Celebrating Bill Herbst’s Wesleyan Career

On Friday, May 26th, after 43 years at Wesleyan, and a two year delay due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, we were finally able to celebrate Bill Herbst’s retirement from Wesleyan! Thank you to all the friends, family, faculty, colleagues, current, and past students who were able to attend this special event.

About Prof. Bill Herbst

Bill grew up in southern New Jersey and was an undergraduate at Princeton University, where he majored in Astrophysics and graduated with High Honors. He received his Ph.D. in 1974 from the University of Toronto. He taught for two years at York University in Toronto and then accepted a position in Washington, D. C., as a Carnegie Fellow at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM), a branch of the Carnegie Institution. In 1978, he joined the faculty at Wesleyan University where he rose to the rank of Professor and was the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy from 1991 until his retirement in 2021. His current title is John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus.

He is an astronomer interested in star formation, planet formation, meteorites, chondrules, T Tauri stars and the formation of the Earth. He observes and interprets the light variations of T Tauri stars, objects that are similar in mass to the Sun but at an age (< 10 Myr) when their planetary systems were still forming. This research makes use of telescopes at Van Vleck Observatory (VVO) on the Wesleyan campus, other facilities around the world, and space telescopes. An object of particular interest whose unique behavior was discovered at VVO is known as KH 15D, and has been shown to be a “proto-Tatooine” object — that is, a binary star system orbited by a ring of material that may one day consolidate to form planets orbiting a double star like the fictional home world of Luke and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. More recently, has become interested in chondrules and chondritic meteorites, which are the most primitive samples of the solar nebula that reach the Earth’s surface on their own. In collaboration with James P. Greenwood of Wesleyan’s E&ES department, he has developed a theory of chondritic meteorite formation that addresses a long-standing problem in cosmochemisty, the origin of the chondrules. Their theory correctly predicted the density of the rocks on Ryugu, the first asteroid from which a substantial sample of rocks was returned, and also correctly predicted that these rocks would contain few, if any, chondrules.


We welcomed to campus Catrina Hamilton-Drager, Joshua Winn, and Nicole Arulanantham to give seminars with Wesleyan’s Jim Greenwood. These speakers highlighted various topics that Bill had worked on during his time at Wesleyan. Bill ended the seminar series with remarks about his time at Wesleyan and his research during his time here and beyond.

It’s Not Goodbye…

Although Bill has officially retired from Wesleyan, he is still active in our department and we are happy he kept an office in VVO. He comes in from time to time to fill us in on his travels and what he is working on now.

Wes Astronomers at Green Bank!

This fall as part of the Radio Astronomy class, our majors and MA students had the opportunity to travel to Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.  After enduring the 9-hour drive each way, we were let loose on the 40-ft telescope and were also allocated a big chunk of time on the 20-meter telescope.  We toured the receiver lab and the operating room for the Green Bank Telescope, and saw some of the new/experimental facilities like the CHIME outrigger.  The students even managed to survive ~36 hours in the National Radio Quiet Zone without their devices and connection to the outside world!  The Green Bank site was peaceful, beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and several of the students saw the Milky Way for the first time.

Return of the Inflatable Planetarium!

Wesleyan’s astronomy department has had a pair of old Starlab inflatable planetariums for many years, but in 2019 we added a new digital planetarium to our arsenal… which we used for only one semester before the pandemic hit and packing dozens of children into close proximity in a little bubble of air started to seem like not such a great idea for a while.  This year, thanks to data on air exchange rates in inflatable planetariums from colleagues in the UK, along with an awesome level of cooperation from our community on wearing masks in the planetarium environment, we were finally able to bring back planetarium presentations for our Middletown community!

This semester we opened the planetarium for several events: a Scout group visit to the observatory, two days’ worth of expeditions to Macdonough School, a planetarium night at the local public library, and one more school visit.  Students in our Astronomical Pedagogy seminar worked all semester to learn how to use the planetarium equipment, to understand developmental expectations and educational standards for children of different ages, to think about the role of storytelling in science communication, and to practice and give each other feedback on their presentations.  The results were awesome!  Kids in grades K-5 learned about gravity, seasons, the day/night cycle, Morse code, and so much more — our students were pros at getting the kids excited to learn more about space.

Get to know the new members of VVO

This fall, the Wesleyan Astronomy Department welcomes one new professor and two postdoctoral researchers to the Van Vleck Obsevatory.


Professor Sarah Wellons (she/her) uses powerful numerical simulations to explore how galaxies evolve, and why they look the way they do. She is teaching ASTR 210 this fall, a course teaching future or current majors how to utilize scientific computing in an astronomy context.


Dr. Jonathan Jackson (he/him) is a Teaching Fellow who also work with Professor Seth Redfield on planetary dynamics. He is teaching a First Year Seminar this fall – ASTR 102F – about planetary formation, evolution, and the possibility for life on life on other worlds.


Dr. Azmain Nisak (he/him) is a Postdoctoral Researcher who is also working with Professor Redfield. His current work focuses on gaining more information on clouds in the Milky Way’s interstellar medium (ISM).


In order to get to know our new members, we asked them a few questions about how they got to Wesleyan, what they do here, and how they are enjoying their time here so far.


  • What was your academic journey leading up to this position at Wesleyan?


Sarah: I was an undergraduate at Princeton, where I majored in Astrophysical Sciences and got a certificate (sort of like a minor) in Applications of Computing.  For my undergraduate thesis, I used particle-in-cell simulations to study relativistic shocks in plasmas (with application to gamma-ray bursts).  I then went to Harvard for graduate school, where I worked on GRMHD simulations of black hole accretion disks for my master’s and then moved to galaxy formation simulations for my PhD work.  My dissertation was about the formation and evolution of massive compact galaxies and the way that galaxy populations evolve over cosmic time.  After grad school, I spent 5 years at Northwestern University as a postdoc (first as a CIERA fellow and then as an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics fellow), where I continued my work using simulations to study how massive galaxies form, evolve, and quench at high redshift.  During my time as an NSF fellow, I also worked with the Northwestern Prison Education Program to teach introductory astronomy to students incarcerated in Illinois state prisons.


Jonathan: I studied astronomy and astrophysics as an undergraduate at Harvard University before going to graduate school at Penn State for astronomy as well. I defended my PhD dissertation in June of this year before coming to Wesleyan.


Azmain: I have been fascinated by stars, planets, and the Universe beyond Earth for as long as I can remember. I completed my Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Physics at the City College of New York (CUNY CCNY), where I conducted research with Professor Swapan Gayen to study the spectroscopic properties of impurity-ion doped insulators with lasers. I completed my Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Astronomy at Georgia State University (GSU), where I worked with Professor Russel White to study young star clusters and possible planets orbiting their Sun-like stars using Gaia astrometry, as well as CHIRON and GOODMAN spectroscopy.



  • What are you most looking forward to during your time at Wesleyan?

Sarah: I am really looking forward to working with students, in both teaching and research!  Seeing students learn how awesome the Universe is for the first time helps me remember how awesome it is too.


Jonathan: I’m most looking forward to working with students on new and exciting research projects. Starting research can be a very intimidating process, but a lot of scientists can point to their first research project (and their first research mentor!) as a major piece of their decision to continue in the field. I’d like to help budding astronomers build those experiences.


Azmain: I am most excited to work with Professor Redfield on new projects related to the Interstellar Medium (ISM) and Exoplanets. I believe our collective expertise will be wonderful for making progress in these fields.


  • Can you tell me a little bit about your current research?

Sarah: Currently, I am spending a lot of time thinking about the physical relationship between galaxies and the supermassive black holes (SMBHs) they host.  We know that they co-evolve, and we suspect that the powerful winds and jets emitted by accreting black holes might be responsible for quenching star formation in massive galaxies, but the exact nature of the interplay between them is unclear.  We are working on incorporating models for SMBH physics into our galaxy simulations and understanding how our modeling choices affect our predictions for how galaxies evolve.


Jonathan: I study the dynamics of planetary systems, with a particular focus on orbital architectures. I’d like to understand how the planets we observe found their way onto their current orbits and why so many exoplanetary systems look dramatically different from the Solar System.


Azmain: Currently, I am working on an ongoing survey of the local ISM called SNAP. This project uses sightlines to the nearest stars to infer the presence and properties of interstellar clouds based on absorption of Mg II, Fe II, and Mn II doublet lines in Hubble Space Telescope (HST) spectra. I am excited to be working on this project because it is a new topic of study for me, and I am analyzing the third and largest batch of data from this set, which includes a whopping 45 sightlines!


  • What advice would you give to someone considering going into research?

Sarah: If you are potentially interested in a research career, start getting your hands dirty as soon as you can!  It’s a very different experience than classwork.  Try to get some experience in a few different subfields so you can get a sense of what the day-to-day work is like, which will help you decide if it’s what you want to do long-term.  I think it’s important to get a sense of the breadth of types of research that astronomy has to offer – for example, I did a couple of observationally-oriented summer projects as an undergraduate, which made clear to me (with no offense to my colleagues, of course!) that observational work wasn’t for me and that theory/simulation was where my strengths and interests lay.


Jonathan: Try something that excites you! No matter what area of research you choose, you’ll pick up skills that will help you out later on, but passion for the subject matter and a good relationship with your research mentor will ensure your experience is as rewarding as possible.


Azmain: One piece of advice I would give to someone considering going into astronomy research is to stay calm when encountering a roadblock. It may be tempting to panic when you had a plan of how to do something but then it inexplicably failed. Give yourself time, be prepared to try various solutions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. And don’t personalize failure or feel like you are inferior to your peers when you get stuck. Odds are, they are getting stuck a lot too. Solving a problem after getting stuck over and over is one of the reasons why doing astronomy can be so rewarding!

  • Favorite thing about Middletown/Connecticut so far?


Sarah: After a decade of city living, I am really enjoying the peace and quiet and access to nature that a smaller town offers!  Getting produce from local farmstands and watching the leaves start to turn have been particular joys so far.


Jonathan: The weather! Early autumn in New England is beautiful and Middletown is an excellent place to walk around and enjoy the scenery.


Azmain: My favorite thing about Middletown and Connecticut so far is how beautiful they are! There are definitely a lot more trees than in NYC or Atlanta that’s for sure.


-Post written by Alaina Einsig

Sidewalk Science

This semester our Astronomical Pedagogy seminar is doing “Sidewalk Science” in collaboration with Middletown’s Russell Library during the month of October.  We’ve been collecting questions about space from library patrons and Middletown residents, and each week a team of students chalks responses on the sidewalk in front of the library.

Check out our first round of chalkings, and if you’re in the Middletown area, please visit the web form and submit your questions about space!  Photos of the chalkings will be posted on the library’s and observatory’s social media.

Got space questions?
Got space questions?

Alaina doing the first chalking
Alaina doing the first chalking

Why are moon craters round?
Why are moon craters round?

Does it rain diamonds on Neptune?
Does it rain diamonds on Neptune?

Why aren't people in space?
Why aren’t people in space?

Is Pluto a planet?
Is Pluto a planet?

Pluto is a dwarf planet
Pluto is a dwarf planet!

Astronomy Department Statement on George Floyd, Racism, and Police Brutality

We are living through a tumultuous moment in our nation’s history: one that has both caused and brought to light a great deal of pain, anguish, and suffering, especially for people of color in the United States.  This moment presents an opportunity to take a stand and renew our commitment to actively work against the racism and violence against people of color that permeates the fabric of our society as well as our scientific community.  We stand in solidarity with the protestors insisting on an end to violence against individuals and communities of color, a dismantling of systemic institutional racism, and reform of police. We unequivocally affirm that black lives matter.  We acknowledge that the impact of recent events, particularly the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, is disproportionately heavy for people of color in our community, and affirm our support and care for those most directly affected by racism and the efforts to combat it.

We acknowledge that, together with all segments of our society, science has contributed and continues to contribute to the history of violence and oppression of Black and Brown Americans.  We acknowledge that systematic barriers to the full participation of scientists of color exist today, woven into the fabric of the field of astronomy, and that we must actively work to dismantle them and create opportunities for scientists of color.  Our community of learning and discovery requires us to actively work to build an anti-racist organization and support our community members that bear the additional burden of inequity in our society.  Here are a few ways that our department pledges to do some of that work in the coming months and years:

– While the physics GRE has always been optional for applicants to our MA program in astronomy, this year for the first time we will not accept scores at all.

– The astronomy faculty are building and expanding upon modules that explicitly weave STEM equity and inclusion and scientific ethics into the astronomy curriculum.  Two examples include the ethics component of Astronomical Pedagogy seminar, which will be expanded this fall, and the CIS321 seminar on STEM equity and inclusion, which will be taught for the third time this fall.  The latter course explicitly encourages students to design evidence-based initiatives to increase STEM equity and inclusion at Wesleyan, in collaboration with existing groups and structures, and includes both logistical faculty support and funding for those efforts.  We welcome and encourage all members of the Wesleyan astronomy community to join us in these endeavors.

– We will reignite the conversations that have taken place in our department as part of our Diversity Journal Club series, which has lapsed for the past two years, to provide a regular departmental forum to discuss issues related to STEM equity and inclusion, particularly anti-racist efforts, and to plan future action we can take as a department.

– We have benefited from discussions in the department of underrepresentation in astronomy which were driven by visiting researchers who spoke to these issues. This academic year, we will seek to bring in a speaker to give a department-wide seminar on anti-racism in astronomy, with appropriate recognition and compensation for their time and expertise.

– We are committed to a sustained community presence, particularly in K-12 schools that serve demographics underrepresented in astronomy, as part of our public outreach in astronomy.  We will also redouble our efforts to invite children and parents of color into our observatory.

– As individuals, we reaffirm our commitment to dismantling racist structures in our broader Wesleyan campus, our home communities, and our families.

We acknowledge that these actions are a small part in an ongoing and evolving effort. Above all, we pledge to educate ourselves, to do the work of becoming a better and more equitable department, and to support and care for the safety and well being of all of our students and colleagues, but especially those most vulnerable to the systematic oppression embedded within science and our broader human society that we have been reminded of so vividly in recent weeks.

Bill Herbst
Meredith Hughes
Roy Kilgard
Ed Moran
Seth Redfield

Department Holiday Party 2019

As usual, our holiday party was a festive event, thanks to the incredible hard work of Linda Shettleworth and the good spirits of students, faculty and families. The food was great, the company was fabulous and a good time was had by all. It is so much fun for the elders to watch the next generation coming along. The pictures say it all!

Mercury Transit Observed at VVO

Hundreds of students, staff and townsfolk joined us on Foss Hill Monday, Nov. 11, to observe a transit of Mercury. The sky cooperated for the most part and we were treated to a gorgeous view of this rare event. Thanks to Roy, Seth, John Sillasen, and all the Astronomy Dept. staff and students who helped out!

Students Speak at Keck Undergraduate Research Symposium

Wesleyan students and faculty attending the 2019 KNAC Undergraduate Research Symposium at Vassar College.

Eight Wesleyan undergraduates presented results of their summer research to the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC). This year’s symposium was held on October 5 at Vassar College and attended by 125 astronomy students and faculty, primarily from the consortium colleges (Bryn Mawr, Colgate, Haverford, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Vassar, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Williams). KNAC was founded in 1990 to enhance research opportunities for astronomy students at smaller institutions in the northeast by sharing resources. Today it operates a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant to Wesleyan. Astronomy majors Mason Tea and Rachel Marino and sophomores Alex Henton and Ava Nederlander gave oral presentations of their projects conducted on campus this summer. In addition, astronomy majors Fallon Konow, Hunter Vannier, Gil Garcia and Terra Ganey gave poster presentations of their summer research. The presenters were joined by an equal number of first and second-year students who went to hear the talks, participate in breakout sessions on various astronomical topics and network with potential future colleagues.

Alex Henton presents his work on asteroids.

Mason Tea presenting results on a gravitational lensing telescope.

Rachel Marino presenting her work on a debris disk.

Ava Nederlander presenting work on a brown dwarf in a debris disk.

Professor Seth Redfield, the PI of the NSF grant supporting KNAC addresses the audience.

Wesleyan students in the audience enjoying a presentation.

Professor Roy Kilgard discusses some research ideas with a student.

Professor Bill Herbst with Alex Henton.

Gil Garcia presented his work on black holes.

Hunter Vannier reported on his work on the interstellar medium.

Terra Ganey (back) presented her work on the development of a spectrometer.

Group photo of attendees at the 2019 Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. Vassar College, Oct. 5, 2019.

Fallon Konow presented her work on the interstellar medium.