Firing Up Tomorrow's Science Stars

As a child growing up in the city of Cotonou in Benin, West Africa, Aude Alapini-Odunlade “used to look at the night sky all the time” from her bedroom window, she recalls. She says she was fascinated by “the vastness of the universe, the flickering lights from the stars, the silver shine of the moon, and the exotic nature of space,”. When she was 10, she asked for a science encyclopedia for Christmas so she could learn about astronomy. By 11, she had decided to become an astronaut.

When, a year later, she learned that her eyesight wasn't good enough to become a space shuttle pilot, she decided to pursue astrophysics. A love of science outreach, and personal circumstances, caused her to shift gears again, leading Alapini-Odunlade, 28, to go into teacher training.

Learning astronomy

A “great” physics teacher at Alapini-Odunlade’s French private school in Cotonou, who ran after-school astronomy clubs, consolidated this early passion. Alapini-Odunlade received the highest grade in her year for her baccalauréat, in 2001, and obtained funding from the French government’s Bourses Excellence-Major program to study physics and chemistry at the Université Paris-Sud 11.

In 2004, she started a master’s degree program in physics at Paris-Sud. She spent her first year at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom via the European Union’s ERASMUS educational exchange program. Learning new science and integrating fully with her fellow students in a new language was tough at first, she says, but “I knew that as a scientist, English was very important.”

Giving back to her country

Back in France for her second year, Alapini-Odunlade specialized in astronomy and astrophysics, taking courses at the Observatoire de Paris. One of her professors, Didier Pelat, suggested she return to Benin to observe the March 2006 solar eclipse; Benin was one of the sites where the eclipse would be total.

The trip became a pilgrimage: All 16 students in her master’s degree course, five lecturers, and four support staff members spent a week in Benin. The Observatoire de Paris covered most of the expenses and Alapini-Odunlade and her family assisted with the logistics.

Along with their telescopes, the group packed donated science textbooks and several hundred pairs of special glasses for viewing the solar eclipse. “We realized we were going to attract a lot of attention from the local community, and wanted to provide them with the tools to observe [the eclipse] safely,” Alapini-Odunlade says. Alongside her fellow students, she visited local schools to discuss the eclipse. “It was the first time I’d had the responsibility of having to be scientifically correct, and making it clear when I was guessing rather than saying actual facts. It was really good skills to learn.”

Alapini-Odunlade and the Observatoire de Paris maintained contact with the schools they visited in Benin, as well as with the local authorities. They returned in March 2007 for a total lunar eclipse, and again in April 2009 for the International Year of Astronomy. On each visit, they gave astronomy talks and ran telescope observation sessions at schools and cultural centers. “You have so much impact when you go to remote places where they’ve never talked about such science before,” Alapini-Odunlade says.

What started as the impersonal pursuit of good works became more personal when Alapini-Odunlade saw the opportunities her outreach work was opening up for people in Benin. Following one talk she gave at a high school, she says, a few students told her they wanted to become scientists. “The fact that they know they can do it opens up so many more opportunities. It will give them the will to learn science at a higher level, which they would likely not have even thought about, and branch into areas in science which are relevant to their everyday lives and will help develop Benin.”

An international career

Alapini-Odunlade traveled widely during her undergraduate and graduate degree studies. A contact made during an internship at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris led to a 2005 summer internship searching for planets in other solar systems at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

During that internship Alapini-Odunlade met a researcher from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), which led to a second-year master’s research project at IAC, investigating the temperatures of sun-like stars. She also met Suzanne Aigrain, a Cambridge postdoctoral fellow. In 2006, Alapini-Odunlade joined Aigrain at the University of Exeter, where the latter accepted a lecturer position, to begin a Ph.D. searching for and characterizing planets outside our solar system. During her doctorate, Alapini-Odunlade visited and used large telescopes in France, Chile, and the Canary Islands.

Local outreach

Alapani-Odunlade continued her outreach activities while pursuing her Ph.D. As well as returning to Benin, she produced solar system factsheets and planet models for the astronomy open evenings she instigated at the University of Exeter. She gave science demonstrations at local schools, a science club, and a local agricultural show. She also blogged about life as an astronomer for the Cosmic Diary, one of 12 projects supporting the International Year of Astronomy.

Alapini-Odunlade says she would encourage other young researchers to get involved in outreach. The work helped her develop communication skills and caused her to consider how her research impacted society, she says. Aigrain, who has since moved to the University of Oxford, agrees that outreach helps students. “It gives them a sense of responsibility and confidence,” she tells Science Careers in an e-mail. Aigrain supported Alapini-Odunlade’s outreach efforts. “What I particularly liked about it was that it was different, and reached people who probably don't get a chance to hear about astronomy very often,” she says.

Time to settle

However much she enjoys traveling, Alapini-Odunlade decided it was time to settle in Exeter after she got married in 2009 to a chemical engineer based at a local pharmaceutical company, whom she met during her time at the University of Manchester. “If you travel a lot, at some point you start losing a bit of your identity because you become a mix of so many different cultures,” she says. “That’s a good time to stop traveling and to settle and remember who you are.” After obtaining her Ph.D., in spring 2010, Alapini-Odunlade stayed on in her research group for a 1-year postdoc position, continuing research in her doctoral subject. She turned down a 2-year postdoc position in France and decided to leave academia.

Alapini-Odunlade took a part-time job last May presenting planetarium and science shows at Bristol-based science center At-Bristol. Although she found professional science outreach “really exciting,” she is keen to learn how to make the information she imparts stick in people’s minds. So in September 2011, she embarked on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) program in secondary science with a physics specialization at the University of Exeter. “When I was doing science communication, it was great to enthuse people about science but I didn’t know how much they were taking from the message I had passed onto them. The skills I’m trying to get from this teacher training are how to make people learn and remember things,” she says. Her focus is on becoming a teacher, but she plans to continue her outreach work. Alapini-Odunlade also hopes to train teachers in Benin to use basic telescopes, and to set up science exchange programs between schools in Benin and European countries.

Last month, the Institute of Physics awarded Alapini-Odunlade a Very Early Career Physics Communicator Award for her outreach work, which she shared with engineer Rhys Phillips. Averil Macdonald, a professor of science communication at the University of Reading, who was on the judging panel, says that Alapini-Odunlade has in abundance a key quality of good science communicators: visible enthusiasm, for both their subject and for working with other people. “But I think what sets her apart is she wants what she tells people to benefit them. If you look at some of her work in Benin, it is to enable the youngsters to have opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”


This article was written by Sharon Ann Holgate and originally posted at Science Careers.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Science careers


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