San Francisco Advantage

Astronomer Joins USF Faculty

by Samantha Bronson

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 both interests.

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.

"I 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.

Venkatesan 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 education.

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 astronomy program.

"I think it's particularly critical now to create science-informed citizens to go out in the world," Venkatesan said.