(Board member 2021-2024)
Professional title at time of election: President's Excellence in Research Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Texas Tech University.
I am a professional astronomer with interests primarily in X-ray binaries, but also with significant interests in accreting white dwarfs. My formal education consists of a bachelor’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology, and a master’s and PhD in astronomy from Yale University. I then held postdoctoral fellowships at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, and the University of Amsterdam and a faculty position at the University of Southampton before moving to Texas Tech University, where I am currently a Presidential Excellence in Research Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. I am also currently on the Program Board for the AAVSO, helping to evaluate the current programs to ensure that they serve community needs effectively.
At the current time, professional astronomers are ramping up time domain surveys, both in space (for example, the recently ended Kepler mission and the current TESS) and on the ground (for example, the Zwicky Transient Factory and the upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time at the Vera Rubin Observatory). These projects have established that variable star science is one of the best-supported areas for the upcoming decade, and this presents a new landscape in which AAVSO can be especially vibrant scientifically, but also in which AAVSO must find niches not filled by the bigger glass. These can come through a variety of approaches—observations of brighter sources, use of different time sampling strategies, use of different color filters, and use of less common techniques like polarization and spectroscopy. If done, right, AAVSO becomes even more scientifically valuable than it has been for the past century, as the number of targets—even bright ones—that need following will balloon far past the capabilities of the professional observatories.
A topic in which I am strongly interested in pursuing is to develop partnerships with facilities outside the optical bandpass. X-ray astronomy has always had a strong time domain component, and radio astronomers are increasingly starting to look for transients. Coordination of AAVSO observations with observations of X-ray satellites and radio telescopes has the potential to create dramatic improvements of the returns from these facilities. Furthermore, there may be potential for NASA to help fund observations in support of satellite work. This is an area where AAVSO’s distributed set of telescopes can provide a much higher chance of getting good weather somewhere than larger telescopes can provide. I have served on a variety of advisory boards in the past for radio and X-ray astronomy.
Finally, I think it is important to consider two key non-scientific issues going forward: ensuring a continued pipeline of observers, and dealing with light pollution. For the former, I think ensuring that AAVSO continues to contribute to front-line science, and encouraging AAVSO observers’ roles in press releases to be highlighted is vital. Beyond that, I think it’s important to continue to produce expository articles about topics in variable star research and help newcomers to wade through the complex nomenclature and get to the heart of the scientific issues they can contribute to studying. For the latter, I think a key approach would be to encourage small towns in rural America which are within easy driving distance of big cities to have dark nights for local amateur astronomy clubs, including AAVSO observers. This will provide them with new approaches to attract people who will hopefully, on occasion, have meals in their local restaurants and perhaps do a bit of other shopping, creating a situation where variable star observing can contribute to a sense of community among the observers and helping maintain struggling communities in rural America.