Science allows us to make sense of the world around us.
We learn about the moon and the tides, the Earth’s orbit and the changing of seasons. We learn about the gases in our atmosphere and the warming of our climate. We learn about the mysterious, colorful planets in our solar system, astounded by their beauty and fascinated with their obscurity.
But imagine trying to understand this world without being able to see any of it. Or hear any of it. Or having a developmental disability that comes with unique learning and communication challenges.
Ohio State graduating senior Anna Voelker thinks everyone — including those who are blind, deaf or have autism spectrum disorder — should be able to learn about science.
“People who are part of marginalized groups deserve equal access to science and all of the mind-blowing discoveries that it has to offer,” Voelker said.
With this ambition, along with a detailed plan, Voelker was selected as a recipient of the 2018 President’s Prize last fall. The Prize is Ohio State’s highest recognition given to exceptional students who want to make the world a better place.
Voelker is one of two winners this year, along with fellow student Alina Sharafutdinova, who plans to tackle the opioid epidemic. Each student receives a $50,000 living stipend and up to $50,000 in startup funding for her project.
“These projects will uplift lives in meaningful ways for members of our community,” said Ohio State President Michael V. Drake. “Alina and Anna are intelligent, passionate and motivated to make the world a better place.”
Voelker’s vision for creating more accessible science involves an elaborate plan she calls AstroAccess. It’s a multi-faceted approach to communicate astronomy and science to those with disabilities. The plan involves research, forming connections, developing materials and culminating with a first-of-its-kind international conference.
Impossible? Not a chance.
“Anna is fearless. She consistently takes steps that are too bold, but then she pulls them off,” said Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy John Beacom, just one of the Ohio State faculty members who’s played a key role in guiding Voelker and helping her discover her life’s mission. Beacon is also Voelker's advisor for the AstroAccess project.
Discovering the right space
Voelker remembers the day she became obsessed with astronomy. During a visit to the Carnegie Science Center in her hometown of Pittsburgh, she met astronaut Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian ever to travel to space.
“I just remember being so excited about this whole world of astronomy,” she recalls. “That made me wonder: What else can I do? What else can I discover in this field?"
Voelker eventually pursued her new passion at Ohio State, a university that she knew would offer endless opportunities to explore her interests. For a change of pace, she enrolled in a class completely unrelated to astronomy — a class that helped kids with autism spectrum disorder develop communication and social skills through Shakespeare-inspired acting games.
It got Voelker thinking. Could she somehow combine her interest in science with her passion for helping people? She mentioned it to her advisor, who helped Voelker design a custom major to match her interests.
A new path of study was born: science communication and accessibility.
“I think that having the ability to create my own degree and self-design this path is crucial to my experience here,” said Voelker, who also has a minor in astronomy and astrophysics.
Working with faculty mentors in disparate areas such as communication, physics and disability studies, Voelker pursued classes and research projects that allowed her to combine her interests.
Voelker's advisor connected her with renowned faculty, such as astronomy expert Paul Sutter, who helped Voelker find new research projects.
“The combination of her energy, creativity and dedication are unparalleled among any student I’ve met. Her passion is just what this critical outreach project needs to serve the mission of Ohio State,” he said.
Sutter connected her to the COSI museum in Columbus, where she implemented a planetarium show that is accessible to blind and deaf audience members through the use of captions and 3-D models of the constellations.
“Her accessible planetarium show at COSI was a huge hit and led to exciting conversations between the COSI staff and our team at Ohio State about creating accessible science programming in the community,” said Margaret Price, associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of English, who specializes in disability studies. She helped Voelker develop the COSI presentation and will serve as a mentor for the AstroAccess project.
Voelker also connected with the International Astronomical Union, which allows her to collaborate with people across the globe to make astronomy more accessible to everyone. And she spent this semester at Kennedy Space Center, focusing on teaching educators about astronomy accessibility and also helping local school children learn about science.
The next frontier
After graduation in May, Voelker will take part in a fellowship at The Aerospace Corporation in California before beginning her next big adventure — her President’s Prize project that involves big, bold ideas.
She plans to research and learn from accessibility projects in South Africa, develop new games and teaching methods for children with autism and help bring Ohio State to the forefront of science accessibility by hosting an international conference at the university.
“I’m really excited for this opportunity to make something new happen and to reach people who so often aren’t the focus of outreach efforts in the field of science,” she said. “I’m just so excited and so thankful to have this opportunity right now.”