Voting and candidates: the 2021 AAVSO Board election


    The American Association of Variable Star Observers



Voting procedure:

All AAVSO members in good standing who have an email address in their AAVSO profile have been emailed an invitation with a link to vote for up to three candidates. These secure online votes must be received by November 1, 2021, 9 a.m. ET. 

All AAVSO members in good standing who do not have an email address in their AAVSO profile will receive a paper ballot and pre-addressed and stamped envelope to mail in their votes for up to three candidates. Mailed in ballots must be received at AAVSO HQ by November 1, 2021, 9 a.m. ET. 

Thank you for voting!


Slate of candidates for the 2021 AAVSO Board election:

Sarah Austrin-Willis, Virginia, USA

Robert Berrington, Indiana, USA

John Blackwell, New Hampshire, USA

Dennis Conti, Maryland, USA

Thomas Maccarone, Texas, USA


Candidate statements


Sarah Austrin-Willis

I have served on the AAVSO’s Investment Committee for the past two years and am an experienced financial professional. Before my current role as Senior Director at the nonprofit Financial Health Network, I spent half my career in finance/treasury for two major industrial companies and the other half at top tier Wall Street firms advising financial institutions as clients. (For more on my background, please visit My interests include volunteering, training my rescue dog, singing in my congregation’s choir, and participating in the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC).

The AAVSO’s mission to enable anyone, anywhere to participate in scientific discovery resonates deeply with me. Our highly engaged, global membership base and our committed

volunteers are our greatest strengths. As a new member of the Board, I recognize that I would represent the broader base of AAVSO members, and I would seek to understand the perspectives of those who have been part of the organization for a long time. Our members and volunteers are essential to the success of the AAVSO’s new strategy, particularly in support of the goals of increasing the operation’s effectiveness and advancing science.

As a member of the Board, I would also draw upon my professional experience in financial management, general management, and strategic change. My professional experience in finance and my prior work with the AAVSO and other nonprofit organizations enable me to contribute meaningfully to the implementation of the AAVSO’s new strategic plan, particularly the goal of focusing on financial stability. This will require diversifying the AAVSO’s sources of revenue to include more major grants and contracts, as well as growing its membership, in order to be able to further our strategic goal of advancing science and to execute on the ambitious strategic plan more broadly.

It has been an honor to serve on the Investment Committee for the past two years, and I am excited about the opportunity to contribute to this incredible organization in an even more meaningful way. Thank you for your consideration.


Robert Berrington

I am an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Ball State University, the acting executive director of the Charles W. Brown Planetarium, Director of the Ball State University Observatory, board member of the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) Consortium, but most importantly, an active member of the AAVSO for the past 7+ years with contributions going as far back as the early '90s. 

I started my astronomical career as a citizen astronomer, and at the time, I was aware that the AAVSO was known as the premier organization that fostered the advancement of scientific knowledge through collaboration amongst both professional and citizen astronomers.  It was through one of these collaborations that I was introduced to variable star astronomy, which set me on a path to become a professional astronomer.  As a consequence, I am a firm believer in the strong collaboration amongst citizen and professional scientists. 

My current research interests are directed toward the study of short-period eclipsing variable stars.   My belief in a collaborative approach to science is reflected in the members of the research group I started at BSU.  We have active members from majors with varying subjects, from music to astronomy, at not only from Ball State University, but also institutions across the nation.  The strength of the program comes from the diversity and camaraderie of like-minded individuals who share a common goal.  As the executive director of the Charles W. Brown Planetarium and professor of physics and astronomy at Ball State University, I am actively engaged in both public outreach and educational activities, placing me in a unique position to promote the activities of the AAVSO.   It is through programs like the monthly featured variable star program, which is a joint project between the AAVSO, the International Planetarium Society (IPS), and the Brown Planetarium, and collaborative research opportunities, that we can effectively inspire and recruit new and young members of the AAVSO. 

As a board member of the AAVSO, I will work to promote the collaborative activities of citizen and professional scientists, to promote the activities of the AAVSO in the continually evolving and diverse global community, and to inspire and recruit the next generation of AAVSO members.

John Blackwell

I am an astronomy/physics/epistemology instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy (NH) and their observatory director.  Before my life as an educator, I was a software engineer and team manager.  I have been observing variable stars since my college days over 30 years ago and been submitting observations to the AAVSO for that same length of time. Now, I am mostly involved with CCD photometry of cataclysmic variables, solar observing and geomagnetic studies.  For this same length of time, I have been actively involved in astronomy education and outreach working with local planetariums, astronomy clubs, and associations to promote the activity and science in every way possible.  My focus has been aimed at high

school students, some of whom might never take another science course again, as they matriculate and go into non-science majors.  For those who continue into the sciences, I am thrilled!  I am an active member of the AAS, ASP, and the RAS, attending meetings and publishing my work.

My interests in being an AAVSO board member are many.  All of the mentoring and assistance I have received from the AAVSO over the years helped me become the person I am today: really! I wish to give back now and help propel the organization forward.  I wish to focus on education and outreach but also in all aspects of the organization: community, financials, science, pro-am collaborations, instrumentation, you name it.  With over 15 years of management experience in software and education, I have skills in financial management, growth and the smooth running of large organizations.  As the AAVSO moves further into the 21st century, I look forward to the challenges that it faces: the increasing need for dark skies (light pollution), changes in available instrumentation, relationships with professional organizations both in the USA (AAS, ASP) and overseas (BAA, RAS, etc), fund raising, membership growth, and so much more.  


Dennis Conti

I am a retired telecommunications professional and an amateur astronomer with a strong interest in exoplanet research. In 2015, I founded the AAVSO’s Exoplanet Section and have continued as section leader since. Notable accomplishments of the section include:  establishment of biannual CHOICE courses on Exoplanet Observing (200 participants to-date), implementation of the AAVSO Exoplanet Database, participation in a pro-am Hubble exoplanet collaboration, and participation in the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission.

I have worked closely with the TESS Science Team to qualify AAVSO members as official

participants in their ground-based follow-up program, with over 26 AAVSO members now part of that program. I also developed the TESS submission guidelines and software for detecting false positive, both of which have  benefited the entire TESS team. I am co-author of over 25 exoplanet discovery papers and have given presentations at AAVSO meetings and the 2020-2021 webinar series. For my contributions to TESS and other exoplanet activities, I was awarded the American Astronomical Society’s 2020 Chambliss Amateur Astronomy Achievement Award and the 2018 AAVSO ‘s Director Award.

I believe that my background as a former senior executive, as well as my academic background in computer science, have prepared me to help the AAVSO achieve the goals laid out in the recently adopted Strategic Planfrom advancing science to focusing on financial stability. In particular, to help meet these goals, I would:

1.  Support the Membership Committee’s efforts to increase membership to a wider age and diversity group, including a closer affiliation with community colleges.

2.  Promote a greater reliance on grant funding to help reduce the percentage of the AAVSO’s reliance on its endowments.

3.  Encourage greater participation of members at professional astronomy conferences.

4.  Recommend creation of a new AAVSO section that focuses on using techniques such as machine learning to analyze the deluge of “big data” coming from large-scale surveys such as Gaia and the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

Finally, I believe that our volunteers, observing contributors, and HQ staff are our most valuable resource and continuing support and recognition of them will be critical to the AAVSO’s continued success.


Thomas Maccarone

I am a professional astronomer with interests primarily in X-ray binaries, but also with significant interests in accreting white dwarfs.  My formal education consists of a bachelor’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology, and a master’s and PhD in astronomy from Yale University.  I then held postdoctoral fellowships at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, and the University of Amsterdam and a faculty position at the University of Southampton before moving to Texas Tech University, where I am currently a Presidential Excellence in Research Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.  I am also currently on the Program Board for the AAVSO, helping to evaluate the current programs to ensure that they serve community needs effectively.

At the current time, professional astronomers are ramping up time domain surveys, both in space (for example, the recently ended Kepler mission and the current TESS) and on the ground (for example, the Zwicky Transient Factory and the upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time at the Vera Rubin Observatory).  These projects have established that variable star science is one of the best-supported areas for the upcoming decade, and this presents a new landscape in which AAVSO can be especially vibrant scientifically, but also in which AAVSO must find niches not filled by the bigger glass.  These can come through a variety of approachesobservations of brighter sources, use of different time sampling strategies, use of different color filters, and use of less common techniques like polarization and spectroscopy.  If done, right, AAVSO becomes even more scientifically valuable than it has been for the past century, as the number of targetseven bright onesthat need following will balloon far past the capabilities of the professional observatories.

A topic in which I am strongly interested in pursuing is to develop partnerships with facilities outside the optical bandpass.  X-ray astronomy has always had a strong time domain component, and radio astronomers are increasingly starting to look for transients.  Coordination of AAVSO observations with observations of X-ray satellites and radio telescopes has the potential to create dramatic improvements of the returns from these facilities.  Furthermore, there may be potential for NASA to help fund observations in support of satellite work.  This is an area where AAVSO’s distributed set of telescopes can provide a much higher chance of getting good weather somewhere than larger telescopes can provide.  I have served on a variety of advisory boards in the past for radio and X-ray astronomy.

Finally, I think it is important to consider two key non-scientific issues going forward: ensuring a continued pipeline of observers, and dealing with light pollution.  For the former, I think ensuring that AAVSO continues to contribute to front-line science, and encouraging AAVSO observers’ roles in press releases to be highlighted is vital.  Beyond that, I think it’s important to continue to produce expository articles about topics in variable star research and help newcomers to wade through the complex nomenclature and get to the heart of the scientific issues they can contribute to studying.  For the latter, I think a key approach would be to encourage small towns in rural America which are within easy driving distance of big cities to have dark nights for local amateur astronomy clubs, including AAVSO observers.  This will provide them with new approaches to attract people who will hopefully, on occasion, have meals in their local restaurants and perhaps do a bit of other shopping, creating a situation where variable star observing can contribute to a sense of community among the observers and helping maintain struggling communities in rural America.