Patricia Hofer Reiff

2009 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Patricia Hofer Reiff received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award for Enhancement of the Public Understanding of Earth and Space Science at the Joint Assembly, held 26 May 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The award honors “individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.”


Patricia Reiff has been active in space research for over 35 years, and has always worked to encourage others to learn and appreciate science. Even as a graduate student, she volunteered as a speaker for public events such as Astronomy Day, for continuing education courses at schools, and as a science fair judge. She received the first U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in astronomy teacher education in 1988 and, together with Carolyn Sumners (Houston Museum of Natural Science), created summerlong “teacher research” programs. Since then, she has offered teacher workshops and courses, ultimately leading to the master of science teaching degree that she created at Rice University.

While serving on the NASA Space Science Advisory Committee (1993–1998), Reiff was pivotal in convincing NASA of the importance of including education and public outreach (E/PO) as an integral part of mission design and funding. Since then, she has served on the E/PO teams for the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) mission and for the NSF Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling, and is now director of E/PO for the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission. She has been on the AGU Space Physics and Aeronomy E/PO committee since its inception in 1993. She developed a “Space Weather” CD-ROM that teaches about heliospheric science. Now in its tenth edition, it has been distributed free to over 130,000 teachers and to the general public.

When the “Public Use of the Internet” opportunity was announced by NASA in 1993, Reiff (with Sumners) proposed the first Internet-accessible museum kiosk (“Shoemaker-Levy 9″), which opened only 6 weeks after the Jupiter impact of comet SL9 in 1994. The museum software they developed, “Space Update,” now runs in more than 15 museums worldwide and has reached more than 2 million visitors. Some 40,000 CDs (now DVDs) have been distributed, mostly to museums and teachers, but also have been sold to the public. Over 3500 K-12 teachers are in her “e-teacher” network, and another 560 museum educators are in her “spacemus” network.

In 1997, the Reiff/Sumners team created an Earth science version of their museum software called “Earth Update,” which topped 20,000 CDs distributed this spring. That project also created the world’s first Earth science full-dome digital planetarium shows and the first full-dome digital planetarium in the United States, which opened in 1998. Well over a million visitors have seen these shows, and another million have viewed museum kiosks. In 2003, Reiff and Sumners extended this project by developing “Discovery Dome” (a portable planetarium) and additional content shows. There are now over 77 sites in 22 states and 21 countries in their outreach network. Over 100,000 students learned in portable domes in 2008, and over 15 terabytes of images and movies were downloaded free. In all, Reiff has been involved in the production of 10 planetarium shows and 20 pieces of educational software.

Reiff has personally taken the dome to dozens of outreach events, including events targeting Hispanic students, Native Americans, and young women. She has reached out to nearly 5000 middle-school girls in the Houston, Tex., area by hosting the annual “Sally Ride Festival” on the Rice campus. She and her company have donated dome systems to Ethiopia in 2008 and to Zambia in 2009.

Commercial development is a demonstrated success metric; Reiff is now president of two spin-off corporations, Space Update, Inc., and MTPE, Inc., which distribute shows, software, and equipment for the Discovery Domes.

Patricia Reiff has devoted a significant part of her professional life to conveying her passion for science, and space science in particular, to the general public. She personifies the ideals honored by the Athelstan Spilhaus Award: that science should be fun, that science is exciting, and that science is significant in our society.

—ROBERT H. EATHER, Keo Consultants, Brookline, Mass.


Thank you so much for this honor. It is especially gratifying to be nominated by the first awardee, Bob Eather, who set a standard for excellence and dedication. His speech quoted Athelstan Spilhaus, who said, “Work and play should be basically indistinguishable.”

To me, life is science, a series of mysteries to solve, and then to share. I grew up in a family whose credo is “learn, then teach.” My grandmother was principal of a high school where one of her teachers was her future husband (and future superintendent of schools).

My parents met in medical school. After the war, Mom gave up her practice to raise children, so we had the world’s best teacher: organic gardening, breastfeeding, and recycling, long before these things were trendy. She was incredibly creative, pragmatic, and inventive. Dad trusted her: “In our family, I make all the big decisions and your mom makes all the small decisions. So far, no big things have come up.”

My sister Kaethe taught me all that she learned at school every day. Many a meal was interrupted when one of us jumped up and grabbed the World Book to settle an argument or satisfy our curiosity. (My children now see who can Google it faster on their iPhones.) Learning and teaching are the yin and yang of science…neither is complete without the other. I’m proud that our children are now fourth-generation educators.

I was a child of the space age—I was seven when Sputnik flew, and my family watched it together. My dad and I took a father/daughter astronomy course at the Oklahoma City Planetarium while I was a Brownie Scout, and I was hooked. Astronauts were our heroes, and President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962 inspired many of us. The near miss of Apollo 13 steered me toward space science at Rice, where I was able to analyze Apollo 14 data in my graduate research. I’ve been in space plasma physics ever since. I’ve been blessed to work with Atmosphere Explorer (AE), Dynamics Explorer (DE), Polar, Cluster, Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE), and now the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, both in science and in outreach. I have been fortunate to work with Jim Burch, my mentor and friend. He knows the value of public education…there is even an elementary school in San Antonio named after him!

It’s a pleasure to acknowledge the many people on our outreach team. Far and away the most important is Carolyn Sumners, from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. She writes all of our planetarium shows, coinvented the “Discovery Dome,” and gives me ideas for museum display software. Then my chief programmer, Colin Law, tells us that what we want isn’t possible but then manages to makes it happen. Umbe Cantú works long into the nights making sure that conferences run smoothly, and Judy Dye has personally labeled and packaged over 40,000 CDs and DVDs.

Doing research for our planetarium shows has uncovered some surprising results. The last time the Sun was this quiet was when the Titanic sank, the coldest years of the twentieth century. Hominids became humans because of a major volcanic eruption. Teaching is learning.

I could not have spent the many hours I have been doing outreach on top of everything else without the support of my husband of 33 years, Tom Hill. My travels often take me to far-flung corners of the Earth to install a new planetarium or give a workshop, and Tom is always there to keep the home fires burning. He says being married to me is a lot like being a single parent! Thanks, Tom, and thanks again to AGU.

—PATRICIA HOFER REIFF, Rice University, Houston, Tex.