TAEM interview with Dr. Harold A. Geller of GMU

TAEM- We recently had the pleasure of a guided tour of the telescope observatory at George Mason University by Dr. Harold A. Geller, the observatory’s director. We decided to learn a little more about him and were astonished about what we uncovered. Harold, please shed some light on your educational background and its long standing connection with George Mason University.

HG- The academic path to my doctorate was anything but straight.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, I returned to academia as a graduate student at George Mason University (GMU).  At that time, GMU was a medium sized liberal arts commuter-type college.  Not having a graduate degree program in my discipline interest, I designed my own program through the university’s master’s program in interdisciplinary studies.  I completed my master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in astronomy and informatics.  As I was working for a university consortium, I naturally maintained ties in higher education.  I applied for and received a Commonwealth Fellowship from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.  I initially sought to complete a PhD in Physical Sciences.  Ultimately, I switched to the doctoral program in education.  I also taught at the Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas Campus, for 4 years while I continued to work toward my doctorate in education.  Ultimately, I was offered a full time position at George Mason University, and chose to enter academia on a full-time basis.  I had been a part-time instructor in physics and astronomy for seven years prior to joining GMU as a full-time faculty member.

TAEM- We have discovered that you not only direct the observatory but also helped in its design. Please describe the current telescope and its recent predecessor.

HG- I believe that it was in 2002 that I was first tasked by the Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy to develop a design for a GMU observatory to be constructed as part of a new building on campus.  GMU had actually had an observatory in the 1970’s.  It was originally a converted pig sty, that is the building used to house pigs on the farm land that became part of the GMU campus.  In 1975, three students volunteered to build a new telescope for the observatory.  Under the supervision of Dr. Bill Lankford, the students, two of whom married (Chipper Peterson and John Whalan).  They completed construction of a customized 12-inch reflector.  Unfortunately, in about 1979 it was decided that the observatory would be torn down and a new building called the Field House would take its place.  GMU administrators had a small aluminum shed built for the department to replace the observatory.  Unfortunately, by 1981 when I first came to GMU, the observatory had been destroyed by vandalism.  In fact, when I came to GMU that year, I started a petition to the president of GMU to get a new observatory built.  GMU administrators had talked with the department chairs between 1981 and 2001 about providing a new observatory, but it wasn’t until 2001 when the promise of a new observatory became real.

GMU let a contract for a telescope to be built in 2006 with a firm in Georgia which did not make good on delivery.  A lengthy lawsuit followed, which was partially settled out of court in 2011.  The current telescope was assembled by Optical Guidance Systems (OGS) of Pennsylvania and was hoisted (by crane) into the observatory in May 2011.  The total weight of the telescope is about 4500 pounds or two and a quarter tons.  It became operational in July 2011.  It is a 32” diameter Ritchey-Chretien style telescope.  Prior to this telescope we had a telescope which was obtained from surplus from Virginia Tech.  That telescope was a Cassegrain design reflector with a 14” diameter mirror and 12” effective surface after installation in a mirror mount.  It had been originally donated to Virginia Tech by Armando Mancini.  The Mancini family had been contacted and his son, Armand Mancini not only agreed to the transfer of the telescope to GMU but also agreed to pay for refurbishment of the telescope as it had been damaged during its teardown and storage period.

TAEM- How did you come about with the design of the observatory itself and what took place to achieve its construction?

HG- When I learned of the opportunity to design a new observatory for GMU after so many years I first spoke with colleagues in the field who have gone through similar experiences.  I learned of different types of observatories and some of the experiences that other universities had with the construction.  I still recall going to the downtown area of Washington DC (K Street) and speaking with the architects designated to design the building now known as Research Hall.  We spent hours going over the concepts necessary to build an observatory.  A few months later I returned to the architects’ offices downtown and saw the design.  I must admit I was pleased, even though we had already compromised on a number of issues.  The most useful observatories are those that are atop a completely isolated pier.  Unfortunately, due to the funds available for the construction of Research Hall, the observatory could not be built in this fashion.  I had learned about what is called a semi-isolated pier construction.  It is this that type of construction that I worked upon with the architect.  I still recall the original design, the architects had really listened to my concerns and achieved a design that I thought we would be very proud of, in the end.  Unfortunately, even that design was deemed too expensive, and the architects worked on a design which would fit the allotted budget.  Even with a finalized design, there were issues that had to be dealt with, along the way.  Architectural drawings had been changed in order to accommodate other aspects of the building design which were deemed to be unsuitable and changed.  Then, the contractor building the building didn’t follow the drawings exactly.  So many times I heard the phrase, Murphy’s Law.  Believe me, everything that could go wrong with the construction did.

TAEM- Previous to this you worked with the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Please describe this aspect of your life for our readers.

HG- Actually, I was an adjunct professor at GMU when I took a part time position working at the Einstein Planetarium in the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington DC.  I was an operator of the planetarium projector which was originally given to the USA by the, then West German, Chancellor on the anniversary of the American Revolution, July 1976.  I believe it was a Spitz Via model planetarium projector.  It was of the so-called analog design type of planetarium projector.  Modern day planetarium projectors are of the digital kind today.  It was a very different experience operating the projector in those days.  I also gave lectures at the Einstein Planetarium, talking about all aspects of astronomy, just as I was doing as an instructor at GMU.

TAEM- You also served as the principal investigator for the Office of Naval Research. What did this work entail, and tell us of your achievements with this important position?

HG- In 1992 I obtained a position as Deputy Director of Washington Operations for the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Networks (CIESIN).  While with CIESIN I became program manager and principal investigator of a 7 million dollar grant with the Office of Naval Research for advancing remote sensing and geographic information technologies.  The main thrust of this grant was to transfer data from the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy which had been recently de-classified under a request by then Vice-President Gore, and put those data in a format that would be useful in the study of climate changes taking place especially in the Arctic region.  There was also a task under that grant which had a technical group assemble a geographic information system (GIS) with Navy data for the island of Kaho’olawe.  That island had recently been turned over to the state of Hawaii after being utilized as a staging arena for naval forces since World War II.  The Technical Director for the Oceanographer of the Navy was also interested in doing educational outreach, and instructed us to develop an education application.  I decided to lead that specific task myself and the effort to develop educational CD-ROMs with the assistance of high school teachers.  I am proud to say that the CD-ROMs developed are still being used in certain classrooms.  One is called the Arctic Observatory and the other is called the Kaho’olawe Surveyor.

TAEM- You were also honored by the Cambridge Who’s Who for Excellence in Science Education. Tell us about this event in your life and the organization that honored you with this award.

HG- Cambridge Who’s Who is best described by their own webpages, located at http://www.cambridgewhoswho.com/mainsite/aboutus/

As stated there: “Cambridge Who’s Who is the fastest-growing publisher of executive, professional and entrepreneur biographies in the world today.”  Furthermore: The Cambridge Who’s Who Registry is a detailed compilation of biographies of executives, professionals and entrepreneurs in nearly every industry and career field.”

I was contacted by Cambridge Who’s Who when they wanted to include me in their Who’s Who Registry.  About one year after I completed the process, I was again contacted by their people and informed that they wished to honor me with this award.  I don’t know how they determine who should win awards.

I have actually had my biography published for many years by the Marquis Who’s Who Publication Board.  My biography is in the Marquis Who’s Who in the World as well as the Who’s Who in Science and Engineering.

To me a real significant achievement is my award in 2008 of the Faculty Member of the Year at GMU.  This award is voted upon by alumni of GMU and when I received this award I was pleased to have my brother, who died of cancer in November 2011, join me at the award ceremonies on campus here at GMU in 2008.

I am also proud to have on my office wall a service award from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 1989 for my volunteer service as a speaker and tour guide at the Greenbelt campus of NASA.  That award was handed to me by the Director of NASA GSFC at that time, Dr. John Townsend.  Next to that award is a picture near the time of the award.  A number of my colleagues in the picture are gone now, but I remember many of them fondly.

TAEM- Another organization that you are currently working with is VISTA. Please explain the organization to our readers and the goals that it is working on.

HG- The Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) is a partnership among 47 school districts, six universities, and the Virginia Department of Education.  To achieve its goals, GMU leads an effort to build an infrastructure to provide sustained, intensive science teacher professional development to increase student performance.  The goal of VISTA is to improve science teaching and student learning throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia especially in high-need (high-poverty, high minority) schools.

As stated in our proposal, the objectives to meet our goals include:

  • Increase student learning in science including students with special needs;
  • Enhance quality of elementary science teaching by including inquiry-based teaching;
  • Enhance the quality of teaching by new, underprepared secondary science teachers, including having students conduct inquiry-based laboratory activities;
  • Increase the number of certified middle school and high school science teachers;
  • Increase access for rural teachers to professional development;
  • Build the state infrastructure to support effective science teaching and learning; and,
  • Conduct research to determine what makes the most significant difference in helping teachers to help students learn.

We accomplish our objectives by conducting in-service professional development courses for teachers, especially in their first or second year of teaching science.  We also provide teachers with experience in applying problem based learning (PBL) by having teachers use PBL with students attending a two-week science camp in the summer at GMU Fairfax Campus and participating campuses around the state, including the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.

TAEM- Please explain your part in VISTA and the work that you produced for them.

HG- As part of the management team for VISTA, I participate in a committee that oversees the development of the scenarios used in problem based learning during the summer science camps.  We first examine the latest scores from the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) examinations given in grades 3, 5, 8 and high school.  We analyze the results and determine where the students are performing weakest.  We then develop scenarios for PBL style teaching that will focus the students on these weakest performing areas.  These scenarios are then used as the underpinning focus for the summer science camps and the teacher workshops.  After all, poor performance by students in examinations is often accompanied by poor understanding of teachers for those specific questions.  I also act as the physical science expert for teachers enrolled in the in-service training.  I spend time with them in explaining physical concepts and recommend how they might better teach these concepts in a hands-on manner with their elementary school students back in their districts.  You can learn more about the VISTA program online at http://vista.gmu.edu/

TAEM- A very interesting aspect of your life has been revealed to us, and that is your work with the SETI Institute. Tell our readers about this organization and the involvement that you have with it.

HG- Back in 2010, Professor Stephen Hawking, the world renowned British astrophysicist, best known for his confinement to a wheelchair, gave an interview to a British newspaper.  At one point he was questioned about his beliefs related to the feasibility and search for intelligent life on other planets in our galaxy.  As it turned out, Hawking told the reporter that he felt that humans should not try to communicate with extraterrestrial life forms, because they might then come to Earth and conquer us, just like Columbus did to the Native Americans back in 1492.  I disagreed with Hawking and I wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Cosmology.  My letter was chosen for publication.  As it turns out, a member of the SETI Institute was involved in research associated with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence life, and apparently liked my letter to the editor.  He invited me to join him on an effort by the SETI Institute leading to the publication of a volume that will appear next year, if all goes well.  The research and published volume is being introduced by Dr. Frank Drake.  Professor Drake is best known for his equation related to the number of possible intelligent civilizations in our galaxy called the Drake Equation.  I am not yet certain that my research will be published in this volume, but I am hoping that it will and I look forward to the special volume being published next year.  You can find my commentary as published by the Journal of Cosmology online at http://journalofcosmology.com/Aliens111.html

TAEM- You have also been contracted by NASA/ JPL for a project that is of personal interest to me. Please inform our readership of it and the possibilities that it refers to.

HG- Yes, many years ago the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) developed a program that would best provide for public outreach with respect to the programs that they support within NASA, the planetary missions.  So, NASA/JPL developed the Solar System Ambassador program.  Basically it is a large network of advanced amateurs and professionals who can speak at events regarding the JPL missions.  For example, I will be speaking at the monthly meeting of the Potomac Geophysical Society (PGS) about the Mars Science Laboratory and the Curiosity Rover.  In August I spoke to a group of 250 amateur astronomers about Mars and the Curiosity Rover at the Almost Heaven Star Party in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.  I also spoke about Mars and the rover to a class of 6th graders in Fairfax City back in March.  You can learn more about the Solar System Ambassador Program online at http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/

TAEM- You also have published a book on astrobiology. Please tell us about it and where we can find it.

HG- Yes, the book is titled Astrobiology: The Integrated Science.  It was originally published in 2008, but it saw a re-printing with minor revisions in July 2012.  It is meant for teachers who are interested in teaching astrobiology as an interdisciplinary science course.  It is available on Amazon.com.  You can find it here.

TAEM- Dr. Geller, it has been an extreme honor to have met you. Your work in the field of Science and Education is an inspiration, not only to your students, but as an example of what mankind can achieve. We want to thank you for the time that you spent with us on this interview and look forward to hearing from you again it the very near future. We also hope that you can share this interview with your school and interest other members of your faculty to step forward and tell us about their work as well.