When Dr. Kenneth Carrell was a grade-schooler in nearby Mertzon, he came with his class to tour the ASU Planetarium. Little did he know that one day he would be running the place.
Now an assistant professor of physics and director of the Planetarium, Carrell originally studied high-energy physics in college before switching to astronomy late in graduate school at Texas Tech University. After earning his Ph.D., he taught several years in Mertzon public schools and then completed a 2.5-year post-doctoral research fellowship in China before returning to Mertzon to teach high school.
“I wasn’t looking for a job when the ASU position came open,” Carrell said. “But to me, this job is unique on campus. It’s a teaching position, so I get to teach things I enjoy teaching, but it’s also outreach. It’s working with kids of all age groups, as well as the entire local community.”
“I may teach college students in my astrophysics class and then turn right around and teach kindergartners who have come to tour the Planetarium,” he added. “That change between teaching upper-level astronomy and then trying to inspire younger kids to learn about it is really cool. We’ve had assisted-living communities bring groups of people, as well as other community groups. It’s people of all ages, and that’s pretty neat.”
Carrell’s position is so neat that his predecessor, Dr. Mark Sonntag, kept it from when he helped open the Planetarium in 1985 until his retirement in 2016.
“His are really big shoes to fill,” Carrell said. “But the only pressure on me is to inspire students, not to be as good as he was. I may never be that good. I’m not that good now, but maybe in three decades I’ll be at the level he was at. So for me, it was more excitement to be here rather than pressure. He also helped me a lot through the hiring process and my first year at ASU. He is just a great guy.”
Following Sonntag’s example, Carrell has maintained a strong relationship with the San Angelo Astronomy Association and helps its members host special events like the recent eclipse viewing. Plus, he has already added about a half-dozen new public astronomy shows to the Planetarium’s repertoire, mainly from the European Southern Observatory (eso.org). He has also continued to offer the Spanish-language shows introduced by Sonntag, and has branched out into other languages to cater to ASU’s expanding international student population.
“Many of the shows offered by ESO are available in several languages,” Carrell said. “I wanted to continue with the Spanish shows, and the folks in our Center for International Studies asked if we could do a show in Korean. We put that together for ‘From Earth to the Universe’ and it worked out great.”
It worked so well that the next request was for a Vietnamese-language version of the show. Unfortunately, that version was not available, at least not yet.
“I told Dr. Won-Jae Lee, our director of Asian relations, that I could provide the script if he had someone who could translate it and record the audio,” Carrell said. “He recruited a graduate student from Vietnam in our communication program, Vy Khanh Nguyen Do, who translated the script to Vietnamese and used the equipment in the Communication and Mass Media Department to record the audio.”
“It worked great and sounds really professional,” Carrell continued. “So I contacted ESO and asked if they wanted the Vietnamese audio. They said they would love to have it, so I sent them the translated script and the audio recording, which are now available on the ESO website with credit to ASU.”
But the work is not over, as new requests have been made for additional Planetarium shows in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and possibly Chinese.
“The new show we are running this spring, ‘Seeing,’ is only available from ESO in English,” Carrell said. “So hopefully that show with audio in different languages that ASU provides will soon be available through ESO for planetariums everywhere.”
All in all, Carrell is pretty happy that he chose ASU.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m kind of weird because for me, a job has always been someone paying me to do something I wouldn’t otherwise be doing. But I think I would still do this Planetarium stuff, even if it was for free. It’s still a job and I take it seriously, but the stuff I get to do here is pretty cool.”