by Kysa Daniels
The switch from astrophysics to academia isn’t as unlikely as it may seem for Dr. Laura Whitlock.
After serving as a research scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Whitlock moved into a number of other NASA positions that used her deep zeal for teaching.
“Working at NASA and being in higher education isn’t different in terms of my passion and love for science,” says the newly hired department chair for mathematics, computer science, science, business and physical education at Georgia Perimeter College’s Alpharetta Center.
At NASA, one of her first big assignments involved translating complex astrophysics related to neutron stars, pulsars, black holes and quasars into language that grade-school students and their teachers could appreciate. Eventually, Whitlock found herself traveling the nation conducting trainings and creating curricula and laboratories for science educators.
Prior to Georgia Perimeter and post NASA, Whitlock spent time teaching science in high school and university classrooms in Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia.
Today, Whitlock still plays a key role in one of her most gratifying NASA achievements. In the mid ’90s, her foresight led to the creation and development of NASA’s award-winning “StarChild” and “Imagine the Universe!” web-based programs, both designed to educate younger audiences in astronomy.
Whitlock continues as project leader for the “StarChild” program, while simultaneously getting acclimated to her position at GPC.
She explains the convergence of her experience as an astrophysicist and educator with wit. “The only thing that’s different is now I have to give and grade tests,” says Whitlock, an Alabama native who moved to Georgia a few years ago to be closer to family.
A major goal in her new department chair role is expanding the number of science courses offered at Alpharetta Center.
This spring—for the first time—students will be able to enroll in computer science classes at the center, and a physics class and laboratory will be added next fall. Additionally, Whitlock eagerly awaits the undetermined groundbreaking for construction of wet laboratories that will enable Alpharetta Center to grow its course offerings even more.
Whitlock recently took time from her new schedule for a quick Q&A with In The Loop.
The term astrophysicist conjures excitement and otherworldly adventures. What do you miss most about your experience at NASA?
I miss the daily interactions with the friends I had there. I worked with colleagues from all over the world. It opened my eyes not just to the frontiers of science, but to different cultures and attitudes and approaches.
What exactly did you do at NASA, and how did that transition into working in education?
When I first started, I was a data archive scientist. I was part of a group that was trying to locate and save all of the X-ray and gamma ray astronomy data, reformat it and archive it so that scientists all around the world would have access to it. When the Web was first becoming a “thing” in 1996, I saw its potential for education and outreach to the public. It was a good tool to explain what we knew about the universe and how we had learned it. My boss gave me permission to develop a couple of websites for that purpose, and thus began “StarChild” and “Imagine the Universe!” In less than a year, my job transitioned into full-time work with teachers and students all over the United States. It was tiring and stressful, and I loved it.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the Georgia Perimeter College family?
It is nice to be in a place where everyone is so focused on helping the students. The faculty is here because teaching is a passion. They could go to other places, but they don’t because they truly care about teaching and helping the students succeed. It creates a bond. It’s nice to be around.
Tell our readers something about you that might be a bit surprising.
When I was a kid, I made a list of things I wanted to do when I grew up. One item on my list was to visit all 50 states … and I have! Now I am thinking about going for all seven continents. Three down, four to go!