In the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Wyoming, faculty, researchers and students are conducting scientific research in everything from planets and asteroids in the solar system to the formation of the stars and galaxy. And it has a leg-up on many other institutions in the nation with access to a world-class telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.
“Having access to this telescope means that our students, our researchers and our faculty have access to one of the world’s most advanced astronomical telescopes,” said Chip Kobulnicky, professor of Physics and Astronomy at UW. “It means the University of Wyoming department of Physics and Astronomy becomes one of just a few dozen schools in the country that have access to such a major research facility.”
More than two years after Gov. Matt Mead challenged UW to transform its approach to the sciences and make its programs and facilities among the nation’s best as part of the Science Initiative, joining the consortium that allows access to the Apache Point Observatory is evidence that it’s really happening, Kobulnicky said.
“In the same way that the UW libraries became a more potent institution by joining Greater Western Libraries Alliance, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has now made a major step toward top-tier status,” Kobulnicky said during the November Board of Trustees meeting. “Out of 225 or so Carnegie classified research-active or very-active universities in the country, only about 45 have access to a research-grade telescope. UW is now one of those, and it’s an early success for the Science Initiative en route to transforming all of our core science programs toward top-tier departments.”
Though the 2.3-meter diameter infrared telescope at the UW Infrared Observatory on the summit of Jelm Mountain south of Laramie is an excellent resource, Kobulnicky said the 3.5-meter diameter Apache Point telescope takes the ability to do research to another level.
“This lets us specialize to let us do different scientific investigations trying to detect planets around other stars, trying to detect active galaxies with super-massive black holes at their centers on the other side of the universe are just two examples of what we can do with the Apache Point telescope we cannot do with our telescope,” he said.
UW undergrad Logan Jensen had lots of choices when deciding on where to go to school. The junior is a physics and astronomy double major, a trustee scholar and honor student at UW. Jensen said he had several “incredible” opportunities, including being an observer and operator at the UW Infrared Observatory and joining Kobulnicky on a trip to the Apache Point Observatory. Many of these opportunities would not have been offered to him at other universities, Jensen said.
“It’s clear that you don’t just come here and go to class,” he said. “People that are here at low levels are doing a lot more things, and that’s a huge draw.”
Funding for the Science Initiative helps make possible the things that brought Jensen to UW, he said.
“At some point, it comes back to, ‘Do you have the money to do it?’ And the Science Initiative gives us the ability to be explorative and not have scientific inquiry crushed because you didn’t have it in your budget,” Jensen said.
Kobulnicky is currently involved in research using the Apache Point telescope where he is observing two stars orbiting one another and moving closer together. In the next five years, he and others predict the stars will merge together. Though there are many of these binary star systems in the universe, Kobulnicky said it’s never been observed.
“We know it happens. We see explosions — sometimes called a red luminous nova — but we’ve never predicted one and then watched it happen,” Kobulnicky said. “This is going to be front page stuff if it really happens. This particular star system is close enough that it will get bright enough to visibly change the constellation of Cygnus — there will be a new naked eye-visible star if our prediction is right.”
Jensen is already stacking up research projects, Kobulnicky said. Scientific research in the past has led to discoveries such as the transistor that paved the way for computer revolution in the 1980s or the DNA molecule that transformed the agriculture industry and enabled gene-based medical treatments. With continued support of the sciences, Kobulnicky said research with global implications could take place at UW.
“We think Wyoming students are going to be involved in some of these world-changing discoveries,” Kobulnicky said.
Much in the way scientific discoveries infiltrate all aspects of life, whether that’s smart phones or healthcare advances, Kobulnicky said the Science Initiative has positive implications that carry beyond science departments at the university.
“The kinds of initiatives in basic laboratory infrastructure and the way we teach science are going to revolutionize science training for nearly all UW students, including those majoring in elementary and secondary education, any kind of health sciences major, anyone who takes a basic science course at the university, is going to be impacted by these research opportunities, the equipment and the revolutionary science teaching that is going to happen because of the Science Initiative,” he said.
In September, the UW Board of Trustees voted to declare that the Science Initiative building construction was among its highest infrastructural priorities. The Wyoming Legislature approved $2.3 million in annual recurring dollars for the Science Initiative, along with a one-time allocation of $100 million for construction of a Science Initiative facility.
Mead’s budget recommendations for the 2017 general legislative session include an additional one-time $500,000 allocation for undergraduate students to engage in research opportunities as part of the Science Initiative.
Though Wyoming is in a bust cycle resulting from a drop in the prices of energy commodities, Kobulnicky said he hopes lawmakers continue to understand the importance and long-term benefits of the Science Initiative.
“Decade after decade, investment in basic research returns 7-to-1 on the dollar,” he said.
Jensen — who was invited to join Mead during his State of the State address in January — said he hopes Wyoming’s lawmakers and residents don’t take the benefits of scientific research and their potential for granted at UW.
“People who don’t think about science as a priority are overlooking how much science is already in their lives,” he said. “When looking at something like the transistor, for instance, it was really only important to the physicists that figured it out. No one else cared, but as people got interested and wanted to understand it, it became a technological revolution. Just because you don’t understand why something is important yet or why you should research something, it can lead to world changing event. If some basic discovery like that doesn’t happen, it can change the world in a very different way.”