Year of Graduation: 1985
Current Occupation: Founder and owner of You Can Do Astronomy and works as the Planetarium Educator/Manager at the Children’s Museum in Hartford, CT
For our 85th Anniversary Celebration in April 2014, we held an Alumnae Speaker event, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Adventures of our Alumnae.” Noreen Grice (CLA 1985) was one of our incredible participants. Noreen is the founder and owner of You Can Do Astronomy and also currently works as the Planetarium Educator/Manager at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford, CT. For those who were unable to attend our speaker panel, we wanted to make sure you would still have an opportunity to hear about Noreen’s work making astronomy and space science universally accessible.
Who are you? (Not your job or education, but who are you?)
I’m a person who likes to learn about new things, keep connections with people (and things that were familiar to me growing up), share experiences and help others to succeed. My husband, mother and I enjoy watching documentaries, especially about people and travel. I like staying in touch with people including teachers (yes from BU!) and friends through the years. My husband and I like going to tag sales, and I like rediscovering things from the 1970s and 1980s. And I like helping people have greater access to the night sky – by talking to them and by creating new resources for non-visual learners.
What was your favorite HER House tradition?
I enjoyed eating meals together, having meetings and having fun at special events. I’m an only child so it was amazing suddenly having a big “family” to share experiences.
What inspired you to pursue a career in making astronomy accessible for everyone?
My work in making astronomy accessible happened because I was in the right place at the right time. On a casual Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1984, I was working in the planetarium (at the Museum of Science in Boston) when a group of blind students came in line for the next show. I didn’t know anyone who was blind and what to do. My manager said to “help those people to their seats – that’s all you have to do.” I did that and after the show, as the audience was leaving, I asked that group how they liked the show. It turned out that they didn’t like the show and I felt terrible. That moment in time started me on a path to understand why the planetarium was not a good experience for people who were blind or visually impaired and what I could do to fix it. It was a journey that began in 1984 and still continues!
How did you turn an idea into a company?
The Museum of Science published my first accessible astronomy book, Touch the Stars, in 1990. The book had raised (tactile) astronomy images that could be used independently or to supplement a planetarium show. Touch the Stars was successful (mostly by word of mouth), and I revised it through 4 editions.
In 1999, I was contacted by a professor at DePaul University. He had seen Touch the Stars in a gift shop in Chicago and wondered if there was a way to make images from the Hubble Space Telescope accessible to readers who are blind. The Museum suggested that I work on this project on my own so I had to create a personal affiliation and chose You Can Do Astronomy. The book with tactile pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope was titled, Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy (2002) and was the first in a series of NASA books that I wrote.
In 2004, I officially registered You Can Do Astronomy LLC as a company in the state of Connecticut (where I live). I also serve on the Board of the Central Connecticut chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
What advice do you have for those who are told they can’t do something, particularly something they are passionate about doing?
Being told “you can’t” is something I’m familiar with. I was raised by my mother and grandmother at a time when single parents were uncommon. I grew up in the public housing projects in Malden and saw neighbors being hauled to jail. I knew that education would be my way out of the projects. When I applied to BU, some people said that I wouldn’t be accepted or couldn’t afford it. I got accepted and finances were very difficult, but I managed to piece together financial aid and student loans to just cover tuition. My uncle helped a little with rent so I could live at the HER House.
The day after the blind students came to the planetarium, I took the bus to Watertown to visit the Perkins School for the Blind. I wanted to understand what went wrong in the planetarium. As I flipped through some Braille books in their library, I asked if many books had raised pictures. The librarian told me that not many books had raised pictures “because they were expensive and labor intensive.” As I heard the librarian’s words, I remembered something about growing up in the housing projects. Some of my classmates would tell me that their mothers said I could not come over after school because I was a “project kid.” I remember that I didn’t understand why someone who didn’t know me would assume I was a bad person and how it made me feel sad. And then I thought about the planetarium experience and how the Museum had made an assumption that visitors who were blind probably would not come to the planetarium. I couldn’t change what happened to me as a child but maybe I could make changes for these people and remove barriers to the night sky. And that’s how I took “no” and turned it into “I will do it!”
People who say you can’t do something should get out of the way, because you can do it. You can make positive changes for others and the world around you. You can make the word a better place. We can all do it, together.