Nick Eakes has been contributing to research at Carolina for 15 years.
Nick Eakes has worked for UNC-Chapel Hill in a variety of roles, most recently as a science education specialist at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Eakes coordinates Morehead’s outreach efforts including the mobile planetarium and skywatching programs.
What brought you to Carolina?
I grew up here. I graduated from East Chapel Hill High School in 2008 and UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with a BA in psychology. I began my time at Morehead Planetarium as a high school volunteer, teaching LEGO engineering camps for elementary age children in the summers leading up to college. My interest in astronomy and love for the planetarium grew from there.
How has your role here changed over the years?
I continued my volunteering at the planetarium as I began my undergraduate studies at Carolina. I had an awesome mentor at Morehead named Mickey Jo Sorrell, and in the spring of my freshman year, she suggested I apply to be a part of the Morehead education team for the GSK Fulldome Theater. I took Astronomy 101 and 102 as a prerequisite and was hooked. As a part of the education team, I learned to manage planetarium equipment and present programs, and I continued volunteering throughout my undergraduate program.
Once I graduated, I wanted to stick around and build my science communication skills. I became a full-time programs intern in 2013. This role involved being in the museum every day, interacting with the public, and teaching programs at Morehead’s theater and Science Stage. This consistency helped me build my science communication muscles and connected me with so many great folks. In 2014, I was accepted to the NASA Solar System Ambassadors program — a nationwide network of volunteer space enthusiasts who connect their local communities with current NASA programs and research.
After gaining a better picture of museum work through the program, I applied to become a full-time permanent staff member in 2015, coordinating Morehead’s statewide astronomy outreach efforts. It has been a rewarding path to grow from a student volunteer to a mentor for new students that work at Morehead.
Throughout my time at the planetarium, our programs, outreach efforts, building design, and projection technology have all changed in various ways, but how we engage visitors with the night sky remains the same. Morehead is known for its welcoming atmosphere and personal touch with programs that help visitors better understand science and the world around them.
What’s kept you at Carolina?
This job is incredibly fulfilling. When you see that spark of excitement when a student connects the dots on a tough problem, or when someone sees Saturn through a telescope for the first time and looks at you in awe, you’re experiencing science learning in action. Those moments can completely change the way people think about the world around them.
I think I ultimately stuck around at Carolina because it is so rare and unique to help facilitate those experiences. As a local, I realize that being a part of a historic institution like Morehead was an honor and not to be taken for granted. I was lucky to make my way into such a great community of educators, but even more lucky to meet my wife, Hope, and a wide array of found family at Carolina and in the Triangle area. We love it here, and I feel lucky to be a Tar Heel.
What contribution are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the statewide scope of our outreach efforts. Our mobile planetarium travels to all 100 counties throughout North Carolina and gives folks near and far a chance to experience our programs. This state has such rich cultural diversity and history, and rural students are so eager to connect with science. I call it a success if I can inspire a single person to look up at the sky and think about their own place and purpose in the universe.
What is a uniquely Carolina experience you’ve had?
In 2017, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell visited Morehead for the first time since training in our dome in the 1960s and ’70s. Governor Cooper and other honored guests attended the event — but meeting a fabled astronaut in the room where he and 61 others trained in celestial navigation was quite a remarkable experience. I always love to tell students that 62 NASA astronauts are among the unique “alumni” of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Rooted recognizes long-standing members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community who have aided in the advancement of research by staying at Carolina. They are crucial to the UNC Research enterprise, experts in their fields, and loyal Tar Heels. Know someone we should feature? Nominate a researcher.