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Interviews
Deirdre Kelleghan, Amateur Astronomer
Earth & Environment

Deirdre Kelleghan, Amateur Astronomer

Deirdre Kelleghan is an artist, amateur astronomer, informal educator and writer. Here she talks about how she chose her career, what her job is like, the cool things in her work, and her tips on what to study.

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first question!

What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

As regards talks, public speaking and designing workshops, my seven years as a member of the Saturn Observation Campaign (SOC) has been most influential.

The SOC is an informal educational programme for amateur astronomers run by JPL /NASA. My membership involves sharing information about the Cassini Mission to Saturn at least three times a year to a public audience. I have written and delivered talks about the Mission to hundreds of people over those years. I have also shared the planet Saturn with so many wide-eyed children and adults. This invaluable experience has given me a platform to write other talks and engage my audiences in a shared further exploration of our solar system and beyond.

Doing voluntary astronomy talks over the years at Dunsink Observatory has also been very rewarding. Participating in Science Week for several years has been wonderful. Giving talks in libraries, schools and arts centers to thousands of children each year is very satisfying. Being invited to do three presentations at Hofstra University New York during International Year of Astronomy 2009 was very cool. It was for the Astronomical League’s Annual Convention. Over the years I have enjoyed writing articles about astronomical subjects, astronomical drawing etc for magazines in Ireland, the UK and the USA.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

All the positive teachers, relatives and friends in my life. Other wonderful astronomers and astronomical artists who I have met along the way.

Describe a typical day?

I don’t tend to have a typical day; each day is different depending on the work in hand.

If I am painting, once I begin I tend to work for hours, then maybe not work on it for days and then come back to the canvas with fresh eyes. Some paintings take only days, some take months. Most of my paintings are explorations of the surfaces of other worlds. If I am doing a drawing workshop I pack the equipment in the car the evening before, so getting to the venue is my only pressure.

It’s very rewarding to impart the excitement of our solar system and space exploration via drawing to children. Sometimes several workshops in one day can be a challenge, especially if the venues are distant from each other. I have to be very flexible when I arrive as each venue is different and I need to adapt my presentation, equipment etc on the spot to suit the attendees.

If I choose to do a Moon drawing for a book or an article I am on tenterhooks hoping for a clear evening. On an ideal night I have the telescope set up early in the best position to follow my target. I might observe the area I intend to draw several times before I am ready to start. My drawing easel and pastels are ready and I have to be very focused indeed to capture the lunar feature in as much detail as possible. Full-phase Moon drawings can take up to two hours or more to complete, other features perhaps an hour.

Photography is involved if it’s a step-by-step article or book chapter that can be very awkward in the flow of the drawing. Mostly I would write an outline report on my drawing soon as it is finished.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

To be engaging, entertaining and to please my audience no matter what age they are or level of understanding they are coming from.

What's cool?

Regarding my astronomical drawings, it is totally cool to see photographic images taken at the same time of the same lunar or solar feature that I have also drawn. Compare both and be amazed at how close I got to reality with my eyes. It’s the coolest thing in the world to see children’s smiling faces when they have learned about a solar system object for the first time and produced a wonderful drawing of that object for themselves.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

When I was young, going on to third-level education was not something everyone did or could do – I had to go straight to work when I finished secondary school. This was difficult as I wanted to go to art college but could not. However, as I was working (in graphic design) I paid for myself to go to college at night and did a Diploma in Art in Industry and Commerce. To fulfill my needs I also did courses in life drawing at night in the National College of Art and Design which I totally loved. There is no hindsight worth pursuing, as what happened is in the past and I got on with my life in my own way, with my own drive.

What is your education to date?

When I was in secondary school, science and art classes were on at the same time. I wanted to do both of them. I choose to do science in class and was allowed to do art in my free classes and join in any art class that were taking place at those times. I sat Honours Biology for the Leaving Cert and Honours Art as well – it was important to me that the teachers were so flexible in my interest at the time. I worked in graphic design for several Dublin companies, producing a very varied volume of work for print. At one point I worked in the magazine industry designing and putting magazines together before the introduction of computers. When my children were small I helped my husband start a graphic design company. Over the years I worked in the company from time to time but was mostly a stay-at-home mom to the children. From 20 July 1969 I had a huge interest in the Moon, astronomy and space exploration. I was always showing kids the Moon, planets, comets, lunar eclipses in my back garden. It was only when my family were older that I had the time to jump into it and do something about it in a more serious way. I found myself back in college at Bray Institute of Further Education where I spent two years part-time doing all the modules that lead to a FETAC/NCVA Level 2 Business Studies. Communication was my favourite module and I decided to continue with that. Two more years at night and nine modules later I had a Diploma in Communication from University College Dublin.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Probably the most important education course I took on in later life was Communications in UCD. It enabled me to polish up what I was already doing. What I learned in my diploma course has been invaluable, in particular in public speaking.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

I have the ability to speak about the wonders of the night sky in a way that really touches people and gains their interest.

What is your dream job?

To visit remote observatories and have time to work toward my goal of doing the best astronomical drawings of our moon, our sun, and M42 [the Orion Nebula] ever seen. I would like to use top-of-the-range telescopes in the best possible environments. Ideally I would also like to write the best book on the Moon ever produced for children and in a dream world it would be a global success. To follow this up and still in the dream world, a trip in the International Space Station to do drawings of the Earth in Space would be amazing.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Being a self-employed artist is probably the most difficult job really. You need to be highly motivated in the tasks you set for yourself. You need to be able to work on your inspirations and be totally focused on your targets. If your painting does not work first time you need to be able to learn from your experience and use what worked in another piece. Your ability to have confidence in your journey exploring your choice of subjects in paint is important. As regards doing workshops, bringing fun into the entire effort is the most important element to achieve. Your audiences will learn in a more sustainable way and produce drawings to be proud of.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

As regards painting – an ability to focus on one task for long periods – tenacity, honesty and a pioneering spirit. As regards giving talks and workshops – being very organised in advance and being very believable in your delivery of and excitement about the content of your talk or workshop.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I would like to learn sign language so I can impart my enthusiastic talks and workshops to the hearing impaired.

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