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Looking up

Posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Features, September 2011.

There is a list, famous among astronomers, of 110 faint objects in the night sky, first cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century. A “Messier marathon” is when astronomers begin at dusk and work until dawn, hoping to locate every single one, searching amid the field of stars for each elusive light source, be it a distant galaxy or an ancient supernova.

Donna Hummell, M.D., knows the night sky so well she has seen every Messier object, participated in four marathons, and once sighted 103 of the 110 in a single night, foiled in the elusive remaining seven objects only by the horizon and the light of the sun.

“Not many have done that, especially by hand,” says Rocky Alvey, program manager of Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory, with obvious admiration.

Hummell, associate professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Director of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, examines children for a living and the cosmos for fun. She is an amateur astronomer who has achieved some notable accomplishments, including serving as vice president of the Barnard Seyfert Astronomical Society (BSAS), the organization for Nashvillians who are interested in the cosmos.

Her interest in astronomy as an adult was kindled on a trip with her then-middle-school-age son Hunter to Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory to observe an eclipse of the moon.

“That was really my first trip to Dyer, and it was incredible to see the lunar surface in that kind of detail,” she says.

It wasn’t long after that the family, including daughter Rachel and Hummell’s husband, Noel Tulipan, M.D., professor of Neurological Surgery, bought a small telescope and Hummell began scanning the sky for fun.

Later, as her interest grew, she bought a larger telescope that allows her to see more distant and faint objects, but, she is quick to note, amateur astronomy is more about the enjoyment of the sky than the hardware.

“Just using binoculars to look up at the night sky can be eye-opening,” she says.

Hummell says she enjoys the observational aspect of astronomy; her son Hunter was more interested in the physics—so much so, in fact, that he is now a physics major at Washington University in St. Louis. Rachel stuck closer to her mom and dad’s biomedical careers—she is studying to be a veterinarian.

A desire to know the world

“My interest in science started when I was a young girl,” Hummell says. “My grandfather was a self-taught natural scientist. He got me interested in rock collecting. I really enjoyed that a lot.

“My mother and grandmother were avid gardeners and knew a lot about plants. I think that’s how I got interested in science.”

Rather than geology or botany, though, her interests turned toward medicine. She was a chemistry major in college and decided to focus on pediatric immunology for a career.

But choosing a career path in one science doesn’t take away interest from all others. The night sky is big enough for everybody, from poets to physicists to people who just want to know what they’re seeing—and Hummell says she fell into that latter category.

“[For a long time] I enjoyed the sky, but I didn’t know what I was looking at,” she says.

Now, it’s fair to say, she does. In addition to viewing the Messier objects, she is engaged in making her way through the Herschel 400, a list of deep space objects that are even more challenging to find with a telescope.

She has observed a transit of Venus across the sun in Hungary, and on a family visit to Argentina managed to connect with a local astronomy group and was able to observe Eta Carinae, a star system with a surrounding nebula that is a highlight of the skies of the Southern Hemisphere.

When somebody asks her what her favorite sight in the night sky is, she says quietly, “I never get tired of the Orion Nebula”—a brilliant cloud of interstellar dust where stars are still being born.

She says she thinks the wellspring of both astronomy and medicine are a desire to know the world.

“I entered medicine through the science side,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in the way things work. Math and science are tools to understand the world.”

Sharing knowledge

Hummell has high standing in the community of Middle Tennessee amateur astronomers.

“She is very knowledgeable about astronomy, and is willing to share her knowledge and leadership with everybody,” says local attorney Joe Boyd, a two-term president of the BSAS who has worked with Hummell on projects of the society.

Alvey, the Dyer Observatory program manager, also praises her willingness to help out by serving the astronomy society. “The survival of the BSAS depends on getting people like her involved,” he says.

And while nobody gets involved in something like an astronomy society because of a deep desire to sit through committee meetings, Hummell says she finds value in helping provide the administrative framework to allow the club to meet its goal of service to science and to the community.

She has taught at public star parties hosted by the astronomical society, and is a counselor for Boy Scouts seeking merit badges related to science or astronomy.

“The members have a passion for teaching,” she says. “I consider myself a teacher in the medical field, and I see that a lot in the members of the BSAS.”

Sometimes, she says, she thinks about her grandfather with love and gratitude for interesting her in rock collecting when she was a young girl.

“I believe I studied and majored in chemistry in college because he was a self-taught chemist and metallurgist,” she says. “He died of lung cancer when I was 16 years old. I never got a chance to discuss chemistry seriously with him, and I missed his loving encouragement when the college courses became tougher.

“It is so important to put that spark of interest in a young person,” she says.

She doesn’t add, because she doesn’t have to: because sometimes, if the young person learns to live with an open mind, that spark never goes out.

To find out more about Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory, go to

To find out about the Barnard Seyfert Astronomical Society, go to

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