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University of Virginia UVA Arts & Sciences Default
Winter 2014-15

Sky is the Limit

In terms of the number of astronomers working and living here, you’d be hard pressed to find another town in the world with as many astronomers per capita as Charlottesville.

Jan 21, 2015 |

Central Virginia’s amateur astronomy buffs know to keep regular tabs on the public nights scheduled at the University of Virginia’s two observatories for opportunities to gaze at the stars and planets through the McCormick and Fan Mountain telescopes.  But it’s not just the hobbyists who flock to Charlottesville. 

While U.Va.’s Department of Astronomy has distinguished itself through a series of innovative public outreach programs, its faculty also have recruited undergraduate and graduate students to assist them on award-winning research.  And collaborations with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a federally funded research center that has maintained its headquarters on Grounds for more than four decades, has drawn some of the most talented astronomers from around the world.

Nearly two centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s earliest plans for the University of Virginia included instruction in astronomy, Charlottesville has quietly established itself as one of the world’s hubs of astronomical discovery and world-class research.

“It really puts us on the map in terms of international prominence,” Astronomy Department chair Craig Sarazin said of the University’s ties to the NRAO.  “It also makes this a really large astronomical community.  In terms of the number of astronomers working and living here, you’d be hard pressed to find another town in the world with as many astronomers per capita.”

Craig Sarazin, W.H Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy and Chair, Dept. of Astronomy


The longtime faculty anchoring U.Va.’s astronomy department include Associate Dean John Hawley, a co-winner two years ago with former university astronomer Steven Balbus of the Shaw Prize, astronomy’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.  He is not alone, however, in drawing international acclaim for his work.

Last April, the French ambassador to the United States visited U.Va. to present Prof. Trinh Thuan a medal.  Thuan had been named chevalier of the National Order of the French Legion of Honor for his career-long efforts to promote scientific culture and transatlantic collaboration in the field of astrophysics.  W. H. Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy Roger Chevalier was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, and Prof. Michael Skrutskie, the principal investigator of the Two Micron All Sky Survey team, won the Academy’s James Craig Watson Medal for his work related to that project.  Prof. Steve Majewski is the principal investigator of the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment, or APOGEE.  It is one of four surveys being utilized by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III; earlier this month, the survey released online one of the largest and richest databases in the history of astronomy. Data from the survey is enabling scientists around the world to search nearby stars for planets and to map out the elements of stars to decode the history of the Milky Way.

For students such as former U.Va. undergraduate and graduate student Rachael Beaton, these faculty encourage them to seek opportunities to collaborate and launch their own research projects.

“The faculty here have done amazing things,” said Beaton, who completed her bachelor’s degree in 2007 and who was awarded her Ph.D. in December. “And you learn that they care a lot about the development of young astronomers and the progression of the field.  They’re not these imposing figures.  They support you in a wonderful way and use their experiences to support your growth and development.”

Now a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif., Beaton recalls how during her undergraduate years she assisted Prof. Majewski and his group of graduate students, calibrating and processing thousands of digital images to measure the magnitudes of stars.

She spent an entire summer, eight to 10 hours a day in front of a computer in a tiny room, processing data for the project, which discovered a hidden structure in the Andromeda Galaxy.  She loved it, Beaton said.

“It’s a little bit numbing to do that much data processing, but what was so nice is that first semester, I did an entire literature review and learned all the jargon I needed to know. This was apart from the classes I was taking, but it helped me understand the science before I started working with the data,” Beaton said.  “That was really important in terms of my development as a young scientist. … I got to go to observatories, attend conferences, I did the whole thing end to end as an undergraduate, and that was very unique.”

Astronomy Ph.D. Candidate Rachael Beal
Robert Rood and the Dept. of Astronomy

Assistant Professor Shane Davis, who joined the department’s faculty last fall, said it’s reassuring to see promising undergraduate astronomy majors getting involved in research.

“When you have really solid undergraduates, then it’s not just part of the education, you’re also getting good research from them,” Davis said.


For many of the department’s graduate students, the opportunities for collaborative research with astronomers and research scientists affiliated with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory also have played a key role in their decisions to come to U.Va. NRAO scientists serve as primary thesis advisors for about one-third of the department’s graduate students, according to Sarazin.

The presence of NRAO staff and prized postdoctoral scholars has extended the range of scientific expertise at the University, enhancing the scientific output and the breadth of skills that graduates from the astronomy department take with them.

“In terms of being able to collaborate, being able to be open to lots of different jobs and possibilities and thinking creatively about the next generation of science problems, it’s really a unique experience,” Beaton said.  “With the NRAO right here, you get triple the number of research scientists coming through, which means you get to network and get to know many more scientists that you would otherwise.”

The national lab in radio astronomy, NRAO is arguably the world’s most important research center in that field. NRAO has maintained its headquarters at U.Va. since the 1960s, when it moved from West Virginia.  The future management of NRAO is up for bid, and the University submitted its proposal with Associated Universities, Inc. in the fall to keep the headquarters on Grounds, just a short walk from the Department of Astronomy.

The observatories managed by NRAO include the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, as well as the Very Long Baseline Array that manages telescopes across the United States.  Closer to Charlottesville, NRAO operates the world’s largest fully steerable telescope: the Robert Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Va.  Two years ago, it launched the most complex observatory ever built: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. The combined effort of research teams from North America, East Asia and Europe, ALMA’s 66 high-precision antennaes are able to detect millimeter and submillimeter waves of light that are typically scattered away by water vapor in the air. The dry climate and altitude of the site – 16,500 feet high – in Chile’s Atacama Desert offer ALMA the precise conditions needed to detect these faint signals from space, enabling scientists to study the origins of galaxies, stars, planets and life.  

ALMA - The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is the most complex astronomical observatory ever built on Earth. Teams from North America, East Asia, and Europe merged projects to develop this gigantic array together in northern Chile.
C. Padilla, NRAO/AUI/NSF

In terms of its impact on astronomy, ALMA is being compared to the Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike Hubble, however, ALMA is expected to offer clear views of phenomena such as the birth of stars and planets within their molecular cocoons. 

John Hawley, Associate Dean for the Sciences and Professor of Astronomy

“ALMA opens up new capabilities and represents unprecedented opportunities for discovery, particularly related to the celestial origins and chemistry of the universe,” Assoc. Dean Hawley said. “The exciting opportunity has led the College to create an interdisciplinary effort involving NRAO, the Astronomy Department and the Chemistry Department to focus on the unique chemical processes that happen in planet- and star-forming systems.”


Funded by the National Science Foundation, NRAO has maintained its independence from U.Va. in the interest of serving the broader astronomical community.  At the same time, NRAO scientists and U.Va. astronomers have established and maintained strong collaborations.  Instead of duplicating its research efforts, U.Va.’s Department of Astronomy has focused its faculty hiring over the decades on complementing the NRAO’s scientific expertise, building the department’s strength in related areas of astronomy and theory.

NRAO’s walking-distance proximity to the Department of Astronomy has made it possible for research scientists and faculty to share colloquia and series of lunch panels, scientific discussion groups and scientific collaborations involving students.

For NRAO researchers such as Kartik Sheth, an associate astronomer who researches the evolution of galaxies, those interactions with U.Va. students and faculty also have benefits.

“The vitality that is added by having students and post-docs here, especially new students coming every year, is really critical, just for staying creative and tackling new problems. ” Sheth said. “If the students weren’t around, it would be pretty boring. Because while everybody here is a world-class scientist in their own right, it’s nice to have the ability to attract good students. There’s a huge breadth of science that is covered when you combine the two places. If you look at NRAO and the University’s astronomy department as a joint center, it’s a pretty impressive galaxy of people.”


Through a variety of outreach projects, that galaxy of people is not only engaging the public through opportunities to observe the stars at university observatories. U.Va. faculty and NRAO scientists are also working to engage the next generation of astronomers.

Kelsey Johnson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director, Echols Scholars Program

Associate Professor Kelsey Johnson created the “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” volunteer program six years ago to expose area students in rural elementary schools to astronomy. Central Virginia boasts some of the darkest nighttime skies on the East Coast, making the area ideal for observing stars and planets. The program serves a different elementary school in the area each semester, bringing U.Va. astronomers, graduate students and other volunteers to schools in rural parts of the county for weekly “Astronomy Club” meetings.

“I think exposing people to dark nighttime skies is really important. I think it fundamentally can change and enhance your world view and the way you see yourself in the cosmos,” Johnson said. “These areas in Virginia that tend to have the really dark skies are also obviously rural and are home to a lot of rural poor, to put it kind of frankly.

“So we’re not talking about the classic inner-city poor kids, but we’re talking about a population that it turns out is really underserved. Not only are they socioeconomically disadvantaged, but because they tend to be, by their very rural nature, far away from academic centers, they don’t get the academic outreach activities that kids at other schools do because they’re harder to get to. I think it’s really important for people to experience and really get under the majesty of the night sky.”

Aaron Evans, Professor of Astronomy

One of Johnson’s faculty colleagues, Associate Professor Aaron S. Evans, is collaborating with the NRAO’s Kartik Sheth on several outreach programs that aim to bring more students from underrepresented groups into the field of astronomy.

Led by NRAO and Associated Universities Inc., the National Astronomy Consortium invites students from historically black colleges and universities and other institutions to Charlottesville for summer research opportunities.  The program hopes to host other cohorts across the country, not only for summer research, but to spark lifelong mentoring partnerships. 

"It's a very different program than a typical research internship in the sense that we have multiple mentors for students,” Evans said. “We have group meetings every week, and we stay in touch with students throughout the year.  So it’s a more complete and comprehensive mentoring model than a typical summer internship."

In addition to 10 weeks of intensive research, the program features opportunities to discuss professional development, career issues and how to handle some of the typical things that knock students from under-represented groups out of the field, Sheth said. 

“Our program is not limited to under-represented students only.  It’s open to everyone, since students will have to interact with majority students in their career as well,” he said.  “At the same time, we try to create an environment that is a safe space for honest discussions about the experiences for students coming from under-represented groups.”

Sheth also has been collaborating with Evans on an outreach program that Evans started at Howard University.  The two of them have traveled to Washington, D.C. to organize academic conferences and to mentor students at Howard, using grant money and funding from the National Astronomy Consortium and Associated Universities, Inc. to support those efforts.

Another outreach program ­– the National International Exchange Program, or NINE – trains and mentors international students.  Working to partner with universities in South Africa, the NINE program plans to bring masters-level and Ph.D.-level students to Charlottesville for three to six months.

“The best students from across Africa go to study in South Africa.  So we can build very strong relations with people across the continent,” Evans said.  “These outreach efforts are very important.  That’s the one thing Kartik and I are very passionate about.  In terms of minority groups and women, there just aren’t that many in science.  So the hope is that by having this kind of program, we can increase those numbers.  A lot of it is just about having exposure to science.  With the students who have come here from Howard, many of them have just been blown away by the experience.”

The casual mentoring from established research scientists and opportunities to connect with like-minded peers from similar backgrounds are critical for these programs to gain traction, Sheth said.

“The cool part for the students is the opportunity to hang out, having dinner with the mentors and guest speakers.  That sort of informal education where you’re just learning that scientists are normal people and that this is a viable career is a key part of what we do,” Sheth said.  “Not just that it’s viable, but that it’s a pretty good lifestyle and career choice.  ‘Yes, I can do it,’ they can tell themselves.  ‘Because here’s another person like me who has done it.’”

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