Universal Attraction

June 1st, 2009  |  by  |  Published in Features, May 2009  |  6 Comments

Astronomy is the story of past and future, origins and outcomes, process and potential. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy with a look at the University of Hawaiʻi’s proto stars and active suns—the newest class of scholars and three decades of alumni trained at the Institute for Astronomy.

Exceptional facilities attract a record incoming class

New cohort of students in the Institute for Astronomy

New cohort of students in the Institute for Astronomy

In a typical year, about 150 students apply to be graduate students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy, 20 are accepted and 5-6 decide to come. This year proved the exception to the rule—16 students from around the world made up a record incoming fall 2008 class.

“I think reputation had a lot to do with it,” reflects Joshua Barnes, an IfA astronomer and chair of the graduate program. “An additional factor may be that many of these students were able to visit us before making their decision and found a very friendly and positive environment.”

The PhD program usually takes six years. Because most candidates enter with bachelor’s degrees, they complete a couple of years of coursework before taking exams and picking dissertation topics. All will be involved in hands-on research from the outset, however, working with IfA faculty and completing a pair of significant projects before starting their doctoral dissertations.

Five of the first-year students told Mālamalama that the remarkable facilities at Mauna Kea influenced their decision to study at UH.

Chian-Chou Chen (middle row, second from right) was born in Taipei City, Taiwan. From age 10, he loved to read books on physics and astronomy and watch the sky. He obtained his BS in physics from National Taiwan University and spent the summer as a student and research assistant at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics. He hopes to become an astronomer.

Robert “Z” Knight (top row, center) is from Corvallis, Ore., Interested in astronomy after he and his sister went stargazing and found Scorpius, he chose UH Hilo for his undergraduate studies “because I knew Mauna Kea was the best place for astronomy in the world, and I wanted to be part of it.” After earning a BS in astronomy and BA in mathematics, he gained professional experience in astrophysics at the Submillimeter Array. He hopes to create a “new, improved and profound cosmological paradigm.”

Anna Roussanova (front row, second from right) was born in Bulgaria but moved with her family to the Twin Cities, Minn. suburbs 13 years ago. A ninth-grade research project led her to read Steven Hawking’s A Brief History in Time. “I got excited about the fundamental laws of the universe,” she says. She earned her BS in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she had the opportunity to research exoplanets (planets around other stars) with MIT Professor Josh Winn. She hopes to become a professor so she can combine researching and teaching.

Hsin-Yi “Jenny” Shih (front row, second from left) was born in Taiwan, raised in Malaysia and educated at the University of California, Los Angeles. From an early age, she found astronomy and physics books inspiring. She hopes to pursue a research career.

Justin Troyer (middle row, far right) is from Middlebury, Ind. His interest in astronomy began when he stumbled upon his father’s books on planets, black holes and stars. With a BS in the honors physics program and a minor in astrophysics and mathematics from Purdue University, he spent a summer at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Tex. He would love to become an astronaut, but says his more realistic goal is to work at a research institute where he can study extrasolar planets.

—Compiled by Kimberly Seko

IfA studies lead to careers in research, academia and industry

Like the newest students at the Institute for Astronomy, many of the alumni trace their fascination with the field to early childhood. Since 1975, 99 graduate students have received their doctorates under the guidance of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Institute for Astronomy. Another 26 are pursuing careers after completing their master’s degrees.

About three out of four of these graduates work as astronomers in universities, observatories and laboratories across the United States and around the world. Others are working in related information or communication industries.

Here’s a where-they-are-now sampling from the IfA alumni list.

Some IfA alumni direct astronomical programs or facilities

Nancy Morrison

Nancy Morrison

Nancy Morrison PhD ’75, director of the Ritter Observatory and Ritter Planetarium-Brooks Observatory at the University of Toledo, Ohio

Coming from a math- and science-oriented family, Morrison knew she wanted to go into science, but didn’t know which field until she read Fred Hoyle’s Frontiers of Astronomy in high school.

“I was captivated by its description of how the heavy elements are built up in the cores of high-mass stars,” she says.

She now looks at the exterior of high-mass stars, those of more than 15 solar masses. Using a high-resolution spectrograph, she searches for patterns in the varying hydrogen signatures as these stars blow away their atmospheres in solar winds, affecting the formation of heavy element at their cores.

Douglas Simons

Douglas Simons

Douglas Simons PhD ’91, director of the Gemini Observatory, Hawaiʻi

When he was in 7th grade, Simons received a small telescope for Christmas. Since 2006, he has headed a Hilo-based internationally sponsored observatory with twin 8-meter optical/infrared telescopes located in Chile and Hawaiʻi.

Simons’ principal research interests include infrared instrumentation and infrared studies of the Galactic center, low mass stars and star formation regions. But he says his most important contributions lie in assisting other astronomers who have used Gemini over the past 15 years.

“Leading Gemini’s instrument development program, and now the entire observatory, has helped provide a framework for my peers (the true “stars” in astronomy) to explore the universe and share their discoveries with humanity,” he says.

Most IfA graduates continue to conduct research

James Annis

James Annis

James Annis PhD ’94, scientist with the Experimental Astrophysics Group/Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, Illinois

You might say Annis wondered into astronomy—he wondered why we are here and why the sky and galaxies look they way they do.

Curiously, he’s now investigating something we can’t see…dark energy. Using a catalog of galaxy clusters, he watches to see how the numbers of clusters change over time.

“If we are lucky, we will be able to tell if dark energy is a new form of energy in the universe or merely an indication that the general relativity is not the correct theory of gravity on scales close to the size of the universe,” he says.

A highlight of his career was helping build and operate the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. “It revolutionized the way astronomy is done and how astronomical data is made available to professionals and the world at large.”

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner PhD ’95, deputy senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope and chief of the Observational Cosmology Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland

Gardner looks at the big picture. “Cosmology is the branch of astronomy that studies the universe as a whole,” he says. “It addresses the biggest questions: Where did we come from? How do we fit in? What is the history of everything we can see?”

The opportunity to help to answer such questions attracted Gardner to astronomy, and the opportunity to help build the successor to the most successful telescope in history has kept him at NASA.

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2014 to replace the Hubble Space Telescope. It will peer farther back in time to when the first galaxies formed and puruse the dusty regions of our own galaxy where stars and planets are forming today.

Gardner’s enthusiasm is understandable. He employs Hubble data in his studies of galaxy evolution, how galaxies change over time as the universe ages.

Paul Kalas

Paul Kalas

Paul Kalas PhD ’97, assistant adjunct professor, University of California, Berkeley

As an amateur astronomer, Kalas used two small telescopes to get a closer look at the fascinating wonders in the night sky.

He’s still gazing, with much more powerful instruments, looking for planets, comets and dust orbiting other stars in the neighborhood of the Sun.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, Kalas produced the first and most detailed views of the Kuiper Belt and a similar dust ring around the bright star called Fomalhaut, which is visible from Hawaiʻi during the summer. In November 2008, Kalas gave the world its first look at images confirming the existence of a predicted exoplanet orbiting Fomalhaut.

Susan Ridgway

Susan Ridgway

Susan Ridgway PhD ’95, assistant astronomer, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, La Serena, Chile

As a child, Ridgway occasional attended star parties with her amateur astronomer father. When she got to college, she majored in physics, but found the astronomy courses most interesting.

“I liked the way that solving astronomical research problems may require a large range of sub-disciplines in physics, including both some practical observational work and some theory,” she says.

Extragalactic problems were the most intriguing, and she focuses on those—particularly on quasars (distant galaxies with bright centers believed to be powered by matter falling into massive black holes). Most massive galaxies in the nearby university probably went through an active quasar phase, she says.

Some quasars appear bright in radio frequencies, while others are faint. Ridgway’s research indicates that these “radio loud” and “radio quiet” quasars are evolving differently and provides clues about how galaxies form.

Some IfA alumni keep astronomy equipped with the tools of discovery

Joe Jensen headshot

Joe Jensen

Joseph Jensen PhD ’97, head of instrumentation, Gemini Observatory, Hilo

Jensen was attracted to astronomy at a very young age by the sense of discovery he felt as he watched people walking on the moon and as photos were returned from the first space probes to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

“That sense of excitement and exploration still exists today at the Gemini Observatory,” he says.

Jensen joined the observatory as a science fellow in 1997. He procures new instrumentation for the two Gemini telescopes. Still interested in observational cosmology, measuring extragalactic distances and studying stellar populations in galaxies, he has branched out, dabbling in things from exoplanets to high-redshift galaxies.

“It is very satisfying and stimulating to be able to contribute to our knowledge of the universe by helping Gemini observers discover new planets around nearby stars and the most distant galaxies in the universe,” he says

IfA alumni work in universities from Arizona to Virginia

William Heacox

William Heacox

William Heacox PhD ’77, professor of astronomy, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo

The shear beauty of astronomy drew Vietnam veteran and former smokejumper Heacoxto the study astronomy. He trained with astronaut candidates Ellison Onizuka and Sally Ride, but withdrew, jesting that he was “better suited to the sedentary life of a college professor.”

He’s hardly inactive. “I have struggled to retain my sense of wonder as a professional astronomer and to convey that to my students,” he says, and he is providing them with some exceptional tools.

Heacox is principal investigator on a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant to install the Hōkū Keʻa telescope on Mauna Kea for the exclusive use of faculty and students in UH Hilo’s undergraduate astronomy program.

In his own research, Heacox investigates the dynamics of dense stellar systems such as globular clusters and dwarf spheroidal galaxies. His discovery about the orbital properties of binary stars anticipated the strange orbital properties of extrasolar planets.

Evidence that such planets formed by means similar to those of stars, but at a smaller mass scale, implies that planetary systems similar to ours may not be common in the universe, he says.

Catherine Pilachowski

Catherine Pilachowski

Catherine Pilachowski PhD ’75, professor of astronomy and the incoming associate dean for graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington

“I love the challenge of learning about something so much bigger and so much older than our human scale,” observes Pilachowski. “It has always amazed me that we can learn so much from points of light in the sky.”

Indeed, in globular clusters, her research focus explores the very large and old.

Globular clusters are gravitationally bound, spherically shaped concentrations of hundreds of thousands of very old stars. “They are amazing in their diversity, and in the way that they able to produce so many different patterns of elemental abundances,” she says.

Pilachowski uses multi-object spectroscopy to study their chemical evolution, and she takes pride in her role in construction of WIYN Observatory, which was dedicated at Kitt Peak in Arizona in 1994.

“WIYN’s multi-object spectrograph, and others like it, have enabled us to get large samples of stars in the globular clusters and to make progress on the difficult problems of chemical enrichment in stellar systems,” she says.

Formally and informally, IfA alumni educate the public

Inge Heyer MS ’87, public outreach officer, Joint Astronomy Centre, Hilo

Inge Heyer headshot

Inge Heyer

A chemistry professor father, math teacher mother and “watching way too much Star Trek in high school” probably destined Heyer for a career involving science and teaching.

As outreach officer and press officer for the Join Astronomy Centre, which operates the James Clerk Maxwell Submillimetre and United Kingdom Infrared telescopes at Mauna Kea, she coordinates school visits, teacher training, community events, publications, press materials and JAC’s outreach website.

She also chairs the Mauna Kea Observatories Outreach Committee, coordinating activities with colleagues from other observatories. And she teaches a year-long monthly astronomy class for Big Island teachers in Hilo and Kona.

Brian Patten

Brian Patten

Brian Patten PhD ’95, program director for both Education and Special Programs and Galactic Astronomy in the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation, Virginia

In December 1973, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft flew past Jupiter. Watching on Earth, 10-year-old Patten was hooked.

His NSF proposal review and grant administration duties include serving as managing program officer for awards in support of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, a global effort to excite a similar sense of wonder and discovery among citizens of the world.

Patten is serving NSF on rotation from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., where he is an astronomer with the Spitzer Space Telescope Infrared Array Camera team.

While pursuing his PhD at UH, Patten showed that young suns in nearby clusters begin their lives as full-fledged stars—deriving their power by fusing hydrogen into helium—with a wide range of rotation rates and magnetic activity levels. “These results provided the community with important constraints on how stars like the Sun are formed in the galaxy,” he says.

Some alumni apply their skills in other ways in academia, in industry or as entrepreneurs

Duncan Chesley

Duncan Chesley

Duncan Chesley MS ’75, founder, American Image

Being observant has paid off for Chesley. Growing up, he collecting the milk, delivered to the end of the driveway each evening by a neighboring farmer, observing constellations in the dark, winter Maine sky as he walked.

“A little later my father brought home a pair of 7×50 Navy binoculars. I aimed them at the brightest star I could see, and noticed other, fainter stars nearby,” he recalls. “The next night the fainter stars had moved. I recorded their positions for a few nights, made a trip to the library, found a copy of Sky & Telescope and realized I had been looking at Jupiter and its moons. I was hooked.

While working on one of first astronomical image processing systems at the Institute for Astronomy, he made another observation: the same techniques could be applied to non-image data. Continuing his work at the University of Massachussets, Chesley proved it, using the techniques for faculty in about 30 different departments. One of the images he created is a 14-foot mural displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

By 1988 PCs were powerful enough to handle imaging, so Chesley created a desktop version of the software and founded American Image. As an entrepreneur, he provides the visual information analysis tool users from financial to medical to public service sectors…and works back in an old, hilltop farmhouse in Maine.

James Deane ’00 senior technology licensing specialist at the University of Michigan College of Engineering

Not sure what to do with an undergraduate degree in physics, Deane was attracted to astrophysics as an academic challenge, a grand tradition in research and an opportunity to make significant research contributions. “It tapped both my ambition and my imagination, and I felt I was a part of a community of scientists,” he says.

While serving as a postdoc in England, he worked with a small company run out of a physics lab on campus. Reassessing his career goals, Deane pursued an MBA at Cornell University’ and interned in the univesity’s technology transfer office.

For the past four years, he has helped University of Michigan students and faculty commercialize their inventions and develop products through startup companies. “It’s a mixture of technology, business and law that I really enjoy,” he says.

Byron Han

Byron Han

Byron Han MS ’95 senior development engineer, Apple Computer

As a young boy growing up in Ohio, Han was interested in all the physical sciences. He settled on study of astronomy “because it has the hubris to try to explain the most fundamental question of all: how the universe began, why is it the way it is today, and what will become of everything.”

Now he works on the fundamentals of Apple products, managing an international team that debugs operating system issues that occur during production of iPhone and iPod in factories in China. The team also coordinates the response of Apple’s software engineering division to requirements arising out of test engineering, manufacturing and quality divisions.

Han prefers to telecommute to Apple’s California headquarters from Hawaiʻi. For now, he’s on long-term assignment in Shanghai.

Graham Knopp headshot

Graham Knopp

Graham Knopp ’97
environmental consultant, Hilo

Knopp felt compelled to study astrophysics because of the idea that “by the benefit of this knowledge I would grow closer to nature and also benefit from the understanding gained of our place in the cosmos.”

Nature certainly plays a part in his role as owner of GK Environmental, located in Honokaʻa. Knopp specializes in preparation of environmental review process documents, such as environmental impact statements; environmental site assessments, such as HazMat assessments; and other environmental studies. /p>

—Compiled by Cheryl Ernst

Tags: , , , , ,


  1. Wallette Pellegrino says:

    June 2nd, 2009at 10:27 pm(#)


    Where are our Hawaiian astronomers?



  2. Paul H I Coleman says:

    June 5th, 2009at 8:51 am(#)

    As a Kanaka Maoli astronomer at UH, I would like to point out that the young scientist in the lower right hand corner of the picture of the incoming class is also Kanaka Maoli. While one out of sixteen is not perfect (~6%), it is a good begining and we hope to welcome many more to future classes.

  3. grace kwon says:

    June 6th, 2009at 8:30 am(#)

    To all, sky’s the limit! I am 68 going on 69, a retired science teacher, and still very excited about the universe and all its wonders. My dream was to go to the moon. I still dream but through the eyes of others like these many in the Institute and the new students who will continue the passion through their studies and discoveries. Thanks.

  4. Cheryl Ernst says:

    June 9th, 2009at 3:01 pm(#)

    We didnʻt hear back from Wei-Hao Wang, PhD ʻ06, in time to include him in the story, but he shares this:

    “When I was in High school, I was attracted to astronomy by the pretty pictures of the sky and physical laws (which are also beautiful) behind astronomical phenomena.”

    Using the Submillimeter Array radio telescope on Mauna Kea, Wang found a distant galaxy, obscured to optical telescopes by the dust it creates, forming new stars at an incredible rate. As an assistant research fellow at Acadeimia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics and National Taiwan University Leung Center for Cosmology and Particle Astrophysics in Taiwan, he continues his observations of galaxy formation and evolution.

    “I am doing both astrophysical research, and amateur astrophotography,” he writes. “I hope my discoveries in astrophysics and photographs can attract more people to astronomy.”

    Cheryl Ernst
    Malamalama editor

  5. Cheryl Ernst says:

    June 9th, 2009at 3:12 pm(#)

    Henry Hsieh, PhD ʻ07, was traveling when we compiled our IfA alumni story. Back on email, he provided this update:

    “I am currently a Science and Technology Facilities Council postdoctoral fellow at Queens University Belfast in Northern Ireland. I continue to be interested in asteroids and comets, with a focus on the observational and orbital analysis of main-belt comets. I am also involved with Queens research on NEOs and the 2007 outburst of Comet 17P/Holmes and work on the Pan-STARRS project as part of the science consortium including Queens, UH and others.

    “Probably my most significant finding to date was work I did toward the end of my PhD with the discovery of the main-belt comets. A layperson’s description of this work can be found in the press release at http://star.pst.qub.ac.uk/~hhh/mbc-release.shtml. I have continued to study the MBCs, further detailing their physical properties.”

    A combination of factors attracted Hsieh to astronomy, including the disciplineʻs simultaneous simplicity and complexity, the passion of his mentors from high school programs through graduate school, the interest expressed by other people and the near daily opportunity to make new discoveries.

    Cheryl Ernst
    Malamalama editor

  6. Cheryl Ernst says:

    July 17th, 2009at 8:57 am(#)

    Neil Trentham, PhD ’97, emailed from England, where he studied hard-to-see galaxies, matching data from gamma-ray burst with theoretical cosmology. He writes:

    “I finished working at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge after 11 years on fellowships. I have taken an early retirement due to medical incapacity (I am an MS patient permanently in a wheelchair) but continue to do astronomy using voice recognition software.

    “I was attracted to astronomy as an undergraduate student because it was the most interesting application of physics,
    which I was studying. Hawaii seemed an interesting place and combining the two was attractive.”