- Press Release
- Oct 31, 2023
American Association of Variable Star Observers Names New Director
Citizen science. Crowdsourcing. Data mining. The talk of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and universities worldwide, these activities were pioneered by a 103-year-old network of astronomy enthusiasts. That organization, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), “is providing key pieces” to the biggest puzzles in astronomy, says educator and researcher Styliani (Stella) Kafka, who will become the organization’s sixth director next February. According to Dr. Kafka, “variable stars are front and center” when it comes to finding new solar systems or to measuring the “dark energy” that powers the universe’s expansion.
Headquartered in Cambridge, MA, the AAVSO coordinates the activities of nearly 1,000 active astronomers, gathering over a million observations yearly from these citizen-scientists — many of whom are self-taught amateurs with backyard telescopes. The resulting database of over 26 million observations is used by hundreds of educators and research scientists annually. In turn, these investigators are shedding new light on some of the biggest questions in science — questions that range from the universe’s long-term fate (will it expand ever-faster until every galaxy recedes from view?) to the likelihood of life on planets orbiting other stars.
A graduate of the University of Athens and Indiana University, Dr. Kafka will lead the AAVSO even farther into a brave new world — a world where digital technology has enabled backyard astronomers to point the way for billion-dollar space missions. “She’s the ideal person for taking the organization to the next level,” says Arne Henden, the AAVSO’s outgoing director, of his successor: “She has the ability to work with the professional and amateur communities both.”
First as a student and then as a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Kafka has investigated some of the universe’s most dynamic phenomena. Case in point: the ominously named cataclysmic variables. In these cosmic duets, one star’s gravity captures part of another star’s atmosphere, leading to sporadic but explosive outbursts of matter and radiation. These outbreaks of stellar cannibalism can erupt overnight, and the AAVSO’s global network of active observers has enabled professional astronomers — even those using the Hubble Space Telescope — to catch the culprits in the act. Coordinating such networks and curating their data is so vital that NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation regularly support the AAVSO with research grants.
“We are doing a lot more today than we did ten or twenty years ago,” says Dr. Henden, thanks to the AAVSO’s talented staff, generous benefactors, and tireless observers. That said, the outgoing and incoming directors both hope that the organization can make even greater strides, both in the use of technology and in supporting K-12 education. “Astronomy is ideal for bringing science to younger folks,” says Henden. Dr. Kafka concurs: “We would like to have a bigger presence in the classroom.” Smartphone “apps” could enable students and teachers to learn astronomy while keeping abreast of stellar explosions that can be seen with binoculars or even the unaided eye. Meanwhile, online communications can enlarge the AAVSO’s already robust tradition of mentorship — of experienced observers training new citizen-scientists to acquire or analyze astronomical data.
“The AAVSO is more than an astronomy club,” says Kafka, “It is a community of astro-enthusiasts who are curious about the mechanics of the night sky, and it is an essential support network for scientists trying to solve fundamental questions in astrophysics.”
Elizabeth O. Waagen