By Derek Wilson
College of Marin Physics and Astronomy Professor Antonino Cucchiara, Ph.D., is searching for the history of the origins of the universe, but at the same time he is looking toward the future in the classroom.
“We need to enable science to the people who don’t have access to it,” said Cucchiara, a Physics and Astronomy Professor at College of Marin who is as passionate about social justice as he is about the stars.
“Anybody in the world can access Hubble Telescope data. What NASA has pioneered is allowing access and increasing the social justice aspect of it. Access to knowledge and data should not be restricted to the elite.”
Cucchiara is leading a team searching for short-lived gamma ray bursts that follow the explosion of stars, the same kind of bursts that might have fueled the creation of our universe. He and his team will have access to a global network of telescopes, including the powerful Gemini Observatory in Chile. The Gemini Observatory telescopes are among the largest in the world and consist of two 8.1-meter diameter telescopes, one located in Chile and the other in Hawaii. Collectively, the system can access the entire sky.
“I hope the results from Gemini will allow me to engage more students at College of Marin in astronomy,” Cucchiara said. “A lot of people say ‘Why do you study astronomy?’ Astronomy is about more than stars. The skills learned can be used in public speaking and marketing and other areas. But for me, astronomy is a fun thing to do. I’m teaching about the early universe and the stars.”
Cucchiara, a native of Italy and graduate of the University of Milan with a PhD from Penn State, earned his post-doctoral scholarship studying “gamma-ray bursts as probes of the early universe” at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley while using the resources of the James Lick Observatory.
Since then, as an instructor at the University of the Virgin Islands, he became acutely aware of the racial and economic disparities in the fields of science and technology.
“After the hurricanes hit the islands, it became more clear that resources are needed for students who don’t have the resources to achieve their goals,” Cucchiara said. “I came to College of Marin and they are going in the direction I want to go by increasing the number of Black students achieving academic success for their goals in life.”
He cites the relatively small number of female minorities with PhDs involved in physics and astronomy and has pledged to change the odds. Trying to ease the way, he has co-mentored PhD students in NASA programs.
Cucchiara is also determined to take the star show to local high schools with a portable planetarium that could turn a gymnasium into a galaxy.
“We need to start engaging students at the high school and middle school levels,” he said. “We need to bring that excitement that we have for the job to them.”
Cucchiara is about to enter into a very exciting time in his career.
Cucchiara and his team of collaborators from around the world will use of both Gemini-North and Gemini-South to conduct research for their proposal entitled High-Redshift Gamma-Ray Bursts as Probes of Cosmic Dawn. Research will focus on extreme energy bursts (gamma-ray bursts, GRB) from distant galaxies in order to gain understanding of how the universe first formed.
“One of the most exciting things is we will be able to study the very first stars born at the beginning of the universe and hopefully learn how chemical elements formed in combination with the evolution of the most powerful explosions occurring in space called gamma-ray bursts,” Cucchiara said. “They hide the true secrets of stellar evolution and the story of the first moments in which matter combined to form stars.”
The research proposal allows Cucchiara and his team use of the main telescope and its instruments, including the GMOS-S, which uses a sophisticated digital camera to accurately measure the intensity of light from very faint objects in the sky, and the Flamingos-2, a spectrograph, which uses near-infrared imaging to measure the chemical abundances of gas near the GRB explosion site.
COM students will be learning from the research data he brings back to his classes. Working with data allows students to learn basic and versatile skills in astronomy and physics while gaining a better understanding of the science behind the research and its importance.
This opens possibilities for careers they might not have considered. He expounds on the potential of STEM, asking students to envision themselves in the future, well beyond COM. Cucchiara encourages students who think it’s too hard and are unsure of themselves to connect with the College’s learning communities, which have remained active through video conferencing during remote instruction.
“I’m still hoping to teach classes face to face when the next semester starts,” Cucchiara said. “I prefer to teach in person. There are things, tangible things, that are easier to learn in person.”
Cucchiara coauthored the news release, “Gemini Observatory’s Quick Reflexes Capture Fleeting Flash” for the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory.
More information about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs at COM is online.
(Derek Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)