NASA Marshall Center Astronomer Mitzi Adams Controls the Cosmos -- And Uses that Power to Inspire Students to Science Careers
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
News Release: 06-033
NASA solar astronomer Mitzi Adams builds the enthusiasm of hundreds of young stargazers for searching the sky and pursuing careers in science and astronomy.
Adams, who studies the sun's turbulent behavior for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is the director of the Von Braun Planetarium, atop the Appalachian foothill of Monte Sano on Huntsville's eastern boundary. There, she regularly leads middle- and high-school science classes, home-school groups and other visitors on simulated tours of the cosmos itself.
With the help of the planetarium's star-projector and sprawling dome, Adams sends constellations wheeling from one side of the "sky" to the other. She talks about the possibility of life on distant worlds and secrets yet to be revealed in our own solar system. Before long, even the chattiest teens and distracted adults fall silent, eyes cast upward in wonder.
Adams said that happens every time. "In our well-lit modern age, it's easy to forget what the sky looks like on a clear night. It's easy to forget that our busy little planet is part of a solar system, a galaxy and an unbelievably complex universe," she said.
An Atlanta native, Adams was fascinated by those relationships even as a child. She recalls how the night sky, usually smudged black by city lights, became a breathtaking starscape whenever her family vacationed in rural settings. Those stars became her passion.
She earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1987 from Georgia State University in Atlanta, and joined NASA as an astronomer the following year.
In her 18-year career at the Marshall Center, she has conducted research for a variety of missions focused on the sun and other stars. These include the "Solar Maximum" satellite, which orbited Earth from 1980 to 1989, studying the sun during the most active portion of its 11-year solar cycle; and the Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, named for the late NASA astrophysicist Reuven Ramaty and launched in 2002 to study solar flares. Adams also earned continued her education at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she earned her master’s degree in physics in 1991.
Adams still studies the sun’s temperamental behavior today, from her office at the National Space Science and Technology Center, the Huntsville-based research facility jointly operated by the Marshall Center and seven Alabama universities. Here, Adams monitors sunspots, solar flares and the titanic blasts of radiation known as coronal mass ejections. The latter can wreak havoc on Earth's magnetic field, disrupting communications satellites and interfering with commercial air traffic and ground-based electrical systems.
Adams said the need to address such issues -- especially in an age when more and more worldwide communication systems rely on satellites vulnerable to such interference -- lends a real urgency to dedicated solar research. Moreover, as NASA prepares to send human explorers back to the moon and beyond in coming decades, new insight into solar activity will help protect vehicles and crews from unexpected solar radiation spikes.
Just as important, she said, is nurturing new ranks of solar scientists to continue the work -- hence her dedication to all those upturned faces at the planetarium. And she does not stop there. Adams leads teacher workshops at NASA's Educator Resource Center in Huntsville. She visits local schools to get young people fired up about science and math, and to inspire them to consider careers in physics and astronomy. She tutors students on her own time.
In 2005, Adams and fellow Marshall scientist Dennis Gallagher started a program for disadvantaged Huntsville middle-school students. Once a month during the school year, they gather students to watch science fiction movies such as "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Afterward, they help the students conduct experiments tied to science concepts in the films and quiz them on science concepts, awarding books and other prizes.
Adams said the program -- co-sponsored by the Huntsville Housing Authority, which promotes safe, drug-free, affordable housing in the city -- is designed to reinforce students’ enjoyment of learning. "It also helps identify standout students who might, with some encouragement, become real scientists," she said.
As a regular guest lecturer for science courses at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Adams works to sustain that encouragement through the college level. This term, she led several sessions of "Theories of the Universe," a class that explores how various cultures perceive the cosmos, discussing the astronomy-savvy Maya and Inca civilizations of Central and South America, respectively. She's well-versed in the subject matter -- and not just the astronomy. An accomplished hiker and an avid student of ancient cultures, Adams has repeatedly vacationed in Peru and Guatemala to visit the ruins of these lost empires.
"That's what’s great about astronomy as a career," she said. "It's a fascinating blend of sciences -- physics, chemistry, geology, history, mathematics -- that keeps it new and exciting and more relevant now than ever to our everyday lives."
For more information about astronomical research conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center, visit: