ASTRONOMY
2014—2015

Professor: William Herbst

Associate Professor: Edward C. Moran, Chair

Assistant Professors: Meredith Hughes; Seth Redfield

Research Assistant Professor: Roy Kilgard

Undergraduate Program Departmental Advising Experts 2014-2015: William Herbst, Edward Moran, Seth Redfield

Department/Program Home Page

Department/Program Description.

The Wesleyan Astronomy Department provides outstanding opportunities for undergraduates who wish to major in this fascinating subject, either in preparation for graduate school or as an end in itself. Our unique program blends course work with research opportunity and provides students access to professional-quality telescopes, instrumentation, and computers. A principal strength is our active research faculty who will work one-on-one with undergraduates employing state-of-the-art instrumentation, and computers to investigate areas of current astronomical interest.

Our students go on to graduate programs, including the best in the country, or to a variety of rewarding careers in and out of science. Many of our students are co-authors on research papers based on work performed during their undergraduate careers. In addition, we offer a comprehensive range of course work that will prepare students for a variety of directions in life, including graduate study.

General Education.

The Astronomy Department offers five general education courses (ASTR103, 105107, 108 and 111) intended for nonscience majors who want an introduction to various aspects of astronomy. These courses do not require calculus and are designed to meet the needs of students who will take only a few science courses during their time at Wesleyan.

Admission to the Major.

The standard introductory course for potential majors and other science-oriented students is ASTR155.   It may be taken in the first or sophomore year. It assumes a good high school preparation in physics and some knowledge of calculus. Potential majors with a good knowledge of astronomy may place out of this course by demonstrating proficiency in the material; anyone wishing to do so should speak with the instructor. ASTR211 is a sophomore-level course appropriate for interested nonmajors as well as a gateway course to the major.

Major Requirements.

The astronomy major is constructed to accommodate both students who are preparing for graduate school and those who are not. The basic requirement for the major is successful completion of the following courses: PHYS113, 116, 213, 214, and 215; MATH121, 122, and 221; and ASTR155, 211,  as well as four upper level astronomy courses. The required upper level courses are taken one each semester in the junior and senior years. Depending on the year, the courses will be the following: ASTR221, 222, 224, 231, 232, and 240. PHYS324 and MATH222 are strongly recommended but are not required. Additional upper-level physics courses are also recommended but are not required. Ability to program a computer in at least one of the widely used languages in the sciences, such as C, Fortran, or IDL, is also highly recommended. This does not necessarily mean that students should take a computer science course. Potential majors with graduate school aspirations should complete or place out of the basic physics and mathematics courses listed above, preferably by the end of their sophomore year, and should also take ASTR155 and ASTR211 during their first two years.

Since physics GRE scores are an important admission criterion at most astronomy graduate schools, those planning to go on for a PhD are advised to double major in physics. This can be accomplished by taking several of the following additional courses, normally in the junior and senior years: PHYS324, 313, 315, and 316. Check the published requirements for the physics major for more details and speak to your advisor.

Additional mathematics courses, such as MATH229, may also be chosen.

Honors.

Students considering graduate school are strongly urged to do a senior thesis project (ASTR409/410); honors in astronomy requires completion of a senior thesis. Students with an interest in planetary science are advised to look at the course cluster information on that topic. 

BA/MA Program.

This program provides an attractive option for science majors to enrich their course and research background. Students are advised to begin research by their junior year if they intend to pursue the BA/MA. Admission is competitive and based on GPA, faculty recommendations, and research experience. For more information, please visit http://www.wesleyan.edu/grad/degree-programs/ba-ma.html.

Additional Information.

All astronomy majors are to enroll each year in the 0.25-credit courses ASTR430 and ASTR431. These discussion courses provide a broad exposure and introduction to research and education topics of current interest to the astronomical community. Majors are also encouraged to serve as teaching apprentices in a general education course at least once during their junior or senior year and to participate in the observing program with the 24-inch telescope of Van Vleck Observatory.

Graduate Program

General Introduction.

The Astronomy Department offers graduate work leading to the degree of master of arts. The small size of the department permits individualized instruction and a close working relationship between students and faculty. Students are expected to become involved in the research programs of the department early in their graduate careers. They also are expected to select courses offered in the areas of observational and theoretical astronomy and astrophysics; a graduate student normally takes at least one 500-level astronomy course each semester. Additional courses in physics and mathematics are recommended according to individual student needs. Two years are usually necessary to complete requirements for the MA degree. However, the department also offers a five-year combined BA plus MA program for Wesleyan students. Eligible astronomy majors who complete their undergraduate requirements in four years can enroll for a fifth year and obtain a master's degree upon successful completion of one year of graduate course work and a thesis. Primary research activities in the department include mapping the local interstellar medium, probing the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, observations of young stars and protoplanetary disks, investigations of x-ray binary star systems, and studies of the massive black holes that reside at the centers of galaxies.

Courses.

The student will normally enroll in at least one 500-level course in astronomy each semester. These courses are similar in content to the 200-level courses of the same name but with some supplementary materials and special assignments. These supplements are designed especially for graduate students. A minimum of 10 credits, with grades of B- or better, is required for the MA degree. These may include two credits for research leading to the thesis, which is also required. The student may expect to take four to six courses in physics, mathematics, or other sciences after consultation with the faculty of the department. In addition, students are required to participate in the department's seminars on research and pedagogy in astronomy, which are offered each semester.

Progress and Qualifying Exams.

To be admitted to candidacy, a student must take a written and oral qualifying examination demonstrating satisfactory understanding of several areas of astronomy, fundamental physics, and mathematics. This examination should be taken after the first year of study. If performance in this examination is not satisfactory, the student will either be asked not to continue or to repeat the examination.

Teaching.

The emphasis in the program is on research and scholarly achievement, but graduate students are expected to improve communication skills by classroom teaching, formal interaction with undergraduate students, and presenting talks to the observatory staff and to the community.

Research.

The research interests of the current faculty are: Dr. William Herbst–star formation, Dr. Ed Moran–extragalactic X-ray sources and X-ray background, Dr. Seth Redfield–exoplanets and the interstellar medium, Dr. Roy Kilgard–high-mass X-ray binary populations and statistical challenges in high energy astrophysics, and Dr. Meredith Hughes–planet formation.

The department is well equipped for instruction and research. Facilities include a network of MacOS X workstations, a CCD attached to a 24-inch reflector, a 20-inch refractor equipped for observational work, and the substantial astronomical library of the Van Vleck Observatory. Members of our faculty are frequently awarded observing time on world-class telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and dozens of ground-based telescopes.

Thesis/Dissertation/Defense.

Each candidate is required to write a thesis on a piece of original and publishable research carried out under the supervision of a faculty member. A thesis plan, stating the purpose and goals of the research, observational and other materials required, and uncertainties and difficulties that may be encountered, must be submitted to the department for approval after admission to candidacy. The thesis, in near-final form, must be submitted to the faculty at least one week prior to the scheduled oral examination. In this examination, the student must defend his or her work and must demonstrate a high level of understanding in the research area. The oral examination may touch on any aspect of the student's preparation. It is expected that the student will submit the results of his or her work to a research journal for publication.

Concentrations.
Planetary science is an emerging interdisciplinary field at the intersection of geology and astronomy with substantial contributions from physics, chemistry and biology. The subject matter is planets, including those around other stars (exosolar systems). The science questions include the most important of our times: How do planets (including the earth) form? How common are they in the universe? What is their range of properties and how do they evolve? Is there or was there ever life on other planets? Certainly, the discovery of even microbial life beyond the earth would rank as one of the greatest human achievements of all time, and this quest lies squarely within the purview of planetary science.