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College of Arts and Science astronomers—a small team making big waves

Posted by on Thursday, May 5, 2022 in News Story.

The past academic year has been monumental for A&S astronomy faculty, a small cohort achieving on a meteoric scale. Their groundbreaking findings and numerous awards have kept the department at the forefront of the discipline, as they work to enhance the scientific understanding of our universe and train future scientists to push forward with exploration and discovery.

With fewer than a dozen scholars, the college’s astronomy faculty is much smaller than that of peer institutions, according to Physics and Astronomy Department Chair Shane Hutson. However, the team’s impact is making a big impression.

“Our astronomy group punches way above its weight,” said Hutson. “Despite their modest size, they earn significant federal grants, receive notable national awards, and garner the visibility of a large astronomy department, and they do so with a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion. What they have built is the very definition of inclusive excellence and I am proud to have them as colleagues.”

Our astronomers have racked up numerous achievements in the past year, including:

  • Stephen Taylor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, received a prestigious $450,000 award from the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program to further his efforts to probe ultra-low-frequency gravitational waves. The award enables Taylor and his team to develop new gravitational wave search techniques that help characterize the dynamics of supermassive black hole binary systems, find possible obscured exotic cosmological gravitational wave signals, map the low-gravitational wave sky, and limit possible successor theories to Einstein’s theory of gravity.
  • Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, leads the Establishing Multimessenger Astronomy Inclusive Training (EMIT) initiative, a new graduate certificate program in the emerging field. The program was established through a $3 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Award, and will train and educate physics, astronomy, math, and engineering graduate students at both Vanderbilt and Fisk universities. The field of multimessenger astronomy (MMA) collects and harmonizes messages from space in the form of visible light, X-rays, gamma rays, high-energy particles, and gravitational waves to learn more about the universe.
  • Holley-Bockelmann also received the 2022 Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The award recognizes individuals who have mentored significant numbers of underrepresented students working toward STEM doctorate degrees. Holley-Bockelmann leads the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s to Ph.D. Bridge Program, in which students earn a master’s degree from Fisk University, a historically Black institution, while receiving full financial support, research opportunities, and intensive mentoring. Students are then able to “bridge” to a Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt or another institution. During her time as director, Holley-Bockelmann has developed a skill-building bootcamp, student wellness coaching, and an emergency fund for covering unexpected expenses.

The Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program has been extraordinarily successful in creating a pipeline for students into STEM fields. Bridge graduates make up over half of the Ph.D.s in astronomy who are underrepresented minorities. This spring, the program celebrated its 50th successful Ph.D. defense.

  • Keivan Stassun, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, contributed to a report that will influence U.S. research into outer space for at least the next decade. The Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 lays out a blueprint to improve how space exploration missions are planned and executed through 2050. The report mentioned current and planned projects by A&S faculty, giving the college an important voice in determining future research investments. The report identified three priority areas for the next decade:
    • Pathways to habitable worlds:  Identify and characterize Earth-like planets outside this solar system, with the ultimate goal of imaging potentially habitable worlds.
    • New windows on the dynamic universe:  Probe the nature of black holes and neutron stars—and the explosive events that gave rise to them—and understand what happened in the earliest moments in the birth of the universe.
    • Drivers of galaxy growth:  Revolutionize understanding of the origins and evolution of galaxies, from the webs of gas that feed them to the formation of stars.

Stassun also led a team of astronomers who discovered an incredibly rare star. Working from a star-measuring model they developed in 2017, they created a new and improved model to discover the rare, magnetic, hybrid pulsating star. This discovery furthers our understanding of the evolution of stars.

  • Robert O’Dell, Distinguished Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy, was named a 2022 fellow of the American Astronomical Society for extraordinary service and achievement throughout his career. O’Dell has built a legacy of scientific contributions in the study of planetary nebulae and the interstellar medium, in particular, as the world’s foremost expert on the Orion Nebula. He spearheaded the effort to create the Space Telescope Science Institute and Hubble Space Telescope, a tool that has defined professional astronomy and shaped history-making science for three decades.
  • Karan Jani, research assistant professor of physics and astronomy, co-chaired the first international workshop focused on gravitational wave detection on the moon. Jani has published studies making the case for building a crewed, lunar-based observatory.
  • The National Science Foundation renewed support for the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves Physics Frontiers Center—the Vanderbilt node being led by Stephen Taylor. The five-year $17 million grant allows Taylor and his colleagues to continue working to detect and study low frequency gravitational waves.
  • Jessie Runnoe received a $500,000 grant from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) for the 2022-23 academic year. The award is in association with the ESA-led Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) gravitational wave observatory planned for launch in the early 2030s. Runnoe will work to take a time-domain census of galaxies for future gravitational wave telescopes.
  • The Department of Physics and Astronomy launched VandyGRAF, an interdisciplinary research initiative to study gravity, waves, and fluids. The effort provides astronomy, physics, and math faculty with resources and space to collaborate on solving problems with outstanding scientific merit.
  • David Weintraub, professor of astronomy, published the book The Sky is for Everyone. The book is an anthology of writings by trailblazing women astronomers from around the globe.

The future of astronomy at the College of Arts and Science is bright, too. Astrophysicist Alex Lupsasca starts teaching in the fall, whose work includes investigation of astrophysics problems related to light signatures from the regions around supermassive black holes. A number of other astronomy new hires are also on the horizon.

“It is remarkable that this team of astronomers has achieved so much in such a short period of time,” said John G. Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science. “Not only are they making an important imprint on the field of astronomy, but they are also teaching, preparing, and inspiring our students—the future leaders who will generate discoveries that will change the world.”