AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this article, Denise Kaisler was previously referred to as an astrologist. Astrologists do not exist. Kaisler does. That change has been reflected here. My apologies.
Denise Kaisler is a science nerd—and proud of it.
She’s also one of the cool ones. If you couldn’t tell from her spiked hair or celestial themed earrings, one only needs to set foot in the prime real estate of MA 227, where a sprawling classroom rimmed with telescopes and star charts enjoys a beautiful view of the Azusa canyons—as well as the sky above it.
Citrus College’s resident German-bred, Canadian born (or is it the other way around?) astronomer, Kaisler holds degrees from both Canada and the US, and has even branched out so far as to have taught English in South Korea for 2 years.
Today, she’s agreed to sit down with me for a few minutes to talk about her classes, science from a female perspective, and aliens. Let’s get to it.
David Tate: How did you decide on science as your career field? What initially piqued your interest in the subject?
Denise Kaisler: Well, I was interested in a lot of different things in high school. I liked music, I liked languages, I liked English, I liked science, math, whatever. I was just a total school nerd. I was interested in science particularly because of this guy Carl Sagan. He was this astronomer that did a lot of important work in the’60s and ‘70s studying the Mars and the surface of planets and helping NASA with their space missions. He was also a big popularizer of science, so he wrote a bunch of books and he had a series on TV called “Cosmos.”
I saw that and it just blew me away. I was like, ‘Wow, astronomy is the answer to everything!’ Obviously, that’s not true, but to my little teenage mind I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ so I basically got into astronomy because of him.
DT: So you’ve obviously traveled a lot. Do the different influences of the cultures you’ve been around have any affect on your teaching style?
DK: Well, Canadian culture is pretty much like [the US,] there’s not a whole lot of differences. I think the thing that has mainly affected my teaching has been some stuff that I learned when I was in grad school about making the student the center of [the learning experience] and not having the teacher talk all the time. Student feedback, student interaction, stuff like that.
DT: It does seem that in your class there is more student-to-student interaction than usual. How does that differentiate you from teaches who run their classes using just lectures or PowerPoints?
DK: When you do the same thing every semester, I think it’s important to keep yourself interested and entertained as well as help the students have a little fun while they’re learning. The neat thing about astronomy is that it’s such an interesting subject, so I have an easy time hooking a lot of students and then they just do it themselves. They’ll say “I saw this interesting article,” or “Hey I’m interested in this subject, can I do a double major in that and astronomy?”
DT: So what’s your favorite part about teaching at Citrus?
DK: I love the people at Citrus. My boss is so nice, my colleagues are great… It’s just kind of homey and everyone knows each other. You just want to work together.
We have three different ASTR classes, [which] are all GE classes that are transferrable, so they’re good to have as science credits. A lot of times what people do is take BIO 105, which is the biology class with the lab, then take ASTR 115 or 117. Or they’ll take ASTR 116 and then BIO 104, the one without the lab.
ASTR 115 (Planetary Astronomy) its great. It’s kind of the basic introduction and all kinds of people take it. ASTR 117 (Life in the Universe) is a good fit if you’ve taken biology, because then you can use some of your biology knowledge for that—it’s also just really fascinating, you know? The whole idea of looking for alien life. ASTR 116 (Stellar Astronomy) is the one a lot of people tend to take as a last course, right when they’re about to transfer. It has a lab, so it’s a little more involved as far as hours, but it’s great because you get to learn how to use a telescope and have some hands-on experience in the lab.
DT: So is it safe to say you believe in aliens?
DK: I’m going to go with Carl Sagan on this one: it would be super weird if it was just us. The universe is just so big and there’s so much going on. One of the big underlying ideas about modern science is that our little corner of the universe isn’t special, so we think that what’s going on here is going on everywhere else.
DT: Talk to me about your grading scale. The first time I saw it, I saw 80 percent next to an “A” and I planned on not saying anything. You know, just in case you made a mistake I could trap you in later.
DK: [Laughs] When I went to school in Canada, 80 was an “A.” It’s just the way I grade now. That’s true with a lot of teachers—the way you were taught is the way that you teach. So for some teachers, it’s really hard to learn anything new.
DT: Science has been such a male-dominated field over the course of time, and I feel that women’s contributions to science have been marginalized as a result. So as a female in your field, do you feel a responsibility to the women following in your footsteps?
DK: By all means, yeah. Astronomy is not quite as male-dominated as other sciences, so there have been some female astronomers that have been credited, especially around the beginning of the 20th century. So that’s good, but I think women still face obstacles… or actually, I should say people, because there is a leaky pipeline in astronomy, especially when you go from the graduate student level to the post-doctrine level, and then again from the post-doc level to the faculty level. Many, many people drop out, men and women. People in astronomy have found out that the issues that pertain to women are actually issues that pertain to everybody.
DT: How do you think science has changed over the years in its attitude towards women? Where do you think the field is now?
DK: Some progress has been made. For one thing, faculty are looking at hiring practices, whether they should use the number of citations a paper gets [as a hiring qualifier]. Some studies that have been done say women scientists tend to want to be more sure of their results before they go and publish, so it may take them a longer time between publishing, because they’re going over their results very carefully. So they may publish fewer papers, but the quality of the papers also has to be assessed. So maybe not the number of papers but the number of citations each paper gets should be looked at [when hiring].
DT: Well, I’m fresh out of questions. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers?
DK: Yeah, take astronomy! You’ll have a good time, it’s really interesting.