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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Posted by Aaron Price on June 27, 2012 - 10:49am

I was hired by the AAVSO in May, 1998 as their "IT person". At the time, HQ was running an exclusively Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 environment. Spider webs of copper co-ax cable still hung from the ceilings as they had just switched to ethernet a few months prior. There was a single CD-ROM in the entire building, which required reservations to use. All data programs ran on MS-DOS and the sole file server was Windows NT. The AID was kept as column-deliminated ASCII text files. It was a far cry from the environment I had experienced the prior few years while in the "dotcom boom" tearing through Boston at the time.

I applied for the job because I saw an ad in the Boston Globe that said something akin to "Small non-profit in Cambridge looking for IT person. Astronomy knowledge a plus." It was the astronomy part that got me. I was an avid amateur astronomer as a kid - the kind with Tasco telescopes and space posters all over his walls. But I had largely become inactive as an adult. After a few years burning the midnight oil in the high-energy dotcom world, I wanted a few months off. My original plan was to work at the AAVSO for about a year, relax, help them modernize and then go back to the dotcom world.

That year turned into 14 years. Today is my last day on AAVSO staff. I've had the fortune of working for both Janet Mattei and Arne Henden. Janet was the ultimate people person and taught me about how to network, work with different types of personalities and operate within the system of the astronomical world. She also encouraged me to finish a degree in astronomy and supported my non-IT interests in the organization, including my few simple forays into research and my few non-simple forays into grant writing. She believed in treating staff as whole beings and supporting their interests in the organization, regardless of whether it had to do with their official job title. We have a semi-serious joke at HQ: no one does what they were originally hired to do. A job at HQ evolves around the person (and the technology, membership demands, etc.). I think anyone who has worked in a small office environment will say the same thing. You do what has to be done.

Arne came along, in my opinion, as the right type of leader at the right time. He drove our tremendous technological leaps and was much more interactive with the membership. This allowed the organization to modernize and catch up with the rest of the Internet. In many ways, we are ahead of the game now. Our online tools are quite powerful and stack up well against any other citizen science project I'm aware of. What other project gives the public so much support and tools to not just report data - but to do their own science, pursue their own research agenda and publish in a peer-reviewed journal? Arne has also continued Janet's support for staff development. The entire notion of applying to graduate school was never in my head until Arne brought it up one day. And he was incredibly supportive and flexible throughout the application phase, the actual graduate work and post graduation. His openness and support extended to when my wife had our first baby, two months after graduation. We will be forever grateful.

By far, my favorite part of the AAVSO are its meetings. It was at the first AAVSO meeting I attended that I caught the bug and really fell in love with the organization. AAVSO members are not just incredibly smart and friendly - but they are fun as well. Sometimes the online discourse can be dominated by complaints, but that's a normal trend of discourse that happens in any online environment (something we hope the new forum structure will help address). But in person the meetings are always positive, productive and you leave with lots of energy and ambition. I highly recommend attending a meeting if you can. The friendships I've made at meetings will last a lifetime. And I mean it. I plan to return, now as an attendee.

My new job is at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I'm leading a new team of five researchers and evaluators. Our job, at its core, will be to measure how well the museum is fulfilling its mission - science education of children and families. The MSI is a giant place - both physically (the largest science museum in the western hemisphere) and organizationally (they work with hundreds of Chicago area elementary classrooms, colleges, teacher professional development, etc.). It will be a fun challenge to pick out what works and what doesn't based on empirical research.

I may not make this fall's meeting in Cambridge. The big family move and new job are going to keep me tied up for the next few months. But I hope to make the 2013 spring meeting and many more meetings after that. I also will hang out on the forums and restart my own observing program (I have ~2K observations, split about half between visual and CCD. My next goal is 5K.). You can contact me using the web site's contact feature.

So, since this isn't really goodbye, I'll just say... so long and thanks for all the fish.

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