Category Archives: News

Union Joins NASA NY Space Grant Program

Union College was invited this year to become an affiliate member of the NASA NY Space Grant consortium, a program to support and enhance science and engineering education at 20 institutions across NY State. The program sponsored summer research projects by three Union students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The program also makes Union students eligible for internships at NASA centers and at industrial partners across the country.

John Robens ’09 worked with Prof. Rebecca Koopmann on a project titled “Searching for Optical Counterparts of Galaxies and Tidal Streams Detected by the ALFALFA Survey.” He analyzed optical images from the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile, via the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System, to search for visible-light signs of galaxies detected at radio wavelengths by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

David Barker ’09 and Daniel Barringer ’11 used the Union College Observatory 20-inch telescope in their research with Professor and Observatory Manager Francis Wilkin. Both projects used the telescope to monitor small changes in the light from distant stars. Barringer’s project, “Searching for Eclipses of Extrasolar Planets,” used the telescope to look for a slight dimming of the light from a distant star as a planet orbiting that star passes between it and Earth. Barker’s project, “CCD Photometry of Variable Stars and Transiting Planets,” is aimed at tracking how the light output of variable sources changes in time.

For more details, see the Union College Chronicle.

Prof. Orzel Speaks at Science in the 21st Century Meeting

Prof. Chad Orzel gave an invited talk at the Science in the 21st Century conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics on September 8th. The meeting was an international, interdisciplinary conference discussing the interaction between science and society, and the ways in which not information technologies are changing that interaction.

Prof. Orzel’s talk was titled “Talking to My Dog About Science: Weblogs and Public Outreach,” a reference to his forthcoming popular-audience book on quantum mechanics. The full presentation can be viewed on the web via the Perimeter Institute Recorded Seminar Archive collection for the conference.

Physics Students Win Prizes

Steve Po-Chedley ‘08

Union’s annual Prize Day was held on May 3, 2008, and several students from the Department of Physics and astronomy earned honors from the college.

Senior Physics major Steve Po-Chedley earned top honors, winning the Frank Baily Prize, awarded annually to “the senior who has rendered the greatest service to the College in any field.” Steve was honored for his many accomplishments in the areas of environmental activism and sustainability advocacy, including his impressive efforts at launching the campus-wide recycling program. Steve also received a Meritorious Service Award from the Student Affairs Council.

Bilal Mahmood ’08 was also honored, sharing the Ronald M. Obenzinger Prize, awarded to “premedical students who are selected for high academic merit and personal worthiness” with Syed Hussnain. Bilal was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa along with fellow senior Physics/ Math double major Richie Bonventre ’08.

Finally, sophomores Brandon Bartell and Ben Miles shared the James Henry Turnbull Prize, awarded annually to “the outstanding student(s) in the sophomore class in physics.”

Congratulations to the Physics winners, and all the exceptional students honored at Prize Day!

Surman Paper Published in Physical Review C, Featured in Physical Review Focus

A paper by a team of researchers including Union Prof. Rebecca Surman has been featured in the March 20th, 2008 issue of Physical Review Focus. The paper, “Fission Cycling in a Supernova r Process” by J. Beun, G. C. McLaughlin, R. Surman, and W. R. Hix appeared in the March 2008 issue of Physical Review C, one of the top journals in physics. It presents new calculations of the formation of heavy elements in supernovae, and is described as “one of the most complete [models] to date.”

Physical Review Focus is an online journal produced by the American Physical Society highlighting approximately one paper per week from the Physical Review journals, and presenting an explanation suitable for students in all fields of physics.

Amanuel Presents Paper at March Meeting

Samuel Amanuel from the Department of Physics and Astronomy (in collaboration with Sanford Sternstein of RPI) presented their paper on “Enthalpic Relaxation of Silica-Polyvinyl Acetate Nanocomposites” at the American Physical Society meeting in New Orleans, March 10-14, 2008. Their thermal measurements on glassy polyvinyl acetate revealed that nano silica particles reduced the extent of relaxations in the polymer. This could imply that nano particle can alter the ageing mechanism of polymers and improve their shelf life.

The annual March Meeting of the APS is the largest physics conference of the year. This year’s meeting was held in New Orleans, LA, with more than 7,000 paper presented by speakers from all over the world.

Focus the Nation Teach-In Event

Students, faculty and staff will join more than 1,500 campuses nationwide Thursday, Jan. 31 for the “Focus the Nation” teach-in for global warming designed to mobilize people beyond the discussion level to demand real solutions.

Focus challenges 50 faculty members on each campus to spend 10 minutes discussing sustainability in their classrooms.

Campus-wide activities kick off Wednesday, Jan. 30 with a live, one-hour Webcast of “The 2% Solution” in the F.W. Olin Center Auditorium at 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Audiences will be invited to weigh in with cell phone voting.

[Physics major] Steve Po-Chedley ’08 is coordinating Union’s student events. He has created a Web site,, which includes links to sustainability efforts on campus, a sign-up form and a list of participating faculty.

“This event not only encourages faculty to demonstrate a commitment to and foster an awareness of these imminent problems, it will allow them to reach out to a great deal of students on campus, shedding light on issues of sustainability and climate change,” Po-Chedley said.

(Read the full artilce in the Union College Chronicle.)

Students Present at DNPAPS Meeting

Three physics majors presented posters at the Fall Meeting of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society (DNPAPS) in Newport News, VA, October 11-13. Richie Bonventre (’08) presented his work on the “Extraction of Yields for Neutral Meson Photoproduction from the Proton and Helium-3 with the CLAS Detector at Jefferson Lab.” “Fiducial Volumes for Photons Detected in the Forward Calorimeters of the CLAS Detector at JLab” was the title of the poster presented by Christian Shultz (’08). Crystal Smith reported on her work on the “Analysis of Proton-Rich Elemental Abundances Created in Outflows from Gamma-Ray Burst Accretion Disks.” Richie and Christian work with Prof. Michael Vineyard on their projects and Crystal is working with Prof. Rebecca Surman. Ninety-seven undergraduate posters were presented at the meeting, and all three of the Union College students were awarded lodging and travel grants from the Conference Experience for Undergraduates program of the DNPAPS.

Pictures from the meeting: Richie Bonventre, Christian Shultz, Crystal Smith

(See also the story in the Union College Chronicle)

Union College to Lead Undergraduate Radio Astronomy Team

Union College Associate Professor Rebecca Koopmann has been awarded funding ($172,495) for a five-year collaborative NSF grant entitled “The Undergraduate ALFALFA Team,” to develop undergraduate research opportunities within the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA (ALFALFA) survey, a major astronomy observational survey led by astronomers Riccardo Giovanelli and Martha Haynes of Cornell University. The project is mapping a large area of the sky at radio wavelengths appropriate for the detection of neutral hydrogen gas in other galaxies, using the Arecibo radio telescope, the largest telescope in the world, at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Estimated to take 6-7 years to complete, the survey is expected to detect more than 20,000 galaxies out to a distance of 750 million light years. Koopmann has been collaborating with the ALFALFA group since the beginning of the survey two years ago, using the data in her work on the star formation and gas properties of nearby galaxies. She spent her sabbatical year 2006/2007 at Cornell University as a as a guest of the Department of Astronomy and a Visiting Scientist at National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center which runs Arecibo Observatory.

The grant provides undergraduate students and faculty at Union and 13 other primarily undergraduate institutions access to a major, ongoing, scientific research project involving a collaboration of astronomers around the world. Koopmann will work with Colgate University astronomer Thomas Balonek and Georgia Southern University astronomer Sarah Higdon to develop the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team program. Core components include an annual group workshop at Arecibo, observing runs for several groups per year at Arecibo, a summer student research stipend program supporting 7 students per year culminating in a presentation at a national meeting, and funding to provide computers to each team school. The annual workshops will be modeled after two NSF-sponsored ALFALFA workshops held at Union College in the summers of 2005 and 2006. The workshops at Arecibo Observatory will feature observing sessions and lectures and group activities about Arecibo science. The first workshop is scheduled for January 2008.

This grant makes it possible for undergraduates to contribute to the scientific output of the ALFALFA extragalactic HI survey and followup studies while learning valuable lessons about the way that a science collaboration functions through their interactions with their faculty mentors, their peers, and the leaders of the ALFALFA project.

As part of the grant, Koopmann will also collaborate on curriculum and public outreach endeavors with Jose Alonso, Director of the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center at Arecibo Observatory, resulting in publicly-available activities and exercises written in English and Spanish.

Astronomers around the world are collaborating on the ALFALFA project. One of the main goals of the project is to discover low mass, ‘starless’ galaxies, which contain hydrogen gas but have not yet formed stars. The abundance of these “dark” galaxies, their characteristics and location are key clues to understanding how galaxies form and evolve throughout the universe.

Four Union College students have participated to date in ALFALFA research and activities (Nathan Calabro, ’08, Michael Gillin, ’08, Bilal Mahmood, ’08, and Jay Read, ’07’). Mahmood is a co-author of the first data catalog paper released by the ALFALFA collaboration. Calabro is currently working on a senior thesis with advisor Koopmann.

(See the story in the Union College Chronicle for more.)

Koopmann Presents Two Papers

Associate Professor Rebecca Koopmann presented two papers in June at an International Astronomy Union Conference entitled “Dark Galaxies and Lost Baryons”, held in Cardiff Wales. The papers, entitled “Virgo Early-Type Dwarfs in ALFALFA” and “A 500 kpc HI Tail of the Virgo Pair NGC 4532/DDO 137 Detected by ALFALFA” describe Koopmann’s research on the hydrogen gas contents of nearby galaxies as revealed by the ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA) survey. Koopmann spent her sabbatical 2006/2007 year at Cornell University as a Visiting Scientist with the  National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) , which operates the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Prof. Rebecca Surman Receives Stillman Prize

The 2007 Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching was awarded to Professor Rebecca Surman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The prize is awarded annually at Convocation to a faculty member nominated by students, and selected by a committee of faculty and students.

Professor Surman does her research in the area of theoretical astrophysics, publishing ten papers and receiving two large grants in the past few years. She has also supervised a large number of student research projects, in addition to teaching a wide range of course in the Department of Physcis and Astronomy. She has served as the faculty advisor for the local chapter of the Society of Physics Students, helping to organize field trips, public outreach activities, and career information sessions.

She was cited particularly for her enthusiasm and approachable demeanor, and her ability to encourage questions in upper-level classes. For more information, see the Union College Chronicle.