On astronomy, takings risks and being human by Carolle Varughese

Carolle Varughese smiling with her hair in the wind

I met Carolle a few years ago when a mutual friend invited her to one of the painting classes I taught. Carolle was a Science, Physics, and Innovation Stream teacher at Howick back then and she spoke so passionately about her students and the education system in general. I later found out that she studied Astronomy and worked at Mt. John Canterbury University Observatory (one of the coolest places to visit if you are in the South Island by the way 🌌). Carolle currently works as a Schools STEM Engagement Leader at Massey University and it is my biggest pleasure to have her share her journey on Storyo! 

Carolle, tell us a bit about your background? 

A lot of what I do, starts with my love for the stars and how it makes me feel. I studied Astronomy at the University of Canterbury and later on pursued teaching Physics at High School. Physics and Math are not subjects I feel I have a natural ability in, and it’s been a lot of work to process it and get there. After scraping through my astronomy degree, I felt really out of my depth to continue studying it. It took a while, but I started to see that my strengths and passions intersected as a science communicator. Teaching just seemed like a great way for me to be able to share my drive for exploration.

Matariki Outreach at Silo Park. Image credit: Jonathan Green

Matariki Outreach at Silo Park. Image credit: Jonathan Green

A lot of people choose their degrees based on what opportunities they think they might have afterwards rather than what really interests them. Astronomy is a fascinating subject and you are doing a range of things now. What options are out there for someone who might be interested in Astronomy? 

I never really thought of myself as someone that pursued money as an end goal. Astronomy was just the spark for me, but it took a few years to really hone my ability to use a telescope, navigate the southern night sky, and share my love for the stars with people I come across. My parents were incredibly sceptical and it took awhile for me to convince them that it was a risk worth taking. I didn’t know where I would end up, nor could I give them any assurance that it would be okay. I think the most fascinating thing is that my parents’ helped to hone a lot of the skills that I use today. It just took a long time to realise that I could put all of that together and use Astronomy as my base to be within Science Communication. 

For those just wanting to start out in astronomy, the best thing is to explore who the experts are around you. There are amateur astronomers and societies scattered around NZ that are incredibly helpful at helping you start out. To be honest, you don’t really need a degree in astronomy to enjoy it. Our ancestors started out by just using their eyes to stargaze and that’s how they were able to find patterns and stories in the sky. That’s the best way to begin! Go find a dark spot away from the city and spend a few hours with some friends tracking satellites and counting shooting stars. 

Graduation Day. Image Credit: Chris Varughese

Graduation Day. Image Credit: Chris Varughese

Your describe yourself as a science communicator. What does it mean? And what do you currently do at Massey as a Schools STEM Engagement Leader? 

I consider myself as an educator and a science communicator within the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths) sector. I have spent the last 5 years as a science communicator in various roles, the most recent one being a Physics Teacher.

I try to break ideas and concepts down so that people without a science background can understand them. But at the same time, it’s important to not over simplify things. The concepts in science can take a lot of work to understand and it has been a lot of work to get our understanding to where it is today. 

My life obsession is to get people excited about STEM and so I look for ways to encourage conversation about the role of STEM in the community. 

My current role at Massey is to be able to do just that! I try to see how we can get high school students to fall in love with STEM so that they’ll come and study it. A typical work day would involve a lot of meetings with different academics and staff to see what kind of fascinating work they’re up to. I talk to teachers to see how I can help them with what students are doing at school. After work, I generally have astronomy related meetings, or I’m planning an event / seminar, etc. 

For those of us who last studied Physics and other science subjects in high school 10+ years ago, how did the landscape of what we teach younglings change? What are the main topics we are tackling right now and how do we get people interested? 

Not much has changed in what we teach. Especially in Physics at school. We’re still teaching projectile motion, rockets going around the earth, and the classic diver jumping off the board. Students struggle to see the relevance in anything that we teach, and I don’t blame them. Year 12 and Year 13 Physics has become a place where teachers just have to cram content. I tried to sneak in practicals and explanations of where we would use the principles we learn in class, but it was few and far in between. 

Some schools are lucky enough to teach Earth and Space Science, they get to delve into more of the things I love to talk about. 

Carolle discussing astronomical naming rights and a NZ competition to name a planet and a star in NZ,  https://space.auckland.ac.nz/nameexoworlds/

Carolle discussing astronomical naming rights and a NZ competition to name a planet and a star in NZ, https://space.auckland.ac.nz/nameexoworlds/

We tend to assume a lot of things when reading and seeing peoples’ lives online. We forget that we are all humans going through this tough life journey figuring things out. Would you mind sharing some of your personal challenges that you experienced whether it is through your career or purpose searching journey? 

My journey has definitely been purpose driven so far. I didn’t really feel like I had a life mission or anything incredibly interesting to pursue, and that took a huge toll on me. I didn’t really know what I was going to do after High School, and at that time, the only thing I had some interest in was, Astronomy. The frustrating thing was that I never had the opportunity to explore it much back then because it was done in the dark. Try convincing your parents to let you hang out with a whole bunch of strangers in the dark. So to some extent, it was also an act of rebellion.

The ideal pathway for me at that point was to take a gap year, but the social stigma attached to not going to uni was a bit much for my family so I decided to pursue Astronomy. 

It was the strangest idea back then because it wasn’t a field that was popular and my Maths and Physics skills were appalling. Astronomy is definitely not the subject to study for money, and I went into it knowing that. There were many people who kept asking, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”. In fact, at the end of my second year of studying Astronomy, one of my lecturers suggested that I look into other options and that it wasn’t too late to change what I was studying. It’s such a hard mental space to be in, because I was really starting to develop a love for Physics. 

A huge factor for me choosing to study this was to break out of the bubble I was living in. I had a fairly conservative social circle and so I needed to step out of the status-quo. Astronomy was one of the majors that was offered as far away from Auckland as possible. It wasn’t the easiest decision, because it was one that I wrestled with a lot clearly knowing that it was a huge risk to take. 

Boy, what a risk it was! I was surrounded by people who knew a lot more than I did and could really keep up with what was happening. I was falling behind in class, and surrounded by people that made me feel like I was really out of place. By the end of my third year at uni, I was really struggling to keep going. It was incredibly discouraging that I couldn’t figure out what to do. I had a huge mental breakdown, and a crippling identity crisis. I sadly lost many of my relationships with people at that time. I had to step away from being at uni for a while till I was able to get some help to rewire my brain. It was at this point that I had a few very special people help me get back on my feet, and to talk me through some really hard questions. They somehow stuck right beside me through all the crying and panic attacks. With them beside me, I managed to get to see the tail end of my degree at the end of my fourth year. 

It has been a lot of work since I graduated because I ended up with a degree that I scraped through but really couldn’t do much with because I wasn’t going to study further. I was however determined that I was going to work on getting better at it. I was determined to start fresh, really work hard and take things at my own pace. I even cut of most of my hair too. 

Getting a job in Tekapo was my saving grace. I go there every year as a way of honouring what I had been through and the fact it was the place of reflection and growth for me. It involved a lot of cold nights being outside and being open to taking my time to learn things slowly. My love for astronomy only started developing then. It’s my passion now, but towards the end of uni, I really struggled to enjoy it. Developing a passion for something takes work. It is something that has to be cultivated. Having a passion for something doesn’t happen instantaneously. You have to be okay with not being good at it when you start off, but keep an open mind - you’ll get better at it if you stick with it. 

Lake Tekapo - Image Credit: Maki Yanagimachi

Lake Tekapo - Image Credit: Maki Yanagimachi

Tell us about Teach Me Miss V! 

I started @Teach.Me.Miss.V on instagram at the start of this year as a way to show my students science was not just a job for me, it was my whole life. Almost everything I did was in and around science. It was also a way of making me generate more science content as a communicator but that is still something I struggle with. I’m enjoying exploring that side of communication, no matter how sporadic it is.  

What is the topic that you have been passionate about recently? 

I would love to see more people in STEM that are like me. Women or non-binary, those that belong to a minority, and those that don’t feel like they’re good enough. We need non-male, non-white perspectives to narrate, communicate, be accessible role models, and to challenge our pattern of thinking. 

What brings you joy in a day to day life? 

Tea and tim-tams with my favourite people. I love little weekend adventures out of Auckland. 

This year, I wanted to pick up a new skill and started to learn how to swim. It’s my new favourite activity and works as a form of meditation because I just get to focus on my breathing. 

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegates including Carolle on the very left

I had to opportunity to hang out with some amazing young people a few years ago on a delegation with AYLI (Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute). Swan-Lynn Lee, Rez Gardi, April Kwak, Sam Morton, Sam Yoon, Zabin Farishta, Joanna Ji, Max Beech and Anna Goble. They’re all spread around the world, but boy they have some inspiring stories to share. 

Elina Ashimbayeva