Searching for the Stars: Erin Lippitt, Astrophysicist, Educator, GTP Teaching Assistant
A key element of the Global Teaching Project’s blended learning model is the extensive tutoring provided by college STEM majors from leading universities around the country, such as Yale, the University of Virginia, Harvard, MIT, and Columbia. These Teaching Assistants work with students multiple times per week by synchronous video conference, as well as at the Global Teaching Project’s residential programs held throughout the year at Mississippi’s flagship universities.
Erin Lippitt, a 2022 Yale graduate, joined the Global Teaching Project in the Summer of 2020 as an AP Physics 1 Teaching Assistant. She has also traveled to Mississippi numerous times to attend our in-person residential programs. Throughout her tenure, Erin has been a steady and grounding force for our program, and an extraordinary role model for our students.
Erin recently worked as a “Scientist in Parks” intern at Great Basin National Park in Nevada and shared the following essay with us about her time there.
I fell in love with astronomy not by experiencing a dark night sky myself, but through science outreach videos I saw on tv and YouTube. Growing up in the city of Albany, New York, we didn’t have more than a few dozen visible stars on a clear night. Those videos were what inspired me to learn all I could about outer space. I was supported by many incredible STEM teachers in my urban public schools. With their help, I completed 5 AP and IB science and math courses, and an innovative engineering program. Those teachers and opportunities made me feel like my dream of becoming an astrophysicist was within reach.
In college, I dove right into my Astrophysics major. Then, not even two years in, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a pause. I found myself looking for remote summer opportunities as other summer research plans fell apart. Luckily, I found the Global Teaching Project. What began as just a last-minute opportunity ultimately reminded me of the passion I have for education. I found joy and purpose in teaching.
I slowly concluded that a career in astrophysics research was not going to be as fulfilling to me as one where I got to combine astronomy and education. I got to be in the first cohort of the Education Studies certificate program at Yale. What I was learning through my new course work was supported by my practical teaching experiences with GTP. I graduated from Yale in 2022 with my B.S. in astrophysics and my certificate in education studies.
“Luckily, I found the Global Teaching Project. What began as just a last-minute opportunity ultimately reminded me of the passion I have for education.”
With a general idea of my new career interests, I began looking for post-graduate opportunities. I wanted to reconnect with my initial sense of wonder about space and the joy for learning that it inspired in me. I wanted to do similar science communication work to the videos that I grew up watching. And I decided that I needed to finally spend some quality time with a dark night sky.
I learned about Scientists in Parks, an AmeriCorps program that would allow me to do all of these things. The program offers short term placements at national park sites in a variety of natural science fields. Great Basin National Park offered one of the few astronomy positions, and I luckily got the job. Although I didn’t know about the park before applying, I quickly learned that they have extensive astronomy related programming. The isolation and dry, high-altitude environment mean that Great Basin has some of the darkest night skies in the contiguous United States. It is also the only national park that is home to a research-grade telescope. Great Basin is also known for its cave systems, ancient bristlecone pines, and being home to (what’s left of) the last glacier in Nevada.
The position seemed like a perfect fit for my interests and skills, but I was still worried about making the transition to a completely new environment and community. As many of my peers were moving to major cities post-graduation, I found myself leaving the Northeast and, eventually, driving down highway 93 in Nevada on a stretch where there weren’t services for 90 miles. The desert landscape seemed desolate and consuming, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s all I would find at the park. The wonder turned to worry that I might have made a mistake taking a job out there, but all I could do at that point was keep driving and see how things turned out.
What I ended up finding at Great Basin was a gorgeous landscape that never ceased to surprise me. I found work that felt fulfilling. It was a place that made learning feel fun and like a natural part of everyday life. I found a community that welcomed me and encouraged growth. I had new experiences that made me feel brave and peaceful. And I certainly found the stars, more than I could have possibly imagined.