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Astronomy Graduate Program Reaches Milestone

by Gareth Wynn-Williams

Nick Moskovitz
Nick Moskovitz, recipient of the 100th UH astronomy PhD.

On May 27, Nick Moskovitz became the 100th graduate student at the IfA to successfully defend his PhD dissertation, which was entitled "Thermal Histories of Small Bodies in the Solar System." Since then, Jeyhan Kartaltepe ("A Multiwavelength Study of (Ultra)luminous Infrared Galaxies in the COSMOS Field"), Bin Yang ("Water in Primitive Solar System Bodies"), and Joseph Masiero ("Light Curve Signatures of the Physical Properties of Small Asteroids") have all followed suit.

The Astronomy Graduate Program formally split off from the Physics Graduate Program in 1972. Three years later, its first PhDs were awarded to Terry Martin, who subsequently played a major role in JPL's Mars exploration program, Nancy Morrison, currently director of the Ritter Observatory in Ohio, and Catherine Pilachowski, who was president of the American Astronomical Society from 2003 to 2004.

What can we learn from the alumni page on the IfA website? Three interesting trends can be discerned.

First, there has been a strong shift in the subject matter of the dissertations. Only two of the first ten astronomy PhDs were awarded for extragalactic work (studies of objects outside our Milky Way galaxy), and in both cases the galaxies studied were among the closest to our own. In recent years, however, the fraction of extragalactic dissertations has leapt to about 50 percent, and included studies of some of the most distant objects ever discovered. This reflects the larger telescopes and improved instrumentation over the years.

Another important change in the astronomy graduate program over the last 35 years has been the increased foreign enrollment. The first 50 students in the program were all from the United States, except for a Canadian or two, but in recent years the program has been greatly enriched by students from Asia (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Yemen, Dubai, Lebanon) and Europe (UK, Ireland, France, Portugal, Denmark, Romania), as well as Mexico.

Still another positive trend is the increasing number of women PhD graduates. Though it is true that three of our first six PhD recipients were women, the fraction of female astronomy graduate students hovered around 20-25 percent for much of the seventies and eighties. The program started to become more balanced around 1989, a year in which five of the seven incoming students were women. In recent years, about 40 percent of the astronomy PhDs awarded to Hawaii graduate students have gone to women.

Gareth Wynn-Williams has been an IfA astronomer since 1978, and served several terms as chair of the Astronomy Graduate Program.