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For those questioning why Pluto is considered a “dwarf planet”, curious about the Leo the Lion constellation or wanting to identify the North Star, Jeffrey “Buddy” Stark, who is now the manager of the newly-reopened Planetarium and Dome Theater at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History, is the person to ask. 

Stark arrived at the University about two months ago with nearly a decade of planetarium experience. He worked as a student planetarium presenter at his alma mater Olivet Nazarene University for four years. After a brief stint working at the planetarium at the Michigan Science Center, he was soon managing his first planetarium in Flint at the Longway Planetarium, where he spent the last seven years. 

Stark said he brings with him the knowledge of all aspects of planetarium management, from hardware, software, student education and presentation. With a small staff — most of which are students — Stark said managing the planetarium requires a “jack-of-all-trades” mentality. 

“You have to be a little eclectic,” Stark told The Michigan Daily. “I’m by no means an expert specifically in presentation — I’m sure a lot of theater majors would have lots of notes for me as they watch my show. And likewise, there are a lot of IT professionals that know way more about network computers than I do. But you have to know a little bit about each one of those things to do your job well.”

During the planetarium’s hiatus, Matthew Linke, former planetarium manager of 32 years, retired. Linke will be staying on staff, but in the background, to ease the transition and reopening.

“I was helping the transition (for) anybody we’d hired in the planetarium,” Linke said. “(But) Buddy doesn’t need a lot of help. He’s wonderful, brilliant.”

Stark himself is a student. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in science education at Western Michigan University. He said he finds that his background in science education is very useful in the planetarium. 

Stark said one of the unique facets of his job is the management and customization of the Digistar 6 system, a digital planetarium software that allows for large amounts of customization for shows.

The Digistar 6 system requires extensive management and organization to make it user-friendly, Stark said. He said his goal is to organize the software so that it is easy to access for new student presenters in training. He said he will also make sure that students can customize the software to cater to the unique aspects of their own shows.

Museum employee Brenna Healy, a Public Policy senior, said that many new student planetarium presenters have been training prior to the reopening.

“I think that’s really exciting to have new operators because they have a different way of telling things and different things they find interesting,” Healy said. “I know there’s been a lot of (student presenter) training and I’m really excited to have it open again because people ask about it all the time.” 

Stark said he is also interested in expanding the planetarium’s menu to include other educational endeavors, such as presenting Roman art on the dome-shaped 3D environment simulator or allowing medical students to view layers of the body through the simulator in great detail. 

“Because it is a 3D environment simulator, we are not limited necessarily to science,” Stark said. 

When asked about the future of the planetarium, Stark said his wish is to connect more with the student groups on campus because of their creativity. Stark said the ideas generated by the student presenters who are beginning to work with him have been impressive. 

For the first time in 18 months, Stark led community members through this fall’s constellations at the first Sky Tonight presentation Friday afternoon since the planetarium closed due to COVID-19. He walked the audience through tips and tricks to identify the North Star and explained why only some stars rise in the East when you view the Michigan sky.

Former Ann Arbor resident Stephanie Johnson attended the Sky Tonight presentation and told The Michigan Daily she remembers going to the U-M planetarium when she was a kid but recalled a different format for the presentation. 

“It’s been almost 20 years since I was here last, and it’s changed,” Johnson said. 

Although it was different from what she remembered, Johnson said she liked the new presentation, especially the segment on learning about techniques to identify cardinal directions for amateur astronomers. 

“The tips that he gave on locating things were excellent,” Johnson said. “We have a telescope so we go out, and sometimes it’s hard to get your bearings, so that was definitely helpful.”

Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at elissajw@umich.edu.