BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY


Searching the stars: Layden earns Blinn Award for work with students

Dr. Andrew Layden
Dr. Andrew Layden

It is a great achievement to make discoveries about the stars, but, for a teacher, it is perhaps an even greater achievement to make “stars” out of one’s students.

That Dr. Andrew Layden, physics and astronomy, has done that so successfully is one reason he was chosen to receive the 2006 Elliott L. Blinn Award for Faculty-Undergraduate Basic Research/Creative Work. The award is given in memory of the late Dr. Elliott Blinn, professor of chemistry, who devoted his career to sharing with undergraduate students the excitement of the process of discovery.

Layden received $1,000, and an additional $4,000 has been transferred to his departmental account for continued support of undergraduate research.

In the eight years since he came to BGSU, Layden has included undergraduate students in his Variable Star Project, which has evolved into an ongoing student research program that has comprised nine undergraduate students, most for multiple years. “The quality and scope of his involvement with students and of their involvement in research exemplify our goals for faculty-student research collaboration,” said Dr. John Laird, chair of the physics and astronomy department.

Those students have gone on to achieve recognition and reward on their own, and have enthusiastically endorsed Layden’s nomination for the Blinn Award in appreciation of his mentorship. To date, his students have presented three posters at American Astronomical Society national meetings and have been lead authors of two refereed publications, with more in progress.

Supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation, Layden’s research seeks to advance the understanding of the size of the cosmos and the properties of various objects within it through measuring interstellar reddening and absorption. Like the redness we see at sunset as incoming sunlight passes through more atmosphere and is absorbed and scattered by particles of dust and pollution, so does starlight appear to redden as it passes through the fine mixture of gas and dust known as the interstellar medium. Using BGSU’s .5-meter telescope and electronic camera, the project monitors the color changes and brightening of the stars as they pulsate. Calculating the results will help astronomers measure the distance between us and the older populations of stars like globular clusters, the Galactic Center and other galaxies within the Local Group.

To help conduct these observations and calculations, Layden has employed undergraduate students. “A cornerstone of my philosophy of education is that students learn better by doing,” he says, “be it an inquiry-based activity in an introductory astronomy class or researching a topic and presenting their findings to the class in Recent Progress in Astronomy. The VSP (Variable Star Project) allows students to continue this process as an independent study course or a summer job. It allows students to experience the process of science directly, including gathering data, processing images and measuring star brightness, analyzing and interpreting their data and presenting their results to an interested audience. For some students, this provides a preview of a career in science, and helps them decide whether such a career is right for them.”

Katherine Guldenschuh, who worked with Layden for more than two years, is now a second lieutenant in the Air Force Science Division and plans to pursue advanced study in astrophysics, “an endeavor for which Layden’s mentorship prepared her well,” according to Dr. Donald Nieman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Guldenschuh, who won the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship while working with Layden, wrote, “Dr. Layden always encouraged us to work hard and understand the projects we were working on. He could have saved a lot of time by just explaining to his students how to do what needed to get done. Despite his busy schedule, however, Dr. Layden always took the extra time to explain why we were doing something and made sure I had a full understanding of the work and the science behind it.”

The impact on the students of working on the project is being manifested in various ways. Jeffrey Gregorsock, who graduated last year, is now a high school science teacher with a deeper understanding of his field. The experience of being involved firsthand in the VSP “has been a rare privilege that has given me a special insight into the very nature of scientific investigation,” he says.

Curtis Bunner, who will travel to Kitts Peak Observatory near Tucson next summer to acquire more data for the VSP, will be able to use the experiences and the publications coming out of the project as he prepares to apply to graduate school in physics or astrophysics. Bunner wrote that Layden’s “altruistic and patient mentoring” has expanded his knowledge and will “undoubtedly be instrumental in my success in the future.”

Nieman said that Layden’s work “exemplifies the best in undergraduate research: a cutting-edge scholar who gently challenges undergraduate students to pursue discovery at the highest level and has the patience and understanding to help them rise to the challenge.”

November 13, 2006