Assistant Professor, Planetary Science
College of Arts and Sciences
Where and when was your research/creative experience as an undergraduate?
What did you do?
As an astronomy major, my research was astronomy-based. One project dealt with the cataloging data and a little analysis of the aurora in the upper atmosphere, using a camera with a fisheye lens. Another, later project involved designing and building a telescope at the McDonald Observatory near El Paso, TX. That then morphed into looking into the thin atmospheres around the moons of Mercury and the Moon, tracking motions of molecules.
How did your mentor help you?
Dr. Michael Mendillo was fairly hands-off, supportive and clear where our research jobs fit within our academic pursuits. Our grades weren’t allowed to slip. Ultimately, however, I interacted more with the research staff than directly with my mentor.
What is your favorite memory from that time?
After helping to build a 24-inch research telescope, I got to travel to McDonald Observatory (in western Texas) to set it up and use it to observe the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact Jupiter in 1994. It was my first trip to a big observatory and my first time doing research-quality observing. Plus, the dormitories were full, so we stayed at a dude ranch a few of the nights.
How did your experience benefit you?
It was absolutely critical for me. I was the first person in my extended family to go to college. I became an astronomy major because I was always interested in space. I had no idea about research or a career choice. My undergraduate research experience made it possible to go to grad school. These days, undergraduate research is almost a prerequisite for grad school. I applied and was accepted to several places, so I had options.
How does that experience impact your student engagement today?
Since I see that as such a critical point in my life, I especially enjoy giving undergrads opportunities today. It’s important to my position here.
What advice would you offer to students today who seek a similar experience?
Just do it! Knock on a professor’s door and see what opportunities are available. Then take it and show up!
Why should students seek such an experience?
There is a lot you can learn from practical applications that is difficult to learn in a class or class-related lab. Having a long-term project, whereby you learn how to research the background, come up with a hypothesis, how to design your test, how to execute the test and bring the project to conclusion is valuable, even if you decide not to pursue a career in science. You learn a common-sensical way of thinking that is important for all of us
What interesting fact about yourself might surprise your students?
I get to travel all over the world. I just got back from Chile, leave for Hawaii tomorrow and in the fall, I’m headed to France.