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Once Again, Haverford's Got the KNAC

Bill Herbst, John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy and chair of the Astronomy Department at Wesleyan University, has received a $330,990 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will benefit Wesleyan and the seven other elite liberal arts member institutions in the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC), one of which is Haverford. The program, which has been in existence for nearly two decades, has provided nearly 175 summer research experiences for students interested in astronomy. It has enabled the small colleges to share their resources and foster long-term interest in the sciences.

One Haverford College KNAC scholar, Joseph Coish ’09, had the opportunity to work with Professor Frank Winkler at Middlebury College. “We studied planetary nebulae in the Small Magellanic Cloud,” Coish recalls. Using a wealth of data collected by six years of Middlebury/Keck students, he searched for as many planetary nebulae (PNe) as he could find and calculated their apparent magnitudes. He then made a graph that plots the number of PNe of a particular magnitude versus that magnitude. “If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry,” cautions Coish. “The important point is from this type of graph you can tell the distance to the home system. We were able to get a much better idea of the shape of the graph which is really important for people who use this technique to find distances to galaxies far away.” And who doesn’t understand galaxies far, far away?

Coming from a student who entered the program with practically no knowledge of astronomy, all of this is actually quite impressive. Coish not only gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about astronomy, but also “about the technology that makes it all possible.” For him, though, the best part of the program was the KNAC Student Symposium where Coish and all of the other KNAC supported students gave 10-minute presentations about their summer research. As Coish sees it, KNAC is a great experience for anyone who has any interest in astronomy. The program allows students to draw on the faculty and laboratory resources from other small colleges, conduct compelling research projects, publish, and present their results to a group of their peers as well as professionals in the field.

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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