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The right person, in the right post, can transform a field.

Janet Akyüz Mattei was just such a person. As Director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers for 30 years, she drew dedicated amateur observers of variable stars into professional astronomy to the benefit of both groups. 

Janet started work on variable stars as a summer student at Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket; she became assistant to the AAVSO Director Margaret Mayall in 1972 and took over six month later, when Mayall retired. She was both welcoming to amateur observers and well-connected in the professional world, so that she could build valuable bridges between the two worlds. Her own astronomical research meant that she could identify scientific areas where the work of amateurs could really make a difference. One example arose with the discovery of gamma ray bursts; Janet not only realised that the detection of the short-lived afterglows of these events was an ideal challenge for the amateur observer, but also arranged a meeting in 2000 where interested amateurs and high energy astrophysics professionals could meet and develop a worldwide team for understanding these new and mysterious objects. 

It can be easy to forget that astronomers are people too. Janet didn’t and that’s part of her success. She made people, including her obituarist in A&G, Guy Hurst, feel welcome, appreciated and part of a global research effort: “amateurs found, as a result of Janet’s guidance, that all those long hours making variable star observations were really worthwhile”. Her excellent organization of Pro-Am conferences, informed by her and appreciation of the needs of different groups, resulted in a large team of dedicated amateur observers, in widely spaced locations, with disparate backgrounds, contributing to research in ways that advanced knowledge.

The power of enthusiastic interest is now more often harnessed in citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo. Janet’s understanding that making people welcome and providing information on the significance of the work they are doing is important in motivating and keeping volunteers active, whatever the project, has become part of the Zooniverse. Citizen scientists not only participate in the research, but also read the resulting research papers – and even author some of them. 

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Dr Sue Bowler

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Dr Sue Bowler

Dr Sue Bowler is Editor of A&G and A&G Forum.

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