Astronomy Academic Program
Colby prepares students for top Ph.D. programs in astrophysics, although its astronomy courses are accessible to qualified students of all majors. The typical path to graduate work in astrophysics is based on taking all of the courses required for the physics honors major, as well as the upper level astrophysics courses, AS231, “Introduction to Astrophysics”, and AS342, “Galaxies and Cosmology”.
Students interested in astronomy are encouraged to take AS231, Introduction to Astrophysics, in their first or second year. AS231 prepares students for research in astrophysics at Colby and beyond, including NSF-funded summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at national observatories and major universities. The course focuses on modern observational techniques and data analysis, and provides a theoretical background for core astrophysical concepts.
In AS342, Galaxies and Cosmology, focus is placed on understanding our cosmic origins, from the big bang to the formation of galaxies like our own Milky Way. Students learn about concepts such as dark energy and dark matter, and their importance in driving galaxy formation and evolution. While no prior astronomical knowledge is assumed, students interested in advanced studies in astronomy should consider taking the sequence of AS231 in the fall and AS342 in the spring.
The Astrophysics Concentration
The astrophysics concentration is designed to provide students with the background necessary to pursue both advanced degrees and technical jobs at ground and space-based observatories. These skills are also applicable to careers at planetariums and museums, as well as with national defense contractors and commercial satellite and spaceflight organizations.
Careers in astrophysics are increasingly entering the domain of “big data”. Students are therefore encouraged to take courses in both Computer Science and Statistics, as well as in Physics and Astronomy.
The concentration consists of taking the core physics courses required for the major (PH141/ 143, 145, 241, 242, 401-402, 415) along with astronomy courses AS231 and AS342, computer science CS151, three mathematics electives (chosen from MA121, 122, 253, 262, 311), and at least two upper level electives chosen from Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Statistics, or Computer Science (AS335, CS231, CS251, SC212, SC321, MA381, PH311, PH321, PH332, PH338, PH431), one of which must be a 300-level or higher Physics or Astronomy course.
Students interested in the Astrophysics Concentration may contact Professors Kocevski or McGrath with questions.
The Astronomy Minor
The Astronomy minor is designed to be accessible to all students at Colby. Careers that may have interdisciplinary appeal for those with a major in the humanities or social sciences include space science journalism, science policy, historian with an expertise in classical civilizations, science education, scientific illustration and graphic design, and many others.
The minor consists of the following six courses: one introductory astronomy course (AS151 or AS172), AS231, AS342, PH141 (or PH143), PH145, and MA121 (or MA161, or MA 101-102).
Students interested in the Astronomy minor may contact Professors Kocevski or McGrath with questions.
The Collins Observatory
Colby College has two research-grade computer-controlled telescopes, with primary mirror diameters of 28- and 14-inches. The 28-inch, which is on an Alt-Az mount, is equipped with a back-illuminated CCD, photometric filter wheel, an image de-rotator, and an eyepiece. The 14-inch, which is on an equatorial mount, is equipped with a liquid-nitrogen cooled CCD camera, a photometric filter wheel, a grating spectrometer, and auto-guiding. The Collins Observatory is used by students in courses such as AS151, Stars, Stellar Systems, and Cosmology, and AS231. It is also used for independent research projects and public observing nights.
Trevor Sherburne ’13, used the observatory for his senior research project to monitor the transit of an extrasolar planetary system, HD189733b, in the constellation Vulpecula. This star system is at a distance of 19.5 parsecs, or approximately 63 light years from Earth. In this project, Trevor took images over several hours for several nights in order to detect the faint eclipse caused by the planet passing in front of its parent star. By calculating the maximum drop in brightness of the parent star, Trevor was able to determine the planet’s size to a precision and accuracy that agrees with published values.
Other projects with the observatory have included monitoring supernovae as they fade in brightness post-explosion. One example is the phenomenal supernova that occurred in M82, The Cigar Galaxy, in early 2014. At a distance of 12 million light years, it was the closest supernovae to Earth in several decades.
The current observing forecast for the Collins Observatory is shown below. Clear skies are represented by shades of dark blue in the Cloud Cover row, whereas overcast skies are represented by gray or white boxes. Similarly, darker Transparency and Seeing boxes represent better observing conditions.
Student Research with Faculty
Students are encouraged to begin research with faculty members in the department early, preferably before their Junior year if they are considering continuing on in astrophysics. Students have worked on a variety of projects with Professors McGrath and Kocevski, from analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images of distant galaxies, to construction of an adaptive optics testbed, to simulations of galaxy formation, to analysis of X-ray imaging of galaxy clusters. For more information on their research, see Elizabeth McGrath and Dale Kocevski‘s research pages.
Many recent Colby physics majors have continued on to Ph.D. programs in astrophysics.
- Johanna Harding ’22, currently a PhD student at Lehigh University
- Isabella Valdes ’22, currently a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa
- Sean Dougherty ’21, currently a PhD student at Newcastle University, UK
- Derek Zapata ’21, currently a PhD student at Rutgers University
- Kay Guo ’20, currently a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin
- Yuewei Wen ’18, currently a PhD student at the University of Michigan
- Aurora Kesseli ’13, completed PhD at Boston University; currently a research scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute
- Austin Hoag ’12, completed PhD at UC Davis; currently a machine learning engineer at Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative
- Dustin Hickey ’11, completed PhD at Boston University; currently a research scientist at the US Naval Research Laboratory
- Jack Moriarty ’10, completed PhD at Yale University; currently a senior applied scientist at Amazon Web Services
- Danielle Nielsen ’09, completed PhD at the University of Wisconsin; currently principle data scientist at Capital One
- Kaylea Nelson ’09, completed PhD at Yale University; currently a computation research support analyst at Yale University
- Cliff Johnson ’07, completed PhD at the University of Washington; currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University