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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Students Reach for the Stars at Astronomy Symposium

The 23rd annual Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium, which took place this past weekend was a pivotal moment for the astronomical sciences community at the College. It signaled another fruitful year amongst Keck Consortium colleges for summer astronomy research, as well as the last year at the College for Gamallel Painter Bicentennial Professor of Physics Frank Winkler.

The weekend began on Friday evening at the Bread Loaf campus with a reception, dinner and stargazing. Students and professors from Williams, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Colgate, Swarthmore, Vassar and Haverford joined together for a social evening to discuss topics ranging from the drive up from New York to supernova remnants.

The following day was more scientifically focused, with 17 presentations over the course of an afternoon given by students in the consortium. Winkler participated in the symposium since its beginning in 1990. The first was held at Vassar College in November of that year. Since then, the event has developed and grown in expected and unexpected ways.

“The symposium has gotten a lot bigger over time as the number of students involved in astronomy has grown,” said Winkler. “The way people give the talks has also changed. Back when I first started we had transparencies with overhead projectors. The quality has improved; we had a number of outstanding talks this year – interesting from beginning to end.”

Winkler went on to highlight how the quality of the symposium is self-propagating. Often any student presenting at the event has already attended in previous years and, after seeing the level of achievement in the presentations, finds it incumbent upon him or herself to perform to that level, or higher.

Teddy Smyth ’15 worked alongside Winkler this summer logging data about supernova remnants so the information could be made public this fall. Smyth’s connection to the consortium was direct – Winkler contacted him after Smyth took his course, “Introduction to the Universe,” in the fall of 2011.

“This summer was spectacular,” said Smyth. The most valuable part of his involvement was “learning … what real astronomy research looks like and feels like.”

Winkler also allowed Smyth and Lucia Perez, a sophomore from Wellelsey and his partner for the summer, a lot of freedom with their work.

“The two of them did a fabulous job,” said Winkler. “I was not here in the lab working with them every hour. I gave them a little orientation and direction and they really ran with it.”

One of the great benefits of the funding for the Keck Consortium is that it allows students that freedom. The students are self-motivated and present their work during the symposium without direct help from their professors. They fielded questions and organized their presentations to effectively support and highlight their summer’s worth of work.

Smyth’s collaboration with Perez, for example, all culminated in an afternoon powerpoint highlighting the importance of understanding supernova remnants in the optical spectrum.

Another student presenting at the symposium was Katie Iadanza, a Colgate senior. She conducted research research on extrasolar planets this past summer, but did not receive funding from the consortium. Since Colgate is part of the consortium and learning how to defend a project is such a valuable experience, Iadanza decided to present at the symposium.

“It gave me lots of experience,” said Iadanza. “There is more to science than research. You have to be able to defend your work and publish the papers. It’s getting more and more important to have experience for graduate schools – it’s almost a requirement at this point.”

Iadanza also enjoyed the Breadloaf portion of the symposium, giving her an opportunity to reconnect with the friends she made in lab working over the summer: students from Wellesley and Wesleyan.She connected well with many students and joined in the festivities to hear the College’s a capella group Stuck in the Middle (SIM) entertain with themed songs such as “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra and other tunes.

“It was a really fun two days. Good place for consortium to meet and share interests and build a community of astronomical liberal arts types,” said Smyth.

Lia Den Daas ’16 did not present at the symposium this weekend but as a student of Winkler’s astronomy course, decided to go and learn more about research happening in the field of astronomy. Den Daas stated that the “star gazing was amazing,” being even better than that found weekly on the roof of McCardell Bicentennial Hall.

Den Daas made many connections on Friday night, saying that “it was really interesting to have other people to talk to” about astronomy.

As a student, the symposium made her even more enthusiastic for astronomy than before.

“I took away an overall better understanding of how research works. I have more ideas for myself … it was really cool to see how enthusiastic the students are,” said Den Daas. “Professors light up [during the symposium], but it was good to see it in students as well.”

From an different perspective, Smyth said of the Keck symposium that he “learned a lot – [most of] the presentations were outside the scope of things I learned in the astronomical field … in- depth study in very specific branches of the field [gave me] a better sense of the whole of the field.”

Overall the symposium was a great success. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Winkler. “We had great luck with the weather and a great turnout for Middlebury – 14 or 16 students, the most we’ve ever had. I’m delighted so many stayed at Bread Loaf.”

This was the third time the symposium was held at the College. On previous occasions, Middlebury hosted a dinner on campus, but by the third time all of the celebrations were shifted up to the Breadloaf campus in Ripton, which “created a summer camp atmosphere,”said Winkler.

Another singular feature about the symposium is that two out of the three times it has been held at the College, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz, has spoken. Winkler was at a loss to name more than one other occasion when a president of the college spoke at an astronom symposium. Liebowitz gave a brief welcome speech at the beginning of the symposium this past weekend.

The first time the symposium was held at Middlebury, then-president John McCardell gave a few words as well.

“It says a lot about the support we’ve had from the administration ongoing over years,” said Winkler. All of us in the sciences really value that.”

Winkler has decided that this will be his final year teaching at College. Although he will maintain lab space and travel to campus occasionally, he will be much less of a presence in McCardell Bicentennial Hall after this year.

“It’s a very bittersweet feeling,” said Winkler. “I’ve felt very lucky to have spent my career here … when I came here I had never taught before. It’s something I’ve become very passionate about and wouldn’t have happened had I been somewhere else.”

His passion for the subject is evident in the reactions of students learning he plans to retire. Smyth, who has had the rare opportunity to spend a summer working with Winkler, said that he is “heartbroken.”

“He’s inspired so many kids through the years to discover the wonders of the universe,” he continued. “[I’m] thoroughly hoping he will still be around campus ... [but] I’ll miss him a lot in labs.

Smyth regrets that generations to come won’t be able to experience Winkler in class. “[Professor Winkler] is a really cool guy. I’m really sad to see him go – he’s the only one at Middlebury who seems to be truly passionate and into astronomy,” said Den Daas, who has only known him for a few weeks.

Barrett Smith ’13 has been working as a teaching assistant for Winkler for two years now.

“His passion for teaching really shines through,” said Smith. “Frank always wants to share the love of the night sky with everyone.”

This weekend highlighted the importance of the astronomical sciences at the College and in the Keck Consortium, as well as those professors that have dedicated their lives to progress in those fields.

The consortium made it possible to gather some of the brightest and best students who will one day continue on with the progress being made by the professors who believe in them.

“The greatest strength of the consortium is the work we do,” said Winkler. “The symposium is the linchpin that keeps it together.”