La Salle University’s President Michael J. McGinniss, F.S.C., presented an honorary doctoral degree to Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Senior Scientist for the Franklin Institute Science Museum at its Honors Convocation on Sunday, October 2, 2011.
When presenting Pitts with his honorary degree, McGinniss said, “Your remarkable career as a scientist and your distinctive ability to make science accessible to the broadest of audiences is a wonderful combination. Moreover, as an authority on astronomy and space science—where new discoveries are a constant, you have lived La Salle University’s motto, ‘Never stop exploring.’ We also know that this conviction will be continued not only by you, but also by all of those who have benefitted from your teaching and example.”
Pitts, a Germantown Academy graduate who was raised in the Tioga-Nicetown section of Philadelphia, began working at the Franklin Institute while earning his bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University.
After graduating, Pitts was hired full-time as Chief Astronomer for the Franklin Institute Observatory. He also serves as Director of Fels Planetarium Programs and Senior Exhibits and Programs Developer. In these roles, he develops and oversees all of the Institute’s astronomy and space-related programs and exhibits, teaches astronomy workshops, and often hosts the live “Sky Tonight” planetarium show.
“Derrick Pitts has dedicated his life to science education, which is so vitally important to the future of our country. As the Chief Astronomer of the Franklin Institute and its major spokesperson, he has made astronomy and space science accessible to many people, particularly children,” said Alice Hoersch, Ph.D., La Salle’s Executive Assistant to the President and professor of geology and sponsor of Pitts’ honorary degree. “He is a role model for students in general, and for African American students in particular, who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.”
According to Pitts, some highlights of his 30-year career include: seeing the Hubble Space Telescope before its launch, meeting and interviewing John Glenn and Carl Sagan, attending shuttle launches as an invited guest of astronauts, and giving Michael Jackson a private tour of the Franklin Institute’s observatory.
Pitts has been a NASA Solar System Ambassador as well as a scientific consultant to National Geographic Entertainment, Intel Corporation, Discovery Place Science Museum, Singapore Science Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, among many other organizations.
A frequent adviser and guest scientist in the media, Pitts has appeared on numerous local television and radio stations as well as national television networks such as, the History Channel, Science Channel, and Weather Channel. He also hosts SkyTalk, a weekly astronomy radio program on Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, WHYY, and he is the “Science Guy” for WXPN radio show Kids Corner.
Among his many awards, he has been honored with the Mayor’s Liberty Bell twice, the Distinguished Alumni Award from St. Lawrence University, the George Washington Carver Medal, the “Great Friend to Kids” Award from the Please Touch Museum, Fifty Most Important Blacks in Research Science Award from Science Spectrum magazine, and the National Institute of Science Award.