Growing up in India and Singapore, Aparna Venkatesan loved both the
night sky and mathematics. By the time she moved to the United States
for college, she realized that astronomy was the best way to combine
As the latest addition to the University of San
Francisco's physics department and its first pure astronomer,
Venkatesan is working on nurturing that fascination in others.
think it is a critical duty of an academic career to educate people and
to open hearts and minds to what we know about the universe and the
world," she said.
To that end, the assistant professor is
working to not only expand the university's offerings of astronomy
courses, but also to establish a minor in the discipline. In the past,
the physics department has offered an introductory astronomy course,
which has always been popular with students. Venkatesan will be
teaching that class next semester while working to create an
upper-division astrophysics course.
Other classes she is
interested in developing include archeo-astronomy (the study of the
astronomy of ancient peoples), astro-biology (the study of the origins
of life and the conditions needed for it), and cosmology (the study of
the evolution of the universe).
"Dr. Venkatesan brings with her
not only an excellent record of scholarship but also a crucial area of
expertise for USF," said Brandon Brown, associate dean for sciences for
the College of Arts and Sciences.
Venkatesan holds a bachelor's
degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a doctorate in
astrophysics from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining USF, she
held a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado at Boulder,
and was then awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation
post-doctoral fellowship and taught at the university.
said she was drawn to USF because of the university's supportive
environment and commitment to service, as well as the chance to
establish the astronomy program, which she sees as a way of giving back
to the community. She envisions creating both a technical astronomy
minor for students majoring in physics and other sciences and a
non-technical astronomy minor for those who are simply interested in
astronomy and for those who might use it in other fields such as
Her own research has focused primarily on theoretical
studies of the first stars and galaxies of the universe. She uses
computers to model and predict such things as the structures of the
stars and galaxies, how they died, and what type of influence they
exert on the environment. Venkatesan anticipates branching out into
observational astronomy; that is, using telescopes and other devices to
directly observe the universe. In her case, she plans to study cosmic
rays (highly energetic particles from distant universes) and gamma-ray
bursts (the most energetic explosions in the universe and associated
with the death of massive stars).
While both were first observed
fairly recently, observational astronomy in general has a much longer
history, including with the Jesuits, who established a large number of
observatories beginning in the 17th century. Despite this tradition,
Venkatesan said, astronomy is very much a modern topic that is
capturing the public's attention, making now the right time to start an
"I think it's particularly critical now to create science-informed citizens to go out in the world," Venkatesan said.