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Astrophysics major pursues lifelong passion for astronomy

SESE graduate Liam Nolan

Liam Nolan, School of Earth and Space Exploration Astrophysics major 2022 graduate

May 03, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Liam Nolan has known pretty much his whole life the most interesting thing he could think of to study has been stars and space. As a freshman at Camp SESE he knew the moment in his gut he’d made the right choice of what to do with his life.

The sky was more beautiful than any he’d ever seen before, and a shooting star or satellite would whiz past no less than every five minutes. Then, there was a flickering red light just out of his field of view.  He sat up, and two of the professors were fire dancing. Applause rippled through the group of excited freshmen!

“I was smiling wider than I had before in my life,” Nolan said. “Astronomers are really cool.”

This spring 2022, Nolan will graduate from the School of Earth and Space Exploration  with a Bachelor of Science in earth and space exploration (astrophysics), a degree in physics from Barrett, The Honors College and a minor in French

Nolan chose to attend ASU as it is unique among undergraduate institutions for its excellence in astronomy and commitment to interdisciplinary studies. It allowed him the opportunity to join Professor Rogier Windhorst’s research group and complete a former graduate student's work on a teaching tool called “Appreciating Hubble at Hyperspeed'' (AHaH), which became his first peer-reviewed published paper

“Liam Nolan has been a truly excellent ASU undergraduate student. As part of my AST 322 Cosmology course, he wrote an excellent term project on our Java tool “AHaH'' that lets a student pan through the multicolor Hubble UltraDeep Field images from the nearby universe to redshifts of six, when the universe was less than one billion years old,” said Rogier Windhorst, Regents Professor. “In the following year, Liam was a superb TA for the AST 322 course, where he had the students use the AHaH tool in class. Liam published a beautiful paper on the AHaH project that has appeared as Nolan \et al\ 2021, Astronomy Education Journal, Vol. 1, p. 12–23. We are truly lucky to have students at ASU like Liam Nolan.”

After graduation, Nolan will head to the midwest this fall where he will start graduate school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in their Astronomy Department.  

“I'm very excited to be pursuing my PhD there, where I'll be working on transients — astronomical systems that change over short timescales,” Nolan said. 

He answered some questions about his time here at ASU. 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I took a class on radical pedagogy as part of my honors credits when everything was over Zoom. It was a very small group — I think nine students and three professors — and the class had never been taught before. The class was entirely cooperatively led — each student had an equal voice to each professor. Of course, some direction came from the professors in what sort of readings we focused on, but never before and never since in my academic career thus far have I felt so empowered to help decide the direction of the class. The reading and discussions that came out of that semester fundamentally overturned my concept of pedagogy (how and why we teach the way we do) and made me realize that some of the frustrations of the "standard" education system don't need to be the way they are.  I hope to carry out the praxis of that class in my future educational work.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Three reasons. First, I was excited by the program when I visited and spoke to faculty, and I have not been disappointed. Second, ASU is one of the few public schools which will fund National Merit Scholars, which I was fortunate enough to be. This made my undergraduate education much more affordable than many schools in Virginia, which let me focus on my studies and afford to be more selective in the employment I pursued during my degree. Third and finally, I was excited to move somewhere which would be my own — I had lived with my family in Virginia my whole life up until going to university, and was excited by the opportunity to chart my own path.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Rogier Windhorst of SESE has taught me more things than I can count, but the most valuable lesson has just been the importance of 'putting yourself out there. I reached out to him during my freshman year, interested in talking about research, and immediately he invited me to his group's research meetings, where many people started to offer little tasks I could do to build up my competence and confidence. After expressing my interest in public outreach, Rogier made me the outreach coordinator for his group. Also, I've completed two years' work in the ASU/NASA Space Grant and then a thesis with Rolf Jansen in Rogier's group. All of this happened because I took the leap of asking a professor if I could get involved, and Rogier showed me that there are faculty at ASU who will catch you.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Well, this is sort of derivative of my previous answer, but talk to faculty!  They're not out to get you, most of them are really friendly.  If you're interested in research, ask them about their research!  If you like art, ask about their work!  But really, even if you don't want to work with faculty, it makes your life so much easier in classes when you're more than just a name on the professor's gradebook.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I'm not there as often as I'd like, but I really love the secret garden. It's really pretty, a nice little oasis on campus that stays pretty quiet most of the time. If you don't know what I'm talking about, ask an upperclassman — it's tradition that you can't tell someone where it is, you have to show them. For a more easily accessible spot, I really, really like the Crepe Club outside the science buildings, and have been eating there far too often this semester. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: While I would of course need to educate myself better on how we can best allocate money towards global problems, my off-the-cuff answer would be reducing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment. I've always felt most at home in the queer spaces I've found myself in, and while great progress has been made in the past years, there have been frightening backslides of late which put the people I love at risk. Everyone has the right to love whomever they want to love, and to be whatever person they see themself as.  Towards that end, the first direct actions I can think of are helping to provide healthcare routinely denied to LGBTQ+ people, such as gender-affirming care, mental health support and other resources. I hope to be able to help further these issues for the rest of my career.

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