Kathy Eastwood: Teaching the Cosmos

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Kathy Eastwood, PhD

Professor of Physics and Astronomy 

College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences

Kathy Eastwood, professor of physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University, has gained world recognition for her work in measuring the most massive stars in the universe. And unraveling these stellar mysteries is only part of the remarkable work Eastwood does for NAU. From the center of a unique network of scientists and observatories, she not only builds greater understanding of our galaxy and universe, she makes sure that undergraduate students at NAU receive hands-on research experience equivalent to that of graduate students.

"NAU students are deeply involved in the entire research process," Eastwood says. "They are the researcher, not just an add-on or on the periphery, and that's what's different. Undergraduates come to NAU from around the country to use the telescopes and work with experts in the field. They gather real data, and they leave having accomplished something that would be difficult to accomplish anywhere else."

The network of telescopes and expertise she refers to includes the Lowell Observatory and the US Naval Observatory, as well as the astrogeology group at the US Geological Survey, all of which are based in Flagstaff. Additionally, Eastwood builds partnerships and cultivates support from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

"Northern Arizona University is one of the only schools where a small undergraduate department partners with major observatories," she says. "We can support more undergraduates than we could otherwise because of our relationships with other. In fact, our successful summer program attracts very competitive students from schools like Harvard and Yale."

Eastwood has been committed to both research and undergraduate education since 1989 when she was appointed director of the National Undergraduate Research Observatory (NURO) at NAU and Lowell Observatory. Additionally, she heads up NAU's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site in astronomy, and in 2008 she was awarded the NAU College of Engineering and Natural Sciences Distinguished Professor of the Year. This star educator and researcher also received a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Award in 2006 that took her to Chile where massive stars are the most visible.

"Astronomers go to Chile because you can observe the southern half of the sky from there. They have very modern telescopes, incredibly dry weather, and amazingly clear, dark skies," Eastwood says. "At the University of La Serena I also taught IRAF, a computer program that we use to reduce astronomical data. There was a huge range of English skills, so we generated material in Spanglish, and it worked quite well. It was fun, and everyone came away successful."

But Eastwood is happiest in northern Arizona and Flagstaff, where Apollo moon astronauts once used the craters and moonlike terrain as a literal "playground" to prepare for missions. Because of factors like this, Eastwood says Northern Arizona University is an ideal and unique place to study astronomy. "Flagstaff is a great town to be an astronomer and an astronomy professor. Northern Arizona University students graduate with the skills, confidence, and practical experience to successfully continue in astronomy or physics, whether it's in the workplace or in graduate school."

Astronomy has intrigued Eastwood since the 1960s when millions of other youngsters across the country were fascinated by the Gemini and Apollo missions. But Kathy Eastwood's interest led to a lifetime career, including national leadership in astronomy research and award-winning work in the classroom at one of the nation's best undergraduate astronomy programs. She loves that she is in a place with "observatories, astronomers, and collaborations, but also at a university that truly values its undergraduates." And Eastwood is happy to connect students with the worlds that lie beyond this one: as the NAU Physics & Astronomy website states, "Our classroom is the cosmos."

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