Margaret Landis has spent her four years at Northern Arizona University staring up and trying to convince others to do the same.

Now, the astronomy and physics major is ready to devote her life to her research. The Gold Axe winner was recently acknowledged for her accomplishments by the university, one of 43 student honorees this year in an awards program dating back to 1993.

She believes she won because of her involvement in the honors program, her efforts to recruit perspective students, four years of public outreach and extensive undergraduate research.

Next semester, she'll start as a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

Landis got involved with the Astronomy Club as a freshman at NAU and has volunteered at the campus observatory most clear Friday nights since then.

The Bellingham, Wash., native says she came to Flagstaff because of the university's astronomy program and the chance to have telescope access as an undergraduate. There aren't many clear nights in western Washington, she says.

Landis has lived on campus all four years and helps convince high school students that NAU is the right fit for them.

She says it's counterintuitive to many parents and prospective students, who don't expect a science student to be involved in the honors program.

"I'm the one that's there being the astrophysicist and defying their expectations," she said.

She now lives in an upscale on-campus apartment, but it's still a convenient walk over to the observatory. During public nights, she shows other students the night sky from the vantage point of the Barry L. Lutz Telescope for Education and Research.

The recently upgraded telescope offers a crystal clear view of planets, nebula, the lunar surface and all manner of other objects.

Landis has also been involved with research at NAU alongside Astronomy Professor Nadine Barlow, an expert in Martian craters. The student's research has focused on looking for evidence of ice at impact sites on the red planet.

She also took part in a summer research project at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston. That work focused on early solar systems.

She hopes to do similar work as she attempts to get her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

Although astronomers have long thought they understood how our own solar system formed, recent discoveries have challenged those beliefs.

By looking at several years of observations of star-forming disks, she was able to see the infant solar system advance. Their research wasn't conclusive, but they detected some evidence of potential planets forming.

"I'm really interested in how solar systems form and evolve," Landis said. "It's an unsolved problem in science. It's a place where a lot of work can be put in and to me, as a scientist, that's really interesting.

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

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