Changing Careers: Alastair Bruce
Dr Alastair Bruce is an astronomer and the planetarium manager at Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh, after making a career change from acting.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Dr Alastair Bruce, I'm an astronomer working at Dynamic Earth (Edinburgh’s science centre) as their first ever planetarium manager. Before Dynamic Earth I was a researcher at the Institute for Astronomy, part of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, where I split my time between researching active galaxies and working on a campaign to help promote the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
I did a PhD in Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh (2018), a BSc (Hons) in Physical Science at the Open University (2012) and a BA in Acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (2001).
What does your role involve?
When I was working as a researcher I was lucky enough to have been observing at an observatory on the island of La Palma which has some of the best dark skies on the planet. Now, in my new role at Dynamic Earth, I have a fantastic opportunity to bring some amazing views of the skies (and the wider Universe) to audiences with the help of our recently-upgraded planetarium. The software is very flexible and can produce stunning results. I’m currently in the process of creating and shaping our new programme which will include a mix of licensed full-dome shows and our first ever live, presenter-led planetarium experiences for audiences. It’s a wonderful combination for me as I get to both design and deliver astronomy content for a wide range of audiences. I can’t wait till we’re up and running!
What’s your background and career path?
I originally trained as an actor straight out of high school. I've been on tour around Scotland, been in 13 pantomimes, had a few telly gigs, including a Taggart episode, and been part of some educational shows as well. While it was challenging/enjoyable/stressful, I wasn't able to make acting work for me full-time. I began studying physics in my spare time with a focus on astronomy because I'd always been keen to learn more about this. This was while I was living in London and splitting my time between acting, working as event bar/waiting staff and studying.
What did you do to go about changing your career?
When I first started studying physics with the Open University I didn't intend to switch careers. I just wanted to keep my brain fed and not feel like I was sitting still. As it was a part-time course it took me about 7 years to accrue the necessary results to complete.
By 2012, I had moved back to Scotland and was looking for a way forward. I had also found a bit of work at the Scottish Seabird Centre as a science communicator over the summer. It was around then, as luck would have it, Edinburgh University were taking applications for the next crop of astronomy postgrads. They also had a scholarship called the Principal's Development Scholarship, which was set up to encourage someone to embark on a particular career strand while studying. One of the career options was public engagement and I realised that my acting background was a very useful asset to have. I applied and eventually got accepted. I remember that email came while I was performing in a panto in Inverness. It was a big change.
What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?
The Open University courses were fantastic for being self-led. Their astronomy courses at the time were still quite new and it was fun to dive in. Their observational astronomy course had me using a robotic telescope as part of a team. I loved that and got hooked.
Without the scholarship from Edinburgh, I wouldn't have been able to support myself through the PhD, and my supervisor, Prof. Andy Lawrence, was always keen to support me in various public engagement activities alongside the science work.
The same goes for my parents supporting me when times were tough. I was almost, but not quite, self-sufficient in those early years.
How did you get your first job in the space sector?
After the PhD was complete the Institute for Astronomy was able to keep me on as a postdoctoral researcher. This was combined with support from the JWST-UK Public Engagement Campaign. In the end, I embarked on a 50/50 split between these two roles.
Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?
It wasn't until the end of my physics degree that I truly contemplated a change. Everything seemed to fall into place quite quickly once I decided to make a go of it. If Edinburgh hadn't accepted me, I'm not sure where I'd have ended up!
Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?
I'm a little lucky in that I was in the right place at the right time for the JWST-UK campaign, and my public engagement work for the university was a useful asset alongside my research. I really enjoyed my time while employed at the observatory but found it quite hard to find the spare time/energy for the public engagement side of things. When I heard about the planetarium manager job at Dynamic Earth I jumped at the chance.
Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?
Financial barriers are always an issue though the scholarship and support from my parents got me through. I know I'm one of the lucky ones here.
I also began struggling with depression towards the end of the PhD, something that is more common than I had realised for graduate students. I managed to get help before it got to a point where I was at risk of dropping out. I have friends, family and the Edinburgh Uni support services to thank for that too.
Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to?
It did seem strange typing up a normal CV and not an acting resume for sure.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Talking to members of the public about all things astronomical. It’s a wonderful subject for starting conversations and capturing the imagination. This is something I’ve always enjoyed doing and now, thanks to Dynamic Earth, I get to include the use of this fantastic planetarium. It will be wonderful to see the hard work that goes into creating and polishing each show pay off. Almost anything is possible!
Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?
It really helps to have the internal flame lit for the thing you want to do, even if you're not sure what it might lead to. One of the main reasons I made the switch in the end is that my acting flame was guttering but the astronomy flame was burning bright. It'll help push you forward when times are tough.
Figuring out what you want to do is the tricky bit - once you know, you can get on with trying to make it happen. There's no right way of doing things.