the Romanian Science Festival, of which you are a co-founder. Can you tell us more about it?
Of course, this is a project that is quite close to my heart. We started it as a group of friends in Oxford while I was a student there. There were four of us discussing how we could help popularising science and technology in Romania. There are not many outreach and science communication initiatives compared to Western Europe. So we decided to start a science festival with researchers from abroad – as I mentioned earlier, there are many Romanian scientists abroad, this is common not just in astronomy but across many different topics – bringing Romanian academics from the diaspora close to the Romanian public: from children to high school, university and even adults.
The first Romanian Science Festival took place in 2017, with three different open-air festivals in three different cities. The idea was that academics from the diaspora would be mentors and train a group of students, mainly high school students, to present some experiments to the public – fun science experiments in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, robotics and more – in an open-air festival setting. Because it was one of the first such events in the country, it attracted a lot of public attention.
We organised it again in 2018 and 2019 – that was the last open air science festival, and we had 20,000 visitors in different parts of the country [these videos show some of the highlights from Baia Mare, Timișoara and Pitești]. All the mentors we involved also went to different schools a day before to present their science and why it’s exciting to work in science.
What are the main goals of this effort?
We have three main goals: to create role models for students, to attract disadvantaged communities into science – so we focus mostly on smaller towns but also people from villages, also involving people from the roma community which is quite numerous in Romania and traditionally disadvantaged, with much fewer opportunities – and finally to present science in a novel way, showing that science is cool. The way I used to learn science when I was in school was on the blackboard, all lessons were very theoretical and teacher-focused rather than student-focused. We wanted to present science in a novel way, through discovery and not through teaching.
Can you provide some context for our readers about the urban and rural communities in Romania?
The country is growing more and more urban now, but opportunities for students in the biggest cities, such as Bucharest, are very different compared to the towns and rural communities in the rest of the country. There is a lack of opportunities for science and the quality of education is generally lower in smaller towns and rural areas. That’s why we try to reach more the small-urban and rural communities.
We were quite disappointed at that time because we didn’t know how to bring things forward. We didn’t know when it was going to end, it was difficult to make any plans for the year, so we decided to move activities online. We were quick and I think this was an advantage: many schools went online in the first few weeks of the pandemic and teachers were not prepared, they didn’t have the necessary tools or lessons they could deliver online. We decided to help schools so we launched different initiatives. One of them was to offer weekly webinars: since April 2020, we produced 40 webinars with 50 hours of scientific content, which I think is so far the largest scientific content library in the Romanian language. Every week, we invited an expert to present their work and their field of expertise to the public and take questions in a live webinar on the Facebook page of the Festival.
We also launched the “Invite a mentor” initiative: teachers had the opportunity to invite scientists from our big community of Romanian academics to their classroom, and we had a lot of requests. We have been to 150 online classes all over the country, including villages and smaller communities, and we have now another 100 requests for the upcoming term. We’ve also organised contests, like the “Viitorul pe placul tau“(1)Design your future competition in which teams of students had to come together with a mentor and think of a problem in society that they would like to solve in the next 20 years: problems linked to topics such as pollution or biodiversity.
How are things looking this year? Are you already planning the next big event in person?
This year we are trying to split activities into themes. For example, last May we had the space month: we invited the (so-far) only Romanian astronaut to talk to the children, we ran an art-science competition where children had to create an astronomical themed drawing for a space suit that was presented at the [UN] COP26 meeting [on climate change] in Glasgow. We’re also running a pen-pal activity where scientists and students have conversations through letters: we pair scientists with a classroom and they exchange letters with each other. We try to be a bit old school in this and reply to children in writing, it’s very nice.
In 2020-2021 we cancelled all in-person events but for next year we’re planning to go back to the physical festival, hopefully we will be able to. We also received a grant that can help us move forward in a more sustainable way for next year.. So far we’ve relied only on volunteering, we’re using all our spare time but we need some fresh work power. We’re trying to grow over the next few years and we plan to apply for EU funding as well.
Are you also in touch with Romanians abroad, now that the festival is also partly online?
All our speakers are coming from abroad, we have a community of almost 100 scientists. As for the audience, all we know is from the Facebook statistics: the majority of our audience is still from Romania but we also had people connecting from Scotland and Spain, for example. These are Romanians who live abroad and found us online, most of our communication happens via Facebook.
What lessons did you learn from this experience? Are there good practices that you developed, solutions you had to find or things you would recommend to organisers of similar events?
Something that is really important when you work with schools is to have a good teacher network. We built ours over the years: it’s a network of teachers who know about our activities, who trust us and who can use our activities in their schools. It’s important to keep a very good connection with teachers, also getting feedback from them on what works and what doesn’t work. We are not educators by training, they are: getting their opinions and feedback is very important.
It’s also interesting to see how things develop. Something very interesting happened back in 2017: we invited a group of roma children to participate in the festival as students, and they really liked it. Then, when we ran the bigger festival in 2019, they came back as volunteers. That’s a good sign.
We receive very positive feedback: people want to have the festival more often, and they want it in person. I think it was good that we were one of the first online resources in Romania, but now there are so many activities online, people start to get tired.
What are the most exciting and the least exciting parts of a project like this?
Working with students and children is always exciting, you can see it in their faces when they find out something new! I never had a bad experience in conversations or interactions with students. The part that is more difficult is constantly applying for funding to be able to plan and run activities in the long-term.
Were there any special events or people that influenced you in this process?
The people who influenced us most are our mentors abroad who have developed a huge expertise on how to talk to the public from their own communities – in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden – and we’re bringing all this experience and know-how back to Romania. It’s inspiring that they always have new ideas, we never run short of ideas!
You mentioned earlier your involvement in another public engagement activity: citizen science. Can you tell us more about it?
I’ve been working with the Zooniverse team since 2014. They have enormous experience in designing citizen science projects, not only in astronomy but across different sciences, and I really enjoy this. Citizen science is a tool for distributed data analysis: we have too much data and we need human eyes to look at the data to analyse it, and it was shown that this is really effective. Now we have more advanced tools, like artificial intelligence, that can be used to classify data automatically, but these methods need to be “trained” on previously classified datasets and can miss some of the most interesting stuff, the outliers and the unknown unknowns in the data. I think there’s still space for human classification in the future to analyse data: we need humans to interpret the results from the machines and the human eye is still much better than a machine to discover unusual stuff in a data set and make new discoveries.
Do you think citizen science is a valuable outreach activity?
From an outreach perspective, citizen science is an excellent tool for informal science education because by doing science tasks, volunteers learn about our terminology, how we analyze data in science, what sort of images or data is available. We also have some “super users” in the Zooniverse project who are expert citizen scientists: these are people who have careers that are not in science but really enjoy science, they’re very active and very knowledgeable. I’m now working on a paper with a volunteer from Paris who is retired and is very active on our projects: he codes in Python and makes new discoveries, he already has over ten publications!
Tell us more about one of your own citizen science projects.
We launched a project back in 2019 called Hubble Asteroid Hunter, where volunteers had to look at images taken by the Hubble space telescope. Occasionally asteroids, which are basically rocks in the Solar system, cross the observations that astronomers are doing with Hubble. If we find these objects in archive observations, we can tell more about their future trajectories and their properties, so we designed this project to find asteroids in the data and it led to several discoveries. Apart from 1700 asteroids, we also found some new gravitational lenses in the data: these are galaxies which are magnified by the dark matter, the halo of invisible mass that we think is present around galaxies, producing a lensing effect that distorts the images of even further galaxies.
The project also gave us an opportunity to study the impact of artificial satellites on our observations: this is a heated topic right now in astronomy because of the recent launches of satellite mega constellations like Starlink, OneWeb and more. The number of satellites in low Earth orbit is increasing exponentially and astronomers are worried that this will affect the observations by producing strikes of light in our images. The impact of satellite constellations on ground-based observatories has been quantified by quite a few authors, but there hadn’t been any studies on the impact of satellites on observatories that are in low Earth orbit themselves, like Hubble or CHEOPS for example, which are below the altitude of the artificial satellites so of course some images will be crossed by satellites. Through this project, we also looked at what fraction of Hubble images are crossed by artificial satellites and quantified it in a paper that we submitted recently.
Initially astronomers viewed citizen science as a purely outreach activity. This has changed over the years: the Galaxy Zoo project has published around 70 papers so it became more and more accepted as a valid tool for data analysis in astronomy.
Even now, with the advancements in artificial intelligence, it is still very useful: in order to have a computer classify your objects, you need to have a large training set of objects, a large data set in which objects are labeled by a large ensemble of people. Citizen science is seen as a valid tool for this. Actually, the Zooniverse has more requests for projects now than before. There are more and more projects being developed to provide large training sets for automated algorithms to classify objects. And on the outreach level, it is seen as a very worthwhile science popularization tool, even more than standard science communication because it’s a two-way communication.
From your experience, what do you think are the biggest challenges in public outreach of science?
The pandemic has shown us how important science is – developing the vaccine so quickly has been a success of science – but then how this was received by the public showed us there are many discrepancies between science and how people perceive science. When the vaccines came out we organised sessions with experts from different universities, from Cambridge and Oxford for example, who discussed what vaccines do, how effective they are and so forth. We tried to push it more and more to the people, but we realised how difficult this is: we mainly realised we spoke to the converted rather than reaching communities that didn’t know about this.
What about astronomy outreach?
I think the biggest challenge is to convince people that we need all the tools we need to do science, all the instrumentation, the space missions. Why we need funding for science, why something like the James Webb Space Telescope, that costs us 10 billion dollars, is important. I think the job of science communicators is really crucial in bringing these ideas to the public because often, beyond curiosity, the question we get is “why would you invest so much money into this?” When you break it down, explaining that all the astronomy and space science activities actually cost you maybe a cinema ticket per year, then it doesn’t seem that much. I think that explaining this in simple terms to the public is important to overcome this challenge, because astronomy is a fundamental science so you don’t see its applications directly.
Do you have a closing message to fellow astronomers in Italy and worldwide?
Thank you for reading so far! There are different means of reaching out to the public that have been proven to be successful such as science festivals and citizen science, and with them we can reach different audiences. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to engage people with science and in science.
When it comes to science communication, I think that we have to think on a much broader international scale and share our experiences. I know a lot of science communication and science outreach activities are focusing on countries where there is already a strong scientific community, like the US, the UK, Germany and so forth, but there are many other countries where this process is still in the initial steps, and it would be good to focus resources and energy there, too. We need to increase the chances of countries that traditionally didn’t have access to science, Romania is one of them but it’s not the only one, there are many other countries that lack opportunities and resources. With the increased globalisation and people moving to live in different countries, we should strive to create a world with people having similar exposure and understanding of science. So, I hope we can create more networks to communicate with each other and see what works in some countries and what works in others.
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