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Alumni Spotlight - Beth Willman, Ph.D. '94

Beth Willman, Ph.D. (SA Class of 1994) is our Alumni Spotlight this week. Beth is currently the assistant professor of astronomy at Haverford College. She received her bachelor's in astronomy from Columbia University and her doctorate from the University of Washington.

She also has a galaxy named after her. Seriously! It's called Willman 1. In this blog, we pick her brain about her Academy experience and her career.

How and why did you become interested in astronomy?

Natural interest plus mentors. I was interested in math and science from a young age. While at Sewickley, my AP physics class with Mr. Beigi inspired me to want to major in physics in college. When I got to college, a confluence of two things made me decide to instead pursue astronomy: 1. I realized that astronomy was physics applied to the universe! And that the laws of physics motivate why the universe at distances of billions of light years is actually knowable; and 2. I felt valued and a sense of belonging in the astronomy department, thanks to my mentor at Columbia, David Helfand, and to the general departmental culture. The culture among physics majors was not particularly constructive.

We’ve never met anyone with a galaxy named after them. Are there benefits or perks with finding Willman 1?

We discovered this and another ultra-faint dwarf galaxy around the same time in 2005 - the first two known of this type of galaxy. One benefit was thus the thrill of discovering the unexpected, which I don't anticipate getting the opportunity to feel again. The biggest practical benefit has been significant name recognition in my field :) Although shortly after its discovery, I would get some interesting responses when giving talks, such as "I thought you would be an old guy."

What do you like better - being a college professor or being an astronomer?

I consider these to be inextricably entangled, and both are a luxury to experience. Pursuing research makes me a better professor in the classroom and vice versa. Undergraduates are involved with many of my research projects.

What advice would you give to a current student who is interested in astronomy?

Astronomy isn't just looking at pretty pictures, its very mathematical and physical. So if you're interested in a career in astronomy: study math and physics, look for a college or university that both has astronomy and values providing undergraduates with research opportunities. Ironically, some liberal arts colleges provide more research experience to their students per capita than even leading research universities, and many have students going onto doctorates in science fields at the same rate as research universities.

What was your favorite subject while you attended Sewickley Academy and why?

Physics, because both physics and Mr. Beigi are awesome.

Who was your favorite teacher at Sewickley Academy?

Mr. Golding, a history teacher, and Mr. Beigi. Mr. Carter was also an incredibly thoughtful advisor. Its hard to even stop at three. Many SA teachers inspired me and supported me in different ways.

What was the best piece of advice you received while you were at SA?

One day in our Age of Armageddon class, Mr. Golding wrote across the board in large letters "PLAGIARISM." We had recently handed in our first papers, and had not properly cited our sources. We were sternly dressed down and, if I recall correctly, effectively kicked out of class for the rest of the period. At the time, I was shocked. The immediate takeaway lesson was that I knew better than many of my peers how to properly credit the work of others. As time has passed, my takeaway lesson has been in the value of asserting strength and selective boldness as a professor in the classroom when communicating issues of great importance - whether issues of science or of integrity.

If there is one thing you could change about your time at SA what would it be?

Oh man. I'll keep it simple and say that I wouldn't skip gym class.


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Topics: Alumni

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