Donn Starkey- AAVSO Councilor

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Donn and his wife Connie in their home in Indiana. I knew I was in the right place when I pulled up and saw the vanity plate on the car in the driveway, which reads “CEPHEID”. 

 Donn Starkey is partly responsible for me going over to the dark side of CCD observing, after being a dyed in the wool visual observer for a long time. He came to visit me in Michigan just before Christmas several years ago and lent me an ST-6 he had as a spare. I made my first CCD observations that winter, and things have never been quite the same for me.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Donn and his wife Connie in their home in Indiana. I knew I was in the right place when I pulled up and saw the vanity plate on the car in the driveway, which reads “CEPHEID”.

When clouds spoiled our observing session for the night, Donn and I sat down to talk about the AAVSO and his hopes for the future as a member of council.

SXN- Hi, Donn. Thanks for granting this interview. Let’s start with some background information. You are recently retired, but what did you do to earn your crust before becoming a man of leisure?

SDB- I am a polymer chemist.  I worked in the Research and Development for 16 years for large companies in Indiana. Later, I went to work for a small local adhesives manufacturer, which was much more niche in character. I realized I enjoyed the small batch and specialty manufacturing process, so in 1989, I started my own company, manufacturing epoxy and urethane and UV cure polymers for electronic potting applications and the medical device markets. 

Growing a company from just me to 14 employees was a learning experience.  Owning and managing a small company requires one to wear many hats and become an ‘expert’ in many different fields.  I retired in 2011, but still serve as a consultant for my former company.

SXN- So, how did you wind up an observer, member and then councilor of the AAVSO?

SDB- I joined the AAVSO in 1998.  I was chatting with other AAVSO members on the early internet email lists about trying to accomplish photometry on variable stars.  A fellow from St. Andrews University, I think is was Fraser Cain, was also on the list and asked me to help him get some observations of RW Sge.  This ended up becoming my first photometric measurements.  Then there was this dude from the naval observatory in Flagstaff who was lurking in the background and chiming in every now and then offering tips on how to improve our photometry and which targets might be of interest to new observers.  Someone on the list suggested that I join the AAVSO, so I sent in my dues and received a certificate a few weeks later.  I attended my first meeting in Boston in October of 2001.  I remember sitting in Logan airport and watching guards armed with assault rifles patrolling the concourse.  Our world was changing.  

SXN- You’ve been an active observer for a long time now. What kinds of variables and other objects do you observe?

SDB- “Active” is a relative term.  I observe on most clear nights when I am home, but compared to many of the organization’s observers, I am a slacker.  The majority of the observations I have made have been CV’s, mainly for the CBA. These observations are also submitted to the AAVSO. I also observe minor planets for Dr. Raoul Behrend at the University of Geneva.  This is mainly two color photometry looking for surface composition and checking for binary minor planets by looking at the light curves of the tumbling asteroids.  I also have many nights of photometric observations on seven extra solar planets.  Many of these observation sets were performed for students as part of science projects at the high school level. I have over three years of observations on the LPV NSV14284 [JAAVSO paper in progress].  I observe a few eclipsing binary systems for high school students, and I am working on taking spectra of these binary systems at various stages of their orbits to determine the orbital elements for the systems.

SXN- You’ve been very active in education and outreach. Tell me more about your involvement in working with kids and mentoring AAVSO observers.

SDB- I work with Mary Kadooka, Mike Nassir and Dr. JD Armstrong at the Univ. of Hawaii; Manoa, on an outreach program that they run called HiStar.  The program uses astronomy to teach math and physics concepts to high school students in a week long on-campus seminar.  The students in Hawaii use my telescope in Indiana via an Internet link and have full remote control of the scope as part of their week-long instruction.  [4 pm in Hawaii is 10 pm in Indiana]  I work with some of these students individually on special projects by supplying them with observations that they can then reduce and interpret for science fair projects.  I usually have at least one adult amateur astronomer that I am mentoring in the use of CCD’s and beginning photometry.  Most of these adults are already members of the AAVSO.

SXN- What do you think is the organizations greatest strength?

SDB- The greatest strength of the AAVSO is its membership.  The people are what the organization is all about.   The caliber of the membership of the organization is just outstanding.  With one exception, I have never been turned down by any fellow member when asking for help in understanding or solving some astronomy related problem or when requesting some astro-related favor.  I sometimes refer to our semiannual meetings as, “Nerd Central”.  And, I’m proud to be a nerd!  

SXN- Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think is the AAVSO's greatest opportunity for the future?

SDB- I think that the AAVSO has a unique opportunity at this point in time to educate first, its membership and then the general public about the technology behind variable stars.  Training our membership first makes them better ambassadors to teach others.  We need to offer the education to our membership about why these stars vary and why it is important to gather data that is accurate and complete in order to further our understanding of these stars. 

SXN- Being on the council is a serious responsibility. What compelled you to serve on council?

SDB- I felt that my experience and training in business would be an asset to the council and to the organization.  Although the AAVSO is a not-for-profit business, it is still a business.  We have employees, payrolls, bank accounts and must abide by all of the state and federal laws required of any business.  Our employees look upon the organization as more than a hobby.  They derive their livelihoods from it and they expect us to act in a businesslike manner.  We need to run the organization like a business if we intend to survive into the future.

SXN- Now that you’ve been on council for a full term and had a long look at the big picture from a leadership role how do you view the AAVSO and its mission going forward?

SDB- 50 years ago, virtually the entire organization was monitoring long period variables and eclipsing binary stars of one type or another.  The role of HQ was mainly to collect and disseminate data and provide comparison star charts to the membership.  Today, we are also watching extrasolar planets, cataclysmic variable stars, novae and supernovae.  50 years ago, virtually every member was a visual observer.

Today, we have visual, CCD and photoelectric observers.  The role of HQ has expanded to include providing communications between members, on-line data access, education of members and the public on variable star technology, and most recently, a network of robotic telescopes that actually makes and reduces observations. 

The increase in the variety of targets, observing methods has diluted our focus.  Further it has created a barrier between groups of members within our organization because not every member understands the requirements of the observations for every type of target or how a particular target fits into the long term goals of the organization.

We need to make several bold initiatives toward educating our membership and our new members.  Because the stars we study cover such a broad spectrum of astronomy and astronomical technology, we need to provide education to our membership and new members in some form other than pamphlets and text tutorials.  We need mini-courses available as PowerPoint presentations or something similar which truly engage the member/student in a process by which they can learn about the history of our organization, learn simple methods of observing variable stars, learn advanced stellar photometry, learn about the structure of our galaxy, learn basic stellar astrophysics and learn statistics as it applies to the data we gather. 

Teaching these concepts in a go-at-your-own-pace method will reduce the barrier to entry we have in our organization. It will also bring together the membership by putting them on the same ‘basic’ level of understanding.  In that way they can all understand how the observations of a particular type of variable star fit into the long term goals of the organization, and also how the study of variable stars fits into our understanding of the universe.

SXN- I'm beginning to detect a theme here in your answers. Would it be fair to say you are a strong proponent of education and outreach and serving the membership and the greater good, as well as the scientific community?

SDB- I couldn't have said it better myself. Cheers!

SXN- Cheers!

And with that we sat down to watch the final innings of game three of the World Series.