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Astronomer and Artist Receives AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement

Annette S. Lee is honored for her outreach work informed by indigenous star knowledge. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Annette S. Lee, an astrophysicist and artist, will receive the 2021 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement in Science for her collaborative, culturally relevant and community-focused projects grounded in indigenous knowledge of the stars.

Since 2010, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has presented the award annually to honor early-career scientists or engineers who have demonstrated excellence in engaging with the public on issues related to science and technology and promoting meaningful dialogue between science and society.

“I walk through life with a deeply Indigenous approach. Public engagement is not an afterthought, it is a necessity for survival, like breathing,” wrote Lee in her nomination statement. Lee, who currently serves as associate professor of astronomy and physics at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and director of the SCSU Planetarium, is mixed-race Lakota and her communities are Ojibwe and D/Lakota.

In 2007, Lee launched Native Skywatchers, an initiative that aims to record, map and share indigenous star knowledge. With the goals of improving education inequalities faced by native youth, cultivating cultural pride and promoting community wellness, Native Skywatchers holds in-person workshops and symposia that bring together diverse groups of attendees, including indigenous knowledge keepers, scientists, artists, educators, youth and community members. The initiative has also made videos, lesson plans, articles and other resources available online for those interested in facilitating discussions in their own native communities, broadening the impacts of Lee’s public engagement work.

Among these resources are Lee’s own paintings. A professional visual artist of more than 30 years, Lee worked with collaborators to paint several sky star maps based on knowledge gathered through interviews with Ojibwe, D/Lakota and Ininew/Cree elders.

“I think people are starting to recognize that there is a place for art and science together,” Lee told AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion in 2020, when she was among the scholars selected to be highlighted in DoSER’s “Profiles in Science Engagement with Faith Communities” series.

Lee has also pursued astronomy education research to bolster the participation and achievement of native students and other groups underrepresented in the sciences. For her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy, which she earned in 2020 from University of the Western Cape in South Africa, Lee studied the use of culturally responsive curricula and strategies rooted in indigenous knowledge systems, finding that underrepresented minority students were eight times more likely to earn an A using such curricula.

Lee’s public engagement efforts have also found a home in museums. In 2017, she co-curated an exhibit at Ingenium: Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation called “One Sky – Many Astronomies.” The success of the permanent exhibition spurred the creation of a larger traveling exhibit launching next year: “One Sky – Many Worlds: Indigenous Voices in Astronomy,” for which Lee is lead curator and indigenous design advisor. The exhibition – led by indigenous voices and informed by indigenous design – will focus on the enduring connection between indigenous people and the night sky.

“Through her teaching, workshops, planetarium shows, digital products, artwork, conferences, lectures, publications and exhibitions, Dr. Lee has had a significant impact on how scholars and the public view science in North America, and worldwide,” wrote David Pantalony, curator of physical sciences and medicine at Ingenium, in nominating Lee for the award. “We all benefit from Dr. Lee’s efforts to broaden and deepen our understanding of science.”

Lee will be honored at an awards ceremony at the virtual AAAS Annual Meeting on Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. EST. To tune in, register today.

If you know someone that should be recognized for this award, please consider nominating them in our next upcoming cycle – which opens April 15, 2021! More information on eligibility requirements and the awards ahead of April 15 can be found here.