U.J. Sofia, professor of astronomy, has it all-- a job teaching astronomy at a small, distinguished liberal arts college, a research project that will hold and require his attention for “a lifetime,” recognition by his peers, and “really good students” with whom he can work. But, he allows, he could use a few more hours in a day.
Sofia and a handful of colleagues around the country study interstellar dust. This dust (small solid particles of various elements) interspersed between earth and the edge of the visible universe distorts the light passing through space, which in turn distorts astronomers’ views of the cosmos. “Figuring out how dust distorts the light—and therefore how to correct for those distortions—is fundamental,” says Sofia. “What we’re doing has a huge effect on astronomy in general, and on just about every astronomer’s work.”
As a graduate student Sofia received a NASA fellowship to observe the galaxy’s interstellar matter with the Hubble Space Telescope, and his Ph.D. thesis was ground-breaking in that it was the first ever to be based entirely on the space telescope’s data. The most valuable data he and his colleagues use today still comes from the Hubble. However, time on the Hubble is finite, says Sofia, with seven times as many requests for time than is available, so the sample any one scientist (or group of scientists) can obtain is very small.
In another ground-breaking move, Sofia has developed a way to use archived Hubble data collected by other scientists for other studies to further his own. This will double and in some cases quadruple the amount of data available to Sofia and his colleagues, and his project will be supported by the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. He has just received a grant of $60,000 to use over 18 months which includes funds to hire student researchers during the summers of 2009 and 2010.
Sofia’s proposal was vetted by a peer review panel in a very competitive process, but he had to do more than write an excellent proposal--he had to present it, literally, on the fly.
“The peer review panel met in Baltimore during finals week,” he says. Although Andrea Dobson, professor of astronomy, was able to stand in for him during the test he missed, she then had to Fed Ex the test results to him in Baltimore, so he could grade them on the flight home, because grades were due immediately after he returned.
That kind of time crunch defines his professional life. “All of the colleagues that I work with are in research positions at universities or observatories—I’m the one that by far has the least amount of time to work on this stuff, so sometimes I’m the one that’s holding us up.”
It’s difficult. He wouldn’t change it. “I like it here; there’s good stuff here. I’m a big believer in providing a very good education for students. I went to a big research university before I transferred to Wesleyan University in my junior year. I really appreciated my education at a liberal arts college, and decided that was what I wanted—to teach at a place where students are the most important thing and where you can do really good research with really good students.”
The trade-off is that his summer months are packed with research and a hectic travel schedule. This summer he was invited to present at two conferences. The first, in early June to the American Astronomical Society meeting in St. Louis, was a lecture about the important role of laboratory astrophysics in the solid-state portion of the meeting; this talk related to his work on interstellar dust. His second talk will be delivered at the Cosmic Odyssey of the Elements conference June 23-27 in Aegina, Greece. This talk is related to interstellar gas, which is closely related to interstellar dust.
These talks are important in astronomy and other disciplines, said Sofia, because they are an acknowledgement by scientific peers of a significant contribution to the field. “While grants acknowledge good plans for the future, invited talks acknowledge important results from the past, and they are, for me, an honor. I’m also proud of the fact that I am the only invited speaker at both meetings not from a research institution.”
CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156