Michael Filisky


Michael and Phillip
Michael (at right) with Phillip Morrison, during the Science in Focus: Energy project

Michael's Interview "Karen in the Dark" from Minds of Our Own:

Boston Globe Obituary :

Michael Byron Filisky, an Arlington resident who successfully parlayed his background in performance art into a career in science, died March 9 of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.

''He could see connections between things," said his wife, Ingrid Bartinique. ''His greatest gift was describing the world . . . to people in a way that made these things absolutely irresistible."

Mr. Filisky grew up in Danville, Ill., and received bachelor's and master's degrees in theater from the University of Illinois. During the 1970s, he moved to New York City and worked as a stage manager for the Claude Kipnis Mime Theater. As a result of his experiences in New York, he formed his own successful mime company in Detroit, eventually taking the act to Amsterdam to perform at the city's ''Festival of Fools."

Mr. Filisky eventually returned to New York, where he met his future wife at a friend's birthday party in 1981. Bartinique was preparing to attend Harvard, and the couple moved to Cambridge together. They married in 1987 and had one daughter. Bartinique was working as a career counselor and helped Mr. Filisky realize his love for biology and that he was not too old to begin what he called ''the world's longest career change."

Mr. Filisky had always been interested in science and natural history and took over 50 credits to build up his knowledge of biology, his wife said. He worked under Dr. Ruth Turner at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology; working in that lab helped Mr. Filisky realize he preferred explaining science to researching it, Bartinique said.

His love for performance and his desire to explain science to others was a ''perfect match," she said.

Mr. Filisky joined the New England Aquarium as a volunteer and was promoted to assistant curator of education just three weeks later. He attended graduate school part-time, receiving a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1999.

He was especially interested in how children's understanding of natural selection affects their grasp of evolutionary processes, Bartinique said.

He continued his career at the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in its science education department and science media group, the media arm of that department. At the time of his death he was working on a symposium titled ''Parallels in Creativity," about the connections between art and science.

The symposium focused on the idea that creativity in science and art have certain similarities, something Mr. Filisky was especially attuned to, said Charles Whitney of Weston, a friend and colleague of Mr. Filisky's. ''He was somebody who really lived in both worlds very successfully."

Whitney described Mr. Filisky as an optimistic individual who ''always [saw] possibilities where some of us might have missed them."

Mr. Filisky enjoyed art and music, film, crossword puzzles, and the Red Sox. He also bird watched with his family, often joking ''bird watchers are always on duty."

Mr. Filisky had contributed to the magazine Science for the People in the 1980s and was a member of Concord Academy's Diversity and Equality Committee. He authored several children's books, including ''Living Lights: Creatures That Glow in the Dark," which was translated into Chinese.

Mr. Filisky often described himself as a ''xenophile" and was always attracted to that which is foreign or new, his wife said.

''He loved meeting other people and finding out about them," she said. ''He could keep up a conversation in just about any subject because he was so widely read and interested in so much."

Mr. Filisky's daughter recalled attending Arlington's Daddy/Daughter Dances with her father and the stories about a little cloud he would tell to help her fall asleep.

''I am who I am because of who he made me," Marina Filisky said. She said her love of theater, trivia, books, and language all come from her father.

Ingrid Bartinique likened meeting Mr. Filisky to the scene in ''The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy opens a door and the once black-and-white world turns to Technicolor. ''That's the effect he had on people," she said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Filisky leaves five sisters, Susan Livengood of Philo, Ill., Teresa Fugate of Danville, Ill., Margaret Nixon of Westville, Ill., Gerianne Tinsley of Catlin, Ill.; and Connie Little of Port Angeles, Wash.; and two brothers, Matthew Filicsky of Danville, Ill., Patrick Filicsky of Tilton, Ill.

A memorial celebration of Mr. Filisky's life will be held in the spring.

Phil Sadler Remembers Michael:

I knew Michael since his days as a graduate student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He had a long association with the SED, joining our Science Media Group during the Private Universe Project (PUP) around 1993. He has been seen by viewers of that classic of science education , Minds Of Our Own (MOOO), as the masterful and warm interviewer of Karen concerning what you can see in the dark. Michael worked on Essential Science as Director of Research, after which I stole him away to become the project manager of Factors Influencing College Science Success (FICSS) at the Science Education Department. Here he interacted with Annette Trenga, Bruce Ward, Hal Coyle, Judith Peritz, and me on a daily basis for the last four years. He also worked with Robert Tai (my Co-Investigator), Zahra Hazari (U of Toronto), Marc Schwartz (McGill) and many other colleagues in this large project. He was very excited about all the press coverage of FICSS and our ramp-up of publications. He was working hard on an analysis of the qualitative data from over one thousand of our subjects. We had just spoken about the preliminary results of his analysis.

Michael earned his Doctorate in Education in 1999 from Harvard. His dissertation was a qualitative investigation of college students' beliefs about evolution and natural selection, a subject that is most timely today. He also taught a very popular course at the Harvard Extension School on Children's Ideas along with Marianne Nelson. Earlier, he worked at the New England Aquarium as an educator. Michael's master's degree in theatre and his performance as a mime and as a stage actor were evident in his daily interactions with his colleagues. He also served for many years as a stage manager, which paid off well in his role of project manager. He is the author of several trade books, including Peterson's First Guide to Fishes of North America. He was a highly creative individual and a talented writer. He made numerous important contributions to science education and to the work of our department.

Michael was a friend and colleague to all of us and many of us worked side by side with him over the years. Always cheerful and loquacious, Michael was a constant source of good humor and with a very upbeat outlook on life. He was always ebullient, taking a compassionate interest in the people around him. He touched the lives of many people, including the well-known, late Philip and Phyllis Morrison (the former pictured with him above). He accomplished many unusual things in the course of his varied career. I'm sure we will all miss him dearly and mourn his loss.

Michael leaves behind his wife Ingrid and his 15 year-old daughter Marina, who was a great source of pride in his life. I loved my time with Michael in group meetings or one-on-one. He found great enjoyment and challenge in his work and knew that the research we were doing had a large impact on the world of science education. We discussed the trials and joys of raising teenagers and shared weight-loss and exercise strategies. He was always good for that help that I often needed in the afternoon; his stash of Diet Pepsi never ran dry.

Matt Schneps Remembers Michael:

Michael joined the SMG during the Private Universe Project (PUP) around 1993 when he was a graduate student at HGSE, and remained in our group through the early parts of the ESSENTIAL SCIENCE project where he served as Director of Research, after which he left to become Manager of FICSS at the SED. Michael began his work at SMG as an interviewer for PUP, and his interview of Karen in Minds of Our Own program 2 stands as a classic of science education that is much admired and shown.

He earned his PhD in Education in 1999 from Harvard. Prior to his work at SMG he worked for the New England Aquarium. He has a masters degree in theatre and performed as a mime and as a stage actor, and served various roles in theater. He is the author of several trade books including a Peterson's Guide to Fish. He was a highly creative individual and a talented writer and he made numerous important contributions to the work we build over the years at SMG.

Michael was a friend and colleague to all of us at SMG and SED and many of us worked side by side with him over the years. He was always ebullient and cheerful, and took a compassionate interest in the people around him. He touched the lives of many people, including well known individuals such as the late Philip and Phyllis Morrison, and accomplished many unusual things in the course of his varied career. I'm sure we will all miss him dearly and mourn his loss.

His Colleagues Remember Michael:

Michael and I bonded on NY theatre and spoke frequently about it. We actually had the same career in NY theatre, just separated by about 20 years. He worked in the same places I did, he just worked with the people I'd read about in school. When internationally famous Performing Garage founder and actor, Spalding Gray, passed away Michael and I found each other on the SED "campus" and sat and talked about the wonderful things we remembered about him. I so enjoyed his fantastic production of "Oxygen" at SED, a play about the discovery of oxygen. Michael also never held back when describing his wife and daughter. He always spoke of Ingrid and Marina with reverence and awe, great pride and grateful love. It was clear he felt himself blessed by their presences and his expression made an impression on me. He showed me that love is always what's most important, and that following your heart will lead you to your truest self. He was always so kind and warm to me.

-Alexia Prichard, Vectorscope Films (former SMG producer)

I will always remember Michael calling me the "web goddess." It was an example of how he could make everyone feel special. Michael was one of the first members of the Science Media Group and I remember him from when I was just a high school student doing a summer internship. We also used to discuss the intersection of art and science.

-Alison Plante

Michael was a great fan of the New Yorker. In the current issue there is a cartoon in which a new employee is being told by HR, "You get five paid sick days and two disgruntled days." Michael never seemed to have an occasion to use his disgruntled days. Michael, we'll miss ye.

-Bruce Gregory

Michael's wonderful sense of humor and unique insights will be sorely missed. His willingness to risk stating ideas that he knew might not be readily accepted or understood by his peers provided us all at times with an open window to new thinking. It took no small amount of courage for him to speak up in the room full of venerable dons and he did so with genuine love - of science - of the idea that science education could be better - and clearly of the children he hoped would benefit from it.

-Kathy Burns, Sciencecorps

For me, Michael was someone I would share stories about our little girls. My daughter is now 2 1/2 years old. Three years ago when I was
pregnant, we would talk about the miracle of having children. He
would inquire regularly on my baby's progress. He would share his
experiences with Marina at similar ages. His eyes would sparkle when he
would speak of her. We shared everything Canadian. In the mist of this
country's politics, he would say how nice it would be to live in
Canada, and said he was seriously thinking about it. Once in a while, I
would see Michael walk down my hall (Perkins 3) on his way back from the
coke machine, usually around 4 pm. His face would light up when he saw
me and would say a perky "bonjour" to me. I did not have the chance to
work with Michael, so my interactions were on a more personal level.
I'll miss these impromptu meetings.

- Nathalie Martimbeau

For the past ten years or so, Michael has been one of the most active members of a small group at the CfA that attempted to bring together art and science in a sequence of interdisciplinary activities at Harvard. The project, whose goal is to enhance communication among artists and scientists, is known as "Parallels in Creativity," a name suggested by Dimitar Sasselov, one of the other members of the guiding group. Michael participated in all aspects of the planning of public events, and his particular contributions were to identify artists whose work could be highlighted in symposia and to produce, direct, and act in two play readings ("Copenhagen" and "Oxygen"). He also took the initiative in preparing proposals for funding. It is fair to say that Parallels in Creativity owes its continuing viability to Michael's unflagging energy and enthusiasm.
He was indeed a rare and very special person gifted with multi-disciplinary instincts.

-Charles Whitney

So many of the remembrances of Michael – in print here and elsewhere, and in words to many who meet us around the CfA – share some common themes. He is remembered as upbeat, happy, kind, sensitive, humorous, self-deprecating, thoughtful, and more. As I have read the tributes I am reminded of the many conversations I had with Michael about our Midwestern roots. Danville, where he grew up, is country (it’s almost Indiana, as he would say). And as the old saw goes: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy!” We would both joke how the best view of our towns was in the rear view mirror as we headed out. And head out he did, both literally and figuratively. But beneath what he became I saw those down-to-earth, Midwestern, country traits of saying what you mean, and taking life as it is. I suspect those are the traits upon which so many of his other attributes rested, and I sort of feel that a lot more came along for his ride out of town than even he could imagine. We have all been so fortunate that he stopped by with us.

-R. Bruce Ward

I worked with Michael from 2000 to 2002. He was always ready with a smile and had such a positive attitude about life, work, and family. I loved the close-knit community at the SED. My first real job was at the Annenberg/CPB Channel and I still think about the CfA almost every day! Michael was one of the most genuinely caring people I've ever met. When he asked you how you were doing, he really wanted to know, whether good or bad. His passion was infectious, his energy limitless. I will miss him dearly.

-Lillian Lai



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