Some people spend their whole childhood chasing after gold stars in school. Michelle Nichols ’02 wasn’t interested in the stickers on her tests — she was looking up at the night sky.
Nichols’ life-long passion for astronomy took off when she first saw the 1980s PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” narrated by American astronomer Carl Sagan.
“It changed my life,” she recalled.
Her family soon purchased a membership to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and began visiting regularly. And unlike some childhood dreams of space, Nichol’s dedication to astronomy did not waver as she grew up — while in high school she attended a space camp in Huntsville, Ala., and during her college years she volunteered at the Staerkel Planetarium in Champaign, Ill.
Her Start at Adler
Nichols’ career in astronomy began with an internship, like many careers do. But her story is not what you think.
She applied for an internship opening at the Adler Planetarium and was asked to sit for an interview, but the selection committee decided to go with a different candidate.
Exercising some well-honed interview etiquette, Nichols sent a thank you letter to Adler expressing her gratitude for the interview and her continued interest in any future openings.
A couple weeks later, she received a phone call: there was a new opening at Adler.
Once again, she sat for an interview. Only this time, she was offered a position with the planetarium.
Over 22 Years Later
Now Nichols is the director of public observing, part of the Astronomy Department at Adler.
And her list of responsibilities is extensive. She supervises Adler’s sky observing and telescope observing programs, manages the Doane Observatory, leads the ‘Scopes in the City outreach program and the telescope facilitation volunteer program, and helps with special observing programs when there’s something interesting or unique happening in the sky.
The list goes on. She also acts as a liaison for media, journalists and major publications interested in the Adler’s expertise, works with her peers to plan future exhibits and conducts telescope training workshops.
It’s a daunting list of tasks, but you wouldn’t know it the way Nichols talks about her work: “It’s fun basically every day,” Nichols explained.
M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis
Nichols came to Adler with an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy. She wanted to go further — but not further into astronomy. She needed something that would help her translate her extensive knowledge in a way that resonated with the general public.
National Louis University (NLU) provided the solution she was looking for.
Nichols utilized NLU’s multiple locations in order to help accommodate her busy schedule, and after putting in a few classes here and there over a number of years, she graduated in 2002 with an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction.
Her new degree provided Nichols with a tool box of education skills to complement her expertise in astronomy.
“Having both degrees allows me to, in essence, straddle both worlds to figure out the best way to explain astronomical concepts so that the public will understand — and hopefully they will get excited about the new information too,” she explained.
The Black Sea: An Adler Voyage
Cosmos wasn’t the only voyage that changed Nichols’ life.
Back in 1999, Nichols went on a Black Sea cruise visiting Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Greece — care of the Adler Planetarium.
She was part of a large group of about 200 people, including families with children, who planned to experience that year’s total solar eclipse and Perseid meteor shower. Nichols was tasked with providing exciting educational activities throughout the week-long voyage.
Of all the fun she has at Adler, this trip tops her list.
“Yes, I really did get to go on a cruise for my job! And yes, we did see the solar eclipse and the Perseid meteor shower. It was an amazing opportunity,” Nichols reminisced.