December 2, 2002
by Daniel Dubois
Bary inspecting the historic 6-inch telescope used by Edward Barnard in the 1880's|
Standing in front
of a science class of twenty-one eighth graders, Jeff Bary explains that they
will be doing "all kinds of cool stuff today." Ignoring their customary
blank stares, he begins using matches, rubber bands, clay and pieces of wood to
demonstrate some basic science concepts. As he does so, the students gradually
perk up and begin asking him questions about what he is doing.
a week, Bary helps out in a science laboratory at a middle school in the Nashville
area under the auspices of a federally funded science education program. But his
main job is finishing up his doctoral thesis on planet formation under the supervision
of David Weintraub, associate professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt.
"Jeff is a very talented teacher and, in the last few years, he's become
quite energized by his research as well," says Weintraub.
what he hopes to convey to the eighth graders, Bary explains that he hopes to
give them "some sense of what they're capable of and maybe teach them a little
science in the meantime."
knows first hand how important it is for teachers to spark interest in children
at an early age. He grew up in a small town in West Virginia. Out of his graduating
high school class of 240, less than 10 percent went on to college. He is the first
person in his family to enroll in a doctoral program. But his father, who was
a middle school science teacher, helped him overcome the odds by instilling the
value of education and encouraging him to set high educational goals.
"I went to college
in spite of my education," Bary explains with a laugh. When he was ten, he
developed an interest in astronomy, but he didn't have the money to buy a telescope.
So he sought out and read all the astronomy books that he could get his hands
on. In his high school, the single physics course was taught by the assistant
baseball coach and did little to prepare him for the demands of college-level
it came time to go to college, financial considerations led Bary to chose a small
liberal arts school in southwest Virginia over his first choice, Vanderbilt. Unfortunately,
the college did not offer an astronomy degree, so he majored in physics and mathematics
instead. After he graduated, he wanted to go on to graduate school in astronomy,
but he wasn't accepted by any of the schools to which he applied. So he returned
to his hometown for a year to substitute teach.
It was a natural choice
for Bary. During high school, he taught tennis and swimming. In college, he tutored
fellow students in mathematics and physics. So he had been teaching in one capacity
or another since he was 17 years old.
Following this break, Bary decided
to enter the doctoral program in physics at Vanderbilt even though it doesn't
offer an advanced degree in astronomy. Nevertheless, he managed to work his way
into astronomical research by linking up with Weintraub, one of the small cadre
of astronomers on campus.
Working with Weintraub, Bary has focused on
the question of how long it takes planets to form. This has given Bary the opportunity
to travel to four different sites to examine a number of stars with world-class
The first of these trips held a particular significance for
him because it allowed him to fulfill a childhood dream. When he was in junior
high school, he recalls imagining himself going to Hawaii to study the stars.
So he was particularly thrilled when he traveled to Hawaii to make observations
from two infrared telescopes situated at the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano.
Bary sees two basic reasons for scientific research and discovery.
First, he believes that people are naturally curious. So it is only natural
to wonder about the universe around us. "It's important to understand the
origins of our solar system and [to determine] if what's happened around our star,
the Sun, has actually happened somewhere else."
Second, Bary argues
that "anytime you attempt some scientific endeavor, there's a need for technology
and the need ends up driving creativity and innovation." He cites the fact
that there was no real need to have a man walk on the moon, but that this achievement
led to major improvements in a wide range of instruments and technology. And this
improved technology, in turn, has helped make the world a "smaller"
Bary hopes to finish his dissertation on planet formation in the
spring. At the same time, he is dedicated to doing all that he can to give his
eighth graders a better sense of their own capabilities . . . and teach them a
little science in the process.
Sebastian is a major in the Communications of Science, Engineering and Technology