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Astronomer's Apprentice

By Jenny Sebastian
December 2, 2002

Photo by Daniel Dubois
Jeff 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.

Twice 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.

When asked 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."

Bary 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 physics.

When 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 telescopes.

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" place.

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.

Jenny Sebastian is a major in the Communications of Science, Engineering and Technology program.


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A question of planets