Nancy Alima Ali

University of California, Berkeley

  woman outdoors with observatories behind her

If you had told me when I was a teenager that I would end up working at a Space Sciences Lab, I never would have believed you.  At that age, I was firmly convinced that I was good at English and social studies but no good at math and science.  When I look back now, this assumption seems strange to me because the truth is that even then I was very interested in science.  In university, I took an astronomy class to fulfill my science requirement but was turned off by how the wonder of the universe was reduced to numbers.  Looking at an equation seemed to have no relevance to the actual stars in the sky. 

 I earned my degree in History and then went on to get a second degree in Education.  I was assigned to do my student teaching in sixth grade.  Lucky for me, the science curriculum for sixth-grade included astronomy.  I discovered I absolutely loved teaching about the phases of the moon, the size and scale of the solar system and the Sun.

After graduating, I moved to Hawaii and began teaching third grade.  It wasn’t too long before I became frustrated since I found I spent much more time on discipline than on teaching content.  So when a job opened up at Hawaii’s natural and cultural history museum, I jumped at the chance to move into informal education. 

The Bishop Museum had a planetarium show that explained how the Polynesian people came to Hawaii on canoes, using the stars to navigate.  This intrigued me because it was completely based on naked-eye observations of the sky.  There were no complex logarithms involved to understand and use the stars.  I started to read about how other cultures used the stars for practical purposes and was amazed to discover that cultures all over the world and throughout history have had intimate knowledge of the sky.  This was my introduction to the field of archaeoastronomy.

I decided I wanted to pursue a Masters degree in archaeoastronomy, but quickly realized that no such degree program existed.  Rather than giving up, I decided to create my own program.  Lesley University (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) offered an Independent Study program, where I could design my own course of study under the direction of three advisors.  Since Lesley University is known for its education programs, I had to look elsewhere for astronomy and archaeology advisors.  I was extremely fortunate that highly-regarded professors from Harvard University and Boston College agreed to help me in my unconventional studies. 

Each semester, I would fly from Hawaii to Cambridge to meet with my advisory team and decide what my research assignments would be.  In addition to traditional research papers, each semester I would focus on regular observations of the sky.  Over time, I became very familiar with celestial motions and began to feel “at home” with the sky. I also did a lot of research into Hawaiian astronomy, including doing field research at an ancient Hawaiian sacred site.

When I started my graduate studies, I had no idea what I was going to do with my degree when I finished it.  I just trusted that doing it would open doors for me that I couldn’t envision at that time.  When I was looking for a job after graduation, I sought out organizations that integrated cultural perspectives into astronomy education.  This led me to the Center for Science Education at the Space Sciences Lab at UC Berkeley.  Not all my work at UC Berkeley involves archaeoastronomy, but I do have opportunities to share my knowledge with others.  I have found that cultural astronomy is a great way to bring people together, because it focuses on the ways in which we share a common heritage in the sky.



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