Get to Know Gemini! – Mischa Schirmer

Get to Know Gemini is a new series of blog posts aimed to highlight the different careers, backgrounds, and types of people contributing to Gemini Observatory and its science.


Name: Mischa Schirmer

What is your current position and at which telescope?

I’m an assistant scientist at Gemini South.

In four lines or less, explain what you do as part of the Gemini Observatory team?

I spend about 20 nights per year as a night-time observer, executing the observing plans and doing an initial quality assessment. At other times I prepare the observing plans, oversee the progress of our programs, help our users, maintain and develop software tools, and keep a watchful eye at our instrumentation.

How long have you worked for Gemini?

A bit more than 5 years.

What drew you to this job?

It is a very interdisciplinary job. I love all aspects of observational astronomy, and the best place to be is at a large observatory. There, everything comes together. Researchers submit their observing programs to us, we help them optimize the setup, get the data for them, and provide post-observation support. I find this very rewarding because I help other people explore the Universe in the best possible manner… and I like that I can contribute much more to our understanding of the Universe than through my own research projects alone (which I like very much, nonetheless).

What is the best part of your job?

It’s always exciting. I see research unfold long before it gets published, and I can help it along the way with my technical and scientific experience. I often see that my work makes a difference to others, and that is very rewarding and motivating.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in southern Germany, near Munich.

What skill do you think is most important to know for your job?

That’s a good one. At first I wanted to say “technical and scientific experience”. But the real answer, I think, is curiosity. The best scientists are curious. Because curiosity makes you want to understand how things work, find ways to improve and fix them, and explore new ways forward. That applies to all aspects of my job. The skills, and the technical and scientific experience then come automatically.

Why is astronomy important?

Because astronomy tells us that we don’t need to worry that the Sun will extinguish tomorrow and life on Earth will uncomfortably quickly freeze to death. Because conservation of angular momentum tells us that the sun will rise again tomorrow. Because space begins just 100km above our heads (many people commute more than that), and it is a much thinner layer of thin air that protects us from the deadly vacuum and the radiation out there. When you think about it… it’s scary! Astronomers and the laws of physics tell you not to worry, we checked!

We are taking many things for granted, because they seem “natural”, but they are not. To most of us, the Universe is far away and unimportant. That is not true. All protons, neutrons and electrons in your body were formed in a hot beginning 13 billion years ago; stars fused them into larger nuclei such as carbon and oxygen, without which our metabolisms would not work, and we would suffocate in minutes. The gold in your wedding ring and in the circuitry of your computer was forged by the violent death of a giant star that lived before the Sun came into existence. Some of the very same atoms in your body were perhaps once part of a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, it’s eyes, it’s claws, or perhaps it’s teeth? Ultimately, astrophysicists strive to understand where the Universe came from, and how it managed to grow stars and planets capable of supporting life. It gives meaning to everything, it provides the big context.

In three lines, explain your PhD thesis.

My PhD was focused on finding the most massive structures in the Universe, clusters of galaxies. Because clusters are so massive, they optically distort the images of distant background galaxies. I have developed a method based on this lensing effect to identify clusters.

What are your current research interests?

I study supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies, and how they grow over time. Even though these black holes are tiny compared to a galaxy, they can release enormous amounts of energy, severely messing things up. For example, they may shut down a galaxy’s capability to form stars such as our Sun. There is a very large number of open questions in this area that will keep astronomers busy for decades to come.

What is your favorite movie?

I don’t have one.

What is the latest book you have read?

“The Cavemen”, from Joern Lier Horst. Horst worked as a crime investigator for the Norwegian police before he became a writer. His crime stories are excellent page turners.

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

None. I’d enjoy the nature, peace, and spend all day snorkeling and scuba diving until the nitrogen levels in my body tissues reach critical values.

What is one hobby of yours?

Observing and taking pictures of the night sky with my self-made telescope. Unfortunately, it’s locked up far away because I could not bring it along when we moved to Chile.

Check back next month to learn more about the staff that help Gemini to explore the Universe and share its wonders!

Journey Through the Universe 2017

Journey Through the Universe 2017

The Universe is expanding… and so is the Journey Through the Universe program! From March 13-17, 70 observatory professionals and informal educators are extending their reach to districts across the Big Island. Journey Through the Universe (to be referred to as Journey in the rest of this post) includes: classroom visits for students in Hilo-Waiākea, Honokaʻa, Paʻauilo, and Waimea in grades 2-12, StarLab Portable Planetarium shows for Hilo-Waiākea students in K-1, workshops for teachers, including a workshop for 40 teachers from the Kaʻū-Keaʻau-Pāhoa Complex area to introduce the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and a NASA Lunar and Meteorite Sample Certification Workshop led by NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Instituteʻs (SSERVI) Brian Day and Joseph Minafra, as well as a public colloquia titled, “Discovery, New Frontiers, and Solar System Exploration,” by NASAʻs Brian Mitchell.

“Sustaining a program the size and magnitude of Journey is no small feat,” says Journey Team Leader Janice Harvey. “With the continual expansion of the Journey program year after year, itʻs obvious that the impact this program has on our local students and the community is substantial.”

Check this post every day during the week of Journey classroom visits for pictures and descriptions of the dayʻs events!

Classroom Visits – Friday, March 17th

On the last day of classroom visits, we followed Gemini astronomer André-Nicolas Chené and administrative specialist Natalia Gonzalez to Kalanianaʻole Elementary and Middle School. Students built 3-D models of well-known constellations and discovered that, although the constellations may look 2-D to us on Earth, each star in the constellation is a certain distance away and are often not right next to each other!

Chené hands out styroform boards with constellations attached.

Students answer Chené’s questions.

Students construct their own 3D constellations!

Career Panel at Waiākea High School

One of the newer additions to the Journey program is the inclusion of career panels made up of local observatory professionals. Wednesdayʻs panel included: Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope (CFHT) Director Doug Simons and Les Mizuba, Subaru Telescopeʻs Kiaina Schubert, W. M. Keckʻs Mike Aina, and Geminiʻs John Vierra and Alexis Acohido. Thursdayʻs panel included: W. M. Keckʻs Rich Matsuda, Shelly Pelfrey, Leslie Kissner, CFHTʻs Grant Matsushiga, Subaru Telescopeʻs Lucio Ramos, and Geminiʻs Jason Kalawe. Panelists shared how they got involved in working for the observatories and the path they took to get there. The panel included a wide range of careers: astronomers, engineers, human resources, web architects, and more. Students learned that having a PhD in astronomy isnʻt a requirement to working at an observatory, and in fact, astronomers only make up around 20% of an observatoryʻs staff.

Classroom Visits – Thursday, March 16th

We followed Scot Kleinman and Sylvia Kowalski to Keaukaha Elementary School. Kleinman received his PhD from the University of Texas in 1995. Currently, he is the Associate Director of Development at Gemini North, where he helps bring and develop the next generation of instruments to Gemini. Kowalski is the current Public Information and Outreach Intern at Gemini North. She graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Physics, Astronomy, and Drama.

Kleinman taught the kids how to program and they got to simulate programming the movement of the Mars Rover.

Kleinman explained how Mission Control “talks” to the Mars Rover and tells it what to do.

Kowalski (left) played the Mars Rover and the students told Kowalski what to do and where to move.

Students attempt to prevent Kowalski from bumping into their desks.

Classroom Visits – Wednesday, March 15th

Yvonne Pendleton and Jennifer Baer of NASA SSERVI visited Kapiolani Elementary School. Pendleton obtained her PhD in astrophysics from the University of California at Santa Cruz and is currently the Director of NASA SSERVI. Baer is a graphic designer at NASA SSERVI and regularly works with scientists and engineers to take complex data and turn it into easily digestible media.

Students at Kapiolani Elementary were surprised and excited that NASA had graphic designers like Jennifer Baer!

Baer shows students that they can edit pictures with available software.

Students practice editing pictures on a tablet.

Discover, New Frontiers, and Solar System Exploration

Wednesday evening, NASA’s Brian Mitchell gave a talk at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo about NASA’s current and future vision for planetary exploration. Mitchell has more than 25 years at the Marshall Space Flight Center and has worked on various Space Shuttle payload missions including ASTRO, ATLAS, and Spacelab, as well as several experiments for the International Space Station. Mitchell is currently the Education and Public Outreach manager for NASA’s Discovery/New Frontiers/Lunar Quest Program Office, where he is tasked with communicating Planetary Missions Program Office science goals and objectives to the public in order to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) participation.

Mitchell talked about the past and present NASA spacecrafts and the science they were doing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Brian Mitchell (right) presents NASA’s past, current, and future space exploration missions.

Classroom Visits – Tuesday, March 14th

Today we followed Tomonori Usuda to Hilo Intermediate School. Usuda earned his PhD in Astronomy at the University of Tokyo and is an optical-infrared astronomer for the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. He currently leads the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project as the director of TMT-Japan. Previously, he was the associate Director of Subaru Telescope from 2006-2013.

Tomonori Usuda traces the path the light travels to get to the instruments on Subaru Telescope.

Usuda explains the process behind changing out the instruments on the telescope.

Students recognized the brand name Mitsubishi, but they werenʻt aware that they designed some of the robotics used by Subaru!

Astronomy Educatorʻs Reception at the Naniloa

The Hawaiʻi Island Chamber of Commerce (HICC) and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaiʻi (JCCIH) hosted a welcome celebration for the astronomy community, the Department of Education and the business community. Superintendents from the Hilo-Waiākea Complex, Kaʻū-Keaʻau-Pāhoa Complex, and representatives from the Honokaʻa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena Complex also attended the event. Guest speakers included: Janice Harvey, Journey Team Leader, Mayor Harry Kim, Gemini Director Markus Kissler-Patig, and PhD candidate and Hilo native Devin Chu. Chu shared his experiences in astronomy and how the Journey program influenced and helped guide his dream of becoming an astronomer.

Mayor Harry Kim addresses the guests at the Astronomy Educator’s reception held at the Naniloa.

The Naniloa was at capacity, with educators, the business community, and the astronomy community.

Newton (left) and Roberta Chu (right) introduce their son and guest speaker Devin by showcasing his 3rd grade timeline, which stated that he wanted to be an astronomer since he was 8!

Chu shared his compelling life story about how Journey helped mold his interest and give him direction to become an astronomer.

Newton, Roberta, and Devin Chu stop for a picture with other Chamber members.

Reception guests take a closer look at Devin Chu’s 3rd grade timeline.

Journey team members from left to right: Janice Harvey, Christine Copes, Alexis Acohido, and Sylvia Kowalski.

Classroom Visits – Monday, March 13th

Our Public Information and Outreach department followed Devin Chu to Hilo Intermediate School and Teague Soderman to Kaumana Elementary School. Chu was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi and graduated from Hilo High School in 2010, where he was an ongoing participant in the Journey Through the Universe program He received his Bachelorʻs in Physics and Astronomy from Dartmouth in 2014, and his Masterʻs of Science in Astronomy from UCLA in 2016. He is currently working towards his PhD at UCLA while working under Andrea Ghez.

PhD candidate and Hilo native Devin Chu went back to Hilo Intermediate to talk to students about gravity.

Chu demonstrated how celestial objects move using a “gravity well,” a simulation of a point of strong gravitational pull.

Soderman, who currently works at NASAʻs SSERVI, is a science writer with a background in creative writing and graphic design. He received his Masterʻs in English and Creative Writing from San Francisco State Univesity, and has been writing for the scientific community for over 13 years.

Teague Soderman from NASA SSERVI showed Kaumana students some of the technology that NASA has sent to space.

Kaumana students and their teachers look at the Sun through special lenses that protect their eyes.

Soderman showed some of the mapping software available online through NASA SSERVI.

NASA Lunar and Meteorite Sample Certification Workshop

On Saturday, March 11th, Brian Day and Joseph Minafra, both from NASA SSERVI, held a workshop that certifies teachers to borrow lunar and meteorite samples from the historic Apollo missions. Teachers attending this workshop will also learn how to use NASA online tools to explore and visualize the surfaces of the Moon, asteroids, and Mars as seen through the eyes of many different instruments aboard a great range of spacecrafts.

NASA SSERVI’s Brian Day (six from the left) and Joseph Minafra (four from the left) led 10 teachers through a workshop that certifies them to borrow lunar and meteorite samples as teaching tools.

Brian (left) explains how these samples may be used in the classroom.

Educators had plenty of time during the all day workshop to examine the samples.

The samples provided contained lunar rocks harvested from the historic Apollo missions.

One teacher holds up the sample plate for a better look.

Exploring the StarLab Moon Cylinder

On Thursday, March 9th, Gemini staff and NASA SSERVIʻs Brian Day explored Geminiʻs newly acquired Moon Cylinder before Day held a StarLab presentation for the after school group Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities (PUEO). Day currently acts as SSERVIʻs project manager for NASAʻs Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal, which is a set of tools designed for mission planning, lunar science, and public outreach. Students learned about geological features and phases of the Moon, as well as past and current NASA Moon missions.

The projection of the Moon in the StarLab maps beautiful features like Moon craters and mare.

President of PUEO Keahi Warfield and the after school PUEO students.

NASA SSERVIʻs Brian Day directs students on modeling the movement of the Moon around the Earth.

The students held actual lunar rock samples that Day had brought.


The Journey program would not exist without the time, energy, and resources from our community partners. Their ongoing support is a testament to their commitment to our children’s futures. We’d like to thank our sponsors for their support, and our educators for dedicating their time to inspiring our local Big Island students! For more information about the Journey Through the Universe program, visit our website.

Thank you to the following institutions!

Department of Education Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area

Department of Education Honokaʻa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena Complex Area

Department of Education Kaʻū-Keaʻau-Pāhoa Complex Area

Gemini Observatory

Bank of Hawaiʻi

Basically Books

Big Island Candies

Big Island Toyota

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory

Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope

Carthage University

DeLuz Chevrolet

Franklin Institute Science Museum

Hawaiʻi Community College

Hawaiʻi Electric Light Company

Hawaiʻi Island Chamber of Commerce

Hawaiʻi Island Economic Development Board

Hawaiʻi Space Grant Consortium

Hawaiʻi Tribune-Herald

Indigenous Education Institute

ʻImiloa Astronomy Center

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Operated by East Asian Observatory

Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Joint Astronomy Centre

KTA Superstores

KWXX Radio Station

Maunakea Astronomy Outreach Committee

Maunakea Visitor Information Station

NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

NASA Lunar Science Institute

National Center for Earth and Space Science

National Optical Astronomy Observatory

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems

Pacific Science Center

Project Astro/Family Astro

Purdue University

Rotary Club of Hilo Bay

Smithsonian Submillimeter Array

Subaru Telescope

Thirty Meter Telescope

University of California Observatories – Lick Observatory

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, College of Pharmacy

University of Hawaiʻi Hōkū Keʻa and 2.2 Meter Telescopes

University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy

United Kingdom Infrared Telescope

University of California – Berkeley

University of California – Los Angeles

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

University of Oregon

W. M. Keck Observatory

Maunakea Scholars Awarded Observing Time at Gemini North

Maunakea Scholars Awarded Time on Gemini North

On February 3rd, Gemini awarded telescope time to two ecstatic local high school students through the Maunakea Scholars program. The Maunakea Scholars program is the first of its kind in the world, and is spearheaded by Canada-France-Hawai‘i-Telescope (CFHT). The program involves collaboration between the Maunakea observatories, high schools, and students across the state to give high school students competitive access to the world’s best telescopes on Maunakea. The students work with their teachers and mentors from the professional Hawaiian astronomy community to develop their proposals for telescope time. A time allocation panel then reviews the proposals and awards time on various Maunakea telescopes to the successful young investigators. The process is very competitive with a proposal success rate of 1 in 3, or about 33%. This year, the program awarded telescope time on Gemini, Subaru, the East Asian Observatory, and CFHT, to students from Kalani, Nānākuli, and Kapolei high schools on O‘ahu, and Waiākea and Honokaʻa high schools on Hawaiʻi Island. The East Asian Observatory (EAO), NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), and W. M. Keck Observatory will join the program for the next round of applicants.

Award ceremony at Nānākuli high school. (L-R) CFHT Director Doug Simons, Principal Darin Pilialoha, Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, Jasmin Atcherson, David Lassner, Mary Beth Laychak, Jameeka Marshall.

Award ceremony at Kapolei. (L-R) front row: Kelly Blumenthal (IfA Mānoa graduate student and MK Scholars mentor), Chantelle Lopez, Ashlyn Takamiya. Back row: Nadiah Gamurot, Heather Flewellings (IfA research astronomer and MK Scholar mentor), Emily Little, CFHT Director Doug Simons, Justin Fernando, Mary Beth Laychak.

Gemini North Observing Programs

The two successful Gemini proposals both featured exoplanets. Chantelle Lopez (Kapolei) will be looking for signs of Hydrogen in the atmosphere of Gu PSC b through planetary transit spectroscopy to gain some insights as to the likelihood of there being liquid water on the planet. Jasmine Atcherson (Nānākuli) will look at a rogue planet (a planet not obviously attached to a host star) to try and determine its age and gain clues about its origin. Congratulations to Jasmine and Chantelle, the latest Gemini Maunakea Scholar awardees!


Get to Know Gemini! – Jen Miller

Get to Know Gemini is a new series of blog posts aimed to highlight the different careers, backgrounds, and types of people contributing to Gemini Observatory and its science.


Name: Jennifer (Jen) Miller

What is your current position and at which telescope?

Science Operations Specialist (SOS) at Gemini North

In four lines or less, explain what you do as part of the Gemini Observatory team?

The SOS position encompasses both daytime and nighttime shift work. During the day I check data from the night before for quality assurance, check the instruments on the telescope to make sure they are optimal for nighttime operations, and work on various projects that benefit the observatory. At night I acquire scientific data for PIs so that they can make cutting edge astronomical discoveries and further humankind’s understanding of the Universe.

How long have you worked for Gemini?

I’ve worked at Gemini for a little over three years.

What drew you to this job?

Working on the front line of astronomy.

What is the best part of your job?

Prior to going back to school for astronomy I worked as a professional photographer for many years. The best thing about my job is that I get to play with a gigantic camera and take amazing photographs of the universe.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

I was born in Alaska, lived in California as a young kid, but mostly grew up in the Maryland/Washington DC area.

What skill do you think is most important to know for your job?

Problem solving is an important skill to have for this job.

Why is astronomy important?

Astronomy was important in early civilization from growing crops to the invention of calendars. Today astronomy is important for advancing technology (MRI, X-ray, lasik, etc…) to finding “the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” –Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What is your favorite movie?

Pulp Fiction or Amelie or The Princess Bride

What is the latest book you have read?

The Martian

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

Radiohead “Pablo Honey”
Dinosaur Jr. “Where You Been”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Fever to Tell”

What is one hobby of yours?

Japanese taiko

Favorite beverage?


Check back next month to learn more about the staff that help Gemini to explore the Universe and share its wonders!

Gemini hosts Astronomy on Tap, Hilo

Combining the Powers of Space and Drink:

Gemini Observatory hosts Hawaii’s first Astronomy on Tap

Who: You (and your friends 21 years and older)

What: Astronomy on Tap, Hilo

When: Wednesday, February 22nd, 7:00 – 9:00 pm

Where: Hilo Town Tavern, 168 Keawe St, Hilo, HI 96720

Why: To learn about the cosmos in a casual, fun and inclusive learning environment while enjoying beverages and bar games!

What better way to learn about the wonders of the Universe than relaxing at the Hilo Town Tavern with friends and listening to local astronomers share their discoveries? For those with or without a background in astronomy, Astronomy on Tap, Hilo is an event you will not want to miss.

“Astronomy on Tap is an experiment for Hilo,” said Peter Michaud, manager of the Gemini Observatory’s Education and Outreach Department. “Most of our outreach programs are aimed at students, teachers and families, but this program is VERY different!”

The event, organized by Gemini Observatory, is based on similar events around the world that bring the science of astronomy to pubs and bars. “I am so excited to provide the adults of Hilo with a casual, free and fun place to learn about the cosmos.” said Sylvia Kowalski, intern at the Gemini Observatory, who organized the event. “In this setting there are no silly questions, just curiosity and fun.” adds Kowalski.

The Astronomy on Tap, Hilo poster advertising the Big Island event.

This Astronomy on Tap is “extra special,” says Kowalski, “because founding member of the Astronomy on Tap program Meg Schwamb is now an astronomer at the Gemini Observatory and will share her tales from the outer solar system at our inaugural event.” In addition, the bar’s stage will be graced with the genius of Alison Peck, Atsuko Nitta, and André-Nicolas Chené, all astronomers at Gemini Observatory. Each will share their backgrounds in science and take you on a tour of their research through the cosmos.

Schwamb and her colleague Emily Rice started the Astronomy on Tap program in 2012 in New York City. Since its inception, more than 15 cities host Astronomy on Tap events, including sites in the United States, Canada, and Taiwan.

Clockwise starting top left: Astronomy on Tap, Hilo speakers, Meg Schwamb, André-Nicolas Chené, Alison Peck, and Atsuko Nitta.

“It is important for us adults to stay curious and to learn,” says André-Nicolas Chené. “This will be the perfect venue for both – and why not combine two wonderful things – science and beer which make a great team!

Thanks to the Hilo Town Tavern for hosting our inaugural event. Visit our event on Facebook, follow us the event on Twitter @AstroOnTapHilo, and read about the history of the program at the Astronomy on Tap Website.