In 2017, Jim Webster began going out at night near his New Jersey home to take pictures of our galaxy. With a 14-millimeter lens and a DSLR, he would capture long exposures of the Milky Way galaxy, revealing the delicate filaments of nebulae and countless clusters of stars hidden within the band of the galaxy’s arm.
It was a rekindling of a childhood passion for science and astronomy, first sparked by learning about the Apollo program at school. At home, Webster would stick his telescope out of his second-floor apartment window in Brooklyn to look at the Moon.
Now, decades later, after time in the Air Force and years working for Verizon, Webster had returned to his childhood passion. But the night sky had changed in the intervening time, and something else was turning up in his carefully-framed images of the night sky: light pollution.
Light from thousands of streetlights, headlights, porch lights and other sources bleeds into the night sky in cities and towns, obscuring the stars and making life difficult for nighttime creatures. As Webster learned more, he found out that light pollution is bad for humans, too: It can disrupt sleep schedules and even cause health problems.
“It’s about more than just losing the sky for astronomy,” he says.
Motivated, Webster became a DarkSky Advocate with the International DarkSky Association (IDA), helping to spread the work about the dangers of light pollution in his community. DarkSky Advocates educate and mobilize their communities around the dangers of light pollution, and show them what they can do to change things. Those early dark sky efforts led him to SciStarter, an organization connecting volunteers to citizen science projects, which in turn connected him to multiple opportunities for volunteers to track light pollution and share the data with researchers. He began taking light pollution readings for the project Globe at Night, which asks volunteers to monitor light pollution with or without simple tools.
Around then Verizon, where Webster works as an operations supervisor, launched a new volunteer partnership with SciStarter. SciStarter partners with Verizon’s Corporate Social Responsibility program to train and support Verizon employee volunteers in doing citizen science to protect the planet. Citizen Verizon Volunteers donate thousands of hours every year to their communities, including by doing citizen science projects. For Webster, it was a perfect confluence of events that let him join his fellow Verizon team members and actively pursue causes and projects that interested him personally.
In addition to projects, Webster started putting together short slideshows to show others how they could help take on issues like light pollution themselves. Armed with an ever-growing arsenal of slideshows, he reached out to local parks, libraries, nature festivals and more to see if they had upcoming events he could join or if they were interested in having him talk to their communities to introduce programs and resources offered by SciStarter and the International DarkSky Association. At each event, Jim engages people in real world science and teaches them how to get involved in several ongoing projects from home.
Webster has since expanded his repertoire beyond dark skies. His work with light pollution led him to coastal DarkSky groups, which led him to marine science projects like Marine Debris Tracker, and nature projects on iNaturalist.
This year, Webster also became a SciStarter Ambassador, a position that gives him even more reason to spread the word about how getting involved in science and data collection and analysis can help society. “Serving as an Ambassador is a chance to show others the wonders of nature and the night sky, and a path toward caring about the ecosystems we all inhabit,” Webster said. He hopes that by starting people on a citizen science journey, they discover a path toward making a meaningful difference in the world.
His work has served to fuel his own curiosity and learning as well, he says. Putting together presentations on new topics and projects gives him a chance to find out more about things he’s interested in, and learn something new.
Webster is now designing new resources to integrate into his SciStarter Ambassador presentations and weaving in interesting facts he’s discovered in preparing for the talks. He has a meteorite shard for participants to touch during his astronomy presentations, and trash taken from the ocean for discussions about the project Marine Debris Tracker. During presentations about the sun, he’ll bring up the unprecedented Carrington Event in 1859, which was a solar storm so powerful it sent sparks jumping from telegram machines. He’s even noticed some repeat attendees at his talks, like a mother and son who attended four presentations in a row.
Making a Difference
Webster says if there’s one thing he hopes people take away from his presentations, it’s that they can turn their passions into impact with citizen science projects. For Webster, it was astrophotography, but for others it might be a love of nature, or wildlife, or even just learning. He quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
For Webster, that learning journey recently expanded to include both bats and turkey vultures as he was preparing talks for Halloween-themed events. These are two misunderstood creatures that are imperiled in many places. Bats are important pollinators, he says, while turkey vultures fulfill an important ecological niche by scavenging animal remains.
“Turkey vultures are basically our cleanup crew,” he says. “If we didn’t have them, there could be a lot of potential health problems.” There are citizen science projects that help scientists learn more about these species while aiding volunteers in identifying ways to map their populations.
One of his biggest accomplishments to date is helping to set up an exhibit on light pollution at Jake’s Branch County Park in New Jersey, set to debut in early 2024. Webster helped get groups like the Sierra Club and the IDA on board, and also gave a presentation at the park.
“I brought in as many groups as I thought might be interested, because I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor,” he says. “It could actually help correct some light pollution issues we have.” As a result of the event, more people will know how to measure light pollution where they are and, most importantly, how simple it is to address the issue by turning off outdoor lights at night!
“I just like what I’m doing,” Webster says. “If I think of a presentation that people may be interested in now I’ll go for it.”
Want to become a SciStarter Ambassador to both learn more AND help others discover ways to turn curiosity into action? Our SciStarter Ambassador training program has the tools to help you! Sign up here to learn more.
If you’re interested in connecting with a SciStarter Ambassador for a Citizen Science Month event at your library, park, school or anything else, email email@example.com.