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Teaching About Galaxies Big and Small

As she dives into a description of her research on dwarf galaxies, Assistant Professor of Astronomy Beth Willman instinctually turns to a visual aid. Sketching on a yellow legal pad with a pen, Willman explains that our “big, beautiful galaxy” is just a small piece of a much larger universe and her research focuses on understanding the collection of smaller galaxies and dark matter that surround the Milky Way.

For some, explaining the complexities of cutting edge astronomy research to someone with little background in the subject would be daunting. But it comes naturally to Willman.

Those gifts were recognized recently by the National Science Foundation, which awarded Willman a CAREER grant. Given to junior faculty members who truly embody the dual role of scholar-educator. The award, totaling more than $750,000, funds five years of research as well as public outreach and educational development. Willman is one of several members of the faculty to win the prestigious award. Past CAREER grant winners include Assistant Professor of Physics Peter Love (2010), Associate Professor of Physics Stephon Alexander ’93 (2007) and Professor of Chemistry Karin S. Akerfeldt (1998).

Willman, who has received previous grants from NSF and has an ultra-faint dwarf galaxy named after her (Willman 1, which she discovered in 2005), has played a major role in developing the astronomy program at Haverford.

Professor of Astronomy Steve Boughn calls her  “the driving force behind our new interdisciplinary astrophysics major.” Willman also created a new upper-level course (Modern Galactic Astronomy), and helped get Haverford students access to a research-level 1meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. Now, the upper-level observational astronomy class takes trips to Kitt Peak where students are able to make observations for projects of current interest to astronomers.

Willman is interested not only in the growth of the Haverford astronomy program, but also its students. “The thing that has always attracted me to astronomy as a field is the amount of creativity and thinking outside of the box that is needed,” Willman says. “There aren’t answers to the questions that we’re tackling. Engaging students in research allows them to experience a lot of the frustrations and excitement of that.”

Providing students with access to tools like the Kitt Peak telescope has allowed many of them to take major steps in the field very early. “[Professor Willman] is always finding ways to advance each student’s experience with astronomy,” says Mimi Fuchs ’13, “whether it’s helping them find summer research opportunities, or helping them put together a poster to present at a prestigious conference.”

In 2010, Willman was the recipient of the Haverford College Life Cycle of the Student Scholar Award, which recognizes professors whose classroom assignments and research opportunities "cultivate students’ intellectual growth and prepare them for the rigors of their senior theses." In the last year, several of Willman’s students have presented their research at the American Astronomical Society bi-annual meetings. Willman has also mentored two Fulbright scholars (Dylan Hatt ’10 and Emily Cunningham ’12) and a Watson Fellowship winner (Maya Barlev ’12). Her students have also gone on to study at a number of prestigious graduate programs, including University of California-Santa Cruz and the University of Chicago.

Willman’s CAREER grant will fund a research project titled “Exploring the Invisible Universe With Milky Way Dwarfs and Streams.” Willman intends to work closely with a post-doctoral researcher and a number of Haverford undergraduates on Milky Way stellar streams and dwarf galaxies to study the Milky Way Galaxy's dark matter sub-halos and their formation history. Ultimately, the work could contribute to an understanding of the formation and evolution of the universe.

She also hopes to further develop Haverford’s public observing program, which invites the public to campus for stargazing and informal student-run talks about astronomy at the Strawbridge Observatory.

Astronomy, Willman says, is a gateway science that can introduce people to the wonders of the natural world. “It’s important to build people’s trust in science and to give kids an excitement about science, and a way for them to develop that.” The public observing program also helps Haverford astronomy students develop their public speaking skills and places them in a leadership role. “It helps students with communication, which is so important,” Willman says.

Willman also plans to use the grant to engage students in discussion of diversity in the sciences. The astronomy professor is currently collaborating with Emily Cunningham ’12 to develop ideas for the first in a series of seminars to generate conversation about diversity. “Knowledge is power,” Willman says. “And learning about issues of diversity in our society and about ways in which diversity is lacking in science and technology fields—I thought that could be a way to empower students to make a difference.”

Helping to motivate and inspire her, she says, is the supportive teaching environment at Haverford. “I have so many colleagues who really help me push myself to achieve as much as I can in teaching, service and in scholarship,” Willman says. “These are people who are doing cutting-edge research, and we also come together and talk about how we can do a better job helping our students.”

—Erin Adaline Seglem ’14

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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