Leading eclipse expert found her own path in the stars

11 months 1 week 4 days ago Friday, July 07 2017 Jul 7, 2017 Friday, July 07, 2017 6:03:00 PM CDT July 07, 2017 in Eclipse Science
By: Eric Graves, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA - Angela Speck is obsessed with the coming total solar eclipse. She co-chairs the national task force on the event and spends her days planning and promoting what's to come. (See our Facebook Live interview with Speck below.)

Since she was a child in Bradford, England, space has called to her and the sky has demanded her attention. She would often walk around her childhood home at night and just look up at the stars.

It was the era of the Apollo space missions.

“We were learning a lot,” Speck said. “There were things on the news, and there were all sorts of angles on being able to get into space.”

Starting at age 5, she wanted to be an astronaut. But, as she grew up, she changed her mind: sound engineer, architect, actress. They all seemed appealing.

“With the exception of actress, all of those involved physics, so it never really caused any problems for me,” Speck said.

Education was always a priority in the Speck household. While her parents struggled financially, they always made sure there was money to fully support their children’s education.

“So we might not have had the same toys and things as everybody else, but we always had books and were able to do educational trips,” Speck said.

She believes her parents’ support of academia played a large role in where she is today.

“I don't think I appreciated it at the time, I don't think I realized how important it was and I don't think I realized what sacrifices they made to make it so they could afford for us to do things,” Speck said.

In addition to making sure she did well in school, Speck's parents wanted her to be a student of the world.

“Social justice has always been a part of my life,” Speck said. “My parents named me after Angela Davis.”

She was never sheltered from what was going on in the world, good or bad.

Her first trip abroad was to Paris, when she was eight years old. As her family was wandering around Moulin Rouge, she saw a woman and told her father how pretty the woman looked, and that was when her father explained prostitution to her.

“When I ask a question, I get an answer, I wouldn't get fobbed off,” Speck said.

She also frequently went to demonstrations with her family, beginning her fight for social justice, a battle that she still carries on today.

“Going to those things, you learn a lot, because it's not just your parents you’re interacting with, you're interacting with a whole lot of people,” Speck said.

In her teenage years, Speck began taking advanced courses to prepare herself for college.

In 1989, she left Bradford with eyes on a university in London, 200 miles away, which was far by British standards.

“From Bradford, you can only really go about 300 miles and then you fall off the island,” Speck said.

Speck’s first college astronomy class was a junior-level course. She now teaches the same material at MU, but students must have two semesters of prerequisite courses to even get in.

Speck graduated in 1992 with a degree in astrophysics and went to work in research and development for a small company that produced air cleaners, ionizers and other things with fans and filters

“There aren't many jobs you can do with a physics degree that don’t require a higher degree,” Speck said. “This was one where they wanted a physics degree, but they were also interested in some creativity.”

Speck returned to University College London to get her doctorate in astrophysics. One of her favorite experiences was a field observation trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. She was 14,000 feet off the ground, staring through a world class telescope at the sky, with a volcano exploding below her.

“It’s the best sky I had ever seen,” Speck said.

It was during graduate school Speck met her "other half," Alan Whittington, a fellow scientist who now chairs the geology department at MU.

The two moved to the United States in 1999 in search of clear skies and permanent jobs.

Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was their first home as they became Fighting Illini doing post-doc research at the University of Illinois.

“I was living in central London, my husband was living in central Paris and we both moved to central Illinois and it was a culture shock, in a big way,” Speck said.

When it came time to find a permanent job, Speck demanded one thing. 'I don't want to stay in the midwest, I don't want to be here anymore,' she told herself.

She changed her mind when she and her husband were both offered positions at the University of Missouri.

"We got the best combined deal," she said.

Speck said she initially had reservations about Columbia but has come to realize it is "really nice.'

"I'm not at all sad to be here," she said.

Speck said she and her family can always find things to do.

"There is lots going on. It's arty. There's quirkiness. It's not just a boring little town," she said.

A lot has changed since she and her husband arrived, including their family.

The couple have had two boys, Xander, 13, and Hamish, 10.

“Both boys, both obnoxious. They're both pretty smart,” Speck said.

Speck and Whittington mirror a lot of the same methods Speck’s parents used while raising her. They are not afraid of being honest with their children, as long as they know the answer to the boys' questions.

One morning, when her children were much younger, they were listening to NPR in the car, and one asked her what a suicide bomber was. She could not answer the question.

“I get what it is and what they do, but I don't understand why,” Speck said.

Speck said she thinks many parents might not want their children to hear such things, but she believes having an open conversation s necessary.

“There are spaces where it is uncomfortable, but you don't grow unless you step outside of your comfort zone and that is true for everybody, whether you are an adult or a child,” Speck said.

She and her husband also have taken their children to demonstrations on campus to let them experience that for themselves.

“They understand that this is part of life, I think that exposure to that is really important,” Speck said.

Speck and her family are also drawn to Columbia's art community. Every year they go to Art in the Park and buy at least one piece.

Displayed on one of the shelves of Speck's book shelf are a two blown glass art pieces. One the couple got as a wedding present and the other they got from Art in the Park.

Speck said the way light interacts with glass is "really interesting."

"My husband studies glass. Glassware is always going to be popular in this house,” she said.

Speck sits in front of two of her favorite glass pieces as she says it.

“These are the project that the fourth graders do every year, the stained glass window,” Speck said. “Both of the ones behind me, Xander worked on.”

Light shines through the glass panes and colors the room.

“Color is just everything, I love color,” Speck said.

It's one of the things she thinks about when she looks at the sky.

“I am really interested in how we use color as a way to figure out what is going on.”

When Speck first got to MU there was barely anything resembling an astronomy department, not even an upper level astronomy program.

“I developed the astronomy program, it now exists. I have to make sure we have courses offered and people to teach them.” Speck said.

Despite being known for her knowledge about the upcoming solar eclipse, her research is not related.

“It’s actually more of a hiatus in my research,” Speck said.

Her academic focus is the dust that forms around stars.

“Knowing what the dust is allows you to understand a whole lot more and it allows you understand how planets form and how life forms,” Speck said.

She wants to understand what the stardust is, what it is made of, what its crystal structure is and what impurities it has.

“I’m Interested in all of that and trying to understand what impact that dust has on its environment and what roles determine what forms, and we should be able to then infer what happened back in time.”

Outside of her actual research and job, Speck is active in the university community.

She played a large role in the protests on campus as the Faculty Council Chair of Diversity and Enhancement Committee

“I was doing a lot of work on supporting minority students on campus,” she said.

Speck said her work with the eclipse relates back to her love for social justice.

“The eclipse has turned out to be this thing that fits between my love of science, my love of teaching and outreach to the public and my social justice work,” Speck said.

With the eclipse being seen, at least partially, by the entire nation, Speck sees it as a very leveling event, very inclusive.

“There is an opportunity to engage in inner cities, in poor rural communities, in all sorts of places," she said.

As the co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s national task force she wants people to be exposed to science, much like she was growing up in the age of the space race.

"We want to inspire some kids the way that Apollo inspired my generation,” Speck said

Speck says she wants to show students that science is an "awesome" and "viable" career. But there is something there as well for those who don't want to make it a job.

“We also want to make fans. We don't need everyone to be a scientist, but we do need the majority of people to understand science and to care about science,” Speck said.

Speck said she'd like to see people get into science as much as sports. She said likes to watch and understands football, but will never play it.

"I care about the players, I care about what's going on. But, I'm never going to play it and that’s kind of the sort of fandom that science needs, “ Speck said. “We need to have a situation where people may not be doing science but, they have an appreciation for it.”

She sees the eclipse as a way to draw more people into science.

Ironically, Speck has never seen a total eclipse before herself. She had moved to Illinois by the time one crossed Britain in 1999.

Speck will be busy during the eclipse here, but doesn't plan to miss the moment of totality.

“I just want to take everything in. All of it,” Speck said. “And I don’t want anyone to bother me in those three minutes.”

Once it's over, Speck may turn her attention to writing a book, but that won't be her first priority.

“Ya, I’m going to sleep a lot in the fall,” she said.

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