University of Iowa student Erin Maier (Class of 2017) has a “constant mantra” about space: “It’s massive and terrifying and also really awesome.”
Like many scientists, Maier responds to massive, terrifying, and awesome phenomena by researching them as much as possible.
During the summer of 2014, Maier stayed on the UI campus to conduct research with her mentor. After successfully applying for an internal grant through the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, Maier worked with Astronomy Professor Cornelia Lang. Their research investigates the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
That same summer, the Department of Astronomy & Physics was at work putting together a new observatory atop Van Allen Hall. After equipment installed years prior had fallen into disrepair and disuse, the department received a large external grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust and two smaller internal grants to replace the observatory’s equipment.
Maier, who hails from Ohio, quickly became involved in the telescope project. Half her time over the summer was spent helping Lang on her galactic center research; the other half, Lang said, Maier was “an incredibly hard, diligent, and inspiring worker on the roof.”
Having a new, high-quality telescope on the roof means a few important things for the Department of Astronomy & Physics.
First, it enhances academic life within the department. Faculty and students can use the observatory to take images right from the Van Allen roof. Before, those in the department were using a UI-owned, remotely-controlled telescope in Arizona for their imaging. Curriculum can now also begin to be updated to include telescope work, Lang said.
It also enhances extracurricular life. Every Friday during warm-enough weather, the department hosts a Clear Skies public viewing night on the Van Allen roof. Updates for Clear Skies can be found on the Van Allen Observatory Facebook page.
Astronomy students also now have a new way to make science social. During an October 2014 lunar eclipse, Maier said a small group of astronomy students trekked up to the Van Allen roof at 3 AM and stayed there together until 7 AM, when the eclipse was ending.
Lang said outreach and research opportunities like these are crucial to students’ education at the UI and within the department.
“I really think these experiences complement what undergrad students do in the classroom,” Lang said. “I think that sometimes people forget that science is incredibly interactive – especially in Astronomy, you cannot do it alone.”
Despite being heavily involved in research so early in college, Maier never planned a career as an astronomer or physicist. In fact, she decided to attend the UI because of its writing acclaim; she enjoyed writing in high school, and her sophomore English teacher suggested the UI.
Since she was also taking Chinese in high school, Maier enrolled as a Chinese and International Studies major. Since she has always has what she calls “a healthy dose of respect for space,” she signed up for Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe, an Astronomy elective taught by Professor Robert Mutel.
“I was in that class for two weeks when I realized, ‘Hmm…this is really cool – there’s a major in this!’ ” Maier said, adding that she switched her courses and major right before the academic drop deadline. “And that’s the very roundabout story of how I ended up in Astronomy.”
Maier also met her research mentor in this class, when Lang filled in to teach a few sessions of Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe. Lang said she remembered noticing Erin as a particularly engaged student.
“She stood out in my mind,” Lang said. “I was very lucky to capture her.”
It’s not uncommon for students to declare a major in Astronomy after taking a General Education Astronomy class – and Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe is known for being an exciting class.
Fortunately, the students here have a huge variety of majors and programs to choose from. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences alone offers 64 majors, including Astronomy and Physics, as well as 65 minors and 23 certificates.
“While from the outside it looks like the stars have aligned,” Lang said, without acknowledging the irony in her use of this particular idiom, “when you’re at a big research university, that could happen in a lot of areas.”
But in Maier’s case, something about it just feels lucky, especially when seeing her walk around campus ready to unroll her research poster and orate on the galactic center at a moment’s notice, or hearing her say things like, “I feel like I’ve accidentally found my calling.”
She speaks about space with passion, sincerity, and respect.
“I think it’s important to understand how we came to be here, and where we might go in the future, by studying other places in the universe,” she said. “I guess it’s just – the earth may be our home, but the universe is also our home. It’s important to understand what’s going on in our home.”
Even her switch from International Studies and Chinese to Astronomy and Physics reaffirms this belief, in a way: In just the last year, Maier has expanded her personal field of study from the globe to the universe.
“Sometimes I just look at the planet we’re on and think, I am so tiny compared to just this planet, which is less than microscopic compared to the rest of the universe,” she said. “It is pretty awe-inspiring to think about.”
For the summer of 2015, Maier hopes to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program elsewhere in the United States. But wherever Maier goes, that summer or beyond, it seems clear what she may contribute to the world of scientists who study space: Awe for the universe’s many mysteries, and the inspiration to reach for them.
—By Nora Heaton; photos by Bill Bullock; video by Lindsay Marshall