Shawn Laatsch named 2024 Outstanding Professional Employee

A photo of Shawn Laatsch
Shawn Laatsch

Versant Power Astronomy Center Director Shawn Laatsch has been named the 2024 Outstanding Professional Employee by the University of Maine Professional Employees Advisory Council. 

The award is based on a professional employee’s demonstrated dedication to serving others, maintaining the highest level of professional services, creating a better campus environment and public service engagement in their field and community. Award recipients are recognized for their accomplishments with a $1,000 stipend.

Laatsch started at UMaine in 2016. Over the past 8 years, he has led operations at the astronomy center, which includes the Maynard Jordan Planetarium, a research telescope and a historic telescope; presented numerous planetarium shows; led educational workshops and guest lectured on astronomy and at planetariums in Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Greece, Japan, New Zealand and Russia. He has over 35 years of experience in planetariums, having directed facilities in Hawaii, Kentucky and Maryland, as well as managing the construction and installation of a number of facilities in the United States and abroad. 

Laatsch has been a national and international leader in his field, acting as treasurer and membership chair for the International Planetarium Society for 17 years, and as president from 2015-20. In 2022, he hosted the Middle Atlantic Planetarium Society Conference at UMaine, with participants engaging in planetarium professional development with a climate change focus. He has also served as a NASA community partner in promoting the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon mission.

Most recently, he led UMaine’s involvement in a nationwide citizen science project: the Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE2024) experiment, acting as the Northeast coordinator of the project, which is led by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. He equipped and trained groups across the region with help from Ph.D. student Nikita Saini. He and his team collected data from Jackman during the 2024 total solar eclipse, recording images that provided light data on the sun’s atmosphere, or corona. 

In his multiple letters of nomination for the award, Laatsch was lauded as a champion of public outreach and a true asset to the university and the community. 

“Shawn has ALWAYS and I truly mean ALWAYS been a shining example of a community partner and leader when it comes to working with our center, a STEM nonprofit organization,” a nominator wrote.

Laatsch has also brought nontraditional programming to the planetarium, including a Science Lecture Series in collaboration with the Maine Science Festival; live music and theater, such as performances by the Baroque Orchestra of Maine and plays like “Silent Skies” performed by True North Theater; the Mesmerica music experience and other music-focused visualization shows featuring songs from Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, Rush and more. He has also opened the center to classes, seminars and other campus events, including honors seminars and education sessions in marine sciences, biomedical sciences and environmental sciences.

His nominators pointed to his resourcefulness in his role, especially in the midst of unprecedented change during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“He expertly pivoted to create online programming options when campus and regional shutdowns occurred, including virtual astronomy experiences, a YouTube page for weekly sky tours, and more. He created the Universe Explorers of Maine online astronomy club, utilizing Slooh, a robotic telescope service that can be viewed live through a web browser, which he used for both public viewing and our Introduction to Astronomy Laboratory course observations,” a nominator wrote.

He was cited for his zealous dedication to his role, his unwavering support for community education, and his commitment to mentoring students at UMaine with an interest in the field of astronomy.    

“He brings high visibility and continued improvements in visitor experience to the Versant Power Astronomy Center and also to UMaine. He is making excellent use of the technology and the facility and, in particular, continues to broaden expectations for what the planetarium is used and useful for. He supports the service and outreach mission of our department and of UMaine as a land grant institution extremely effectively, but also promotes the education and research missions with his mentoring and professional development of graduate and undergraduate students and in his collaborations with units on campus and elsewhere, including K–12 schools.”