How A&S launched the career of astronomy alum Kirsten Vanstone

January 19, 2024 by David Goldberg - A&S News

No matter where Kirsten Vanstone has gone in her career, she credits her degree from the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics for her success.

“It's a mind-expanding degree and it puts a lot of things in perspective,” says Vanstone, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1994 as a member of Victoria College.

Specializing in STEM engagement and science communications, Vanstone has worked with the Ontario Science Centre, the Royal Canadian Institute (the oldest scientific society in Canada), and the California Academy of Sciences, among other non-profits.

Her interest in the cosmos started in elementary school. Her teacher asked her to write a page about the solar system, but she ended up writing a page about every planet.

Vanstone grew up in a nurturing environment that encouraged her interest in astronomy. Her father was the late U of T mathematics Professor James Ray (J.R.) Vanstone. She also learned about the constellations on family camping trips from her uncle who was a bush pilot.

A person standing on a street looking up at the sky.
Kirsten Vanstone captured a colleague using her eclipse viewers to look at the 2017 partial solar eclipse in Toronto.

For the astronomy-obsessed Vanstone, a lifelong Toronto resident whose first job in high school was operating the elevator at the CN Tower, studying astronomy at U of T was a prestigious notion.

After all, this was the same institution where the late Professor Emeritus Tom Bolton first offered observational evidence of black holes.

Vanstone remembers Bolton’s lectures fondly. In the fall of 1993, Bolton, an avid baseball fan, jokingly threatened to cancel his class should it interfere with his enjoyment of the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series run. The Jays did win it all that year, and nobody missed a single class. The students brought in a Blue Jays commemorative Coke can and left it on his desk.

After Vanstone’s first year of study, she scored a summer job at the Ontario Science Centre. She got to wear an iconic lab coat and talk science with anyone who would listen.

“It was a dream come true,” says Vanstone. “I got to play with lasers, run the Van de Graaff generator and host programs in the centre’s little planetarium. It’s why I chose to pursue science communications.”

Vanstone says astronomy at U of T presented a unique opportunity for younger students.

“As an undergraduate, getting time on a major telescope wasn't something you saw too often.

“Even as undergraduate in third or fourth year, you were welcomed into the graduate tier, and it felt like you were really part of the community.”

Although she graduated 30 years ago, Vanstone keeps ties with astronomy at U of T and its researchers, both as a donor to the department and a volunteer with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

And these days, she’s back on St. George Campus, not as a student, but as head of operations for the Fields Institute for Research in the Mathematical Sciences, housed on College Street.

Eclipse 2024

In 1999, Vanstone was expecting to witness her first total solar eclipse. In her job as an astronomy educator with the California Academy of Sciences, she led a team to France, but a last-minute thunderstorm dashed all hope.

She got another chance in 2012. Vanstone took her family to watch the eclipse on a beach in Queensland, Australia. This time, the weather cooperated.

And the cosmos’ power to unite humanity was made even more clear to Vanstone in 2017, when residents of Toronto witnessed a partial solar eclipse with 87 per cent totality. She remembers how it got darker, the shadows were weird, and the birds annoyed.

“I was at a meeting downtown and everyone was going outside to watch the eclipse, and of course I knew all about it. I brought pairs of eclipse viewing glasses, which we ended up sharing with 200 people in a parking lot,” says Vanstone.

Eclipse 2024 could be the most viewed total solar eclipse in Canadian history with a path of totality that includes large swaths of southern Ontario, from Hamilton to Kingston. Toronto will only witness a partial eclipse this time around. Vanstone says the excitement amid the astronomy community is electric.

“We want people to be interested in the same stuff we love.”

Vanstone believes astronomy can inspire great minds anytime and anywhere.

“They call astronomy a gateway science. I learned about all the planets a long time ago and that interest never stopped.”