It has been more than a decade in the making, but this year, Northern Arizona University launched its new doctoral program in Astronomy and Planetary Science, a step that program leaders say will continue to grow NAU’s reputation in the scientific research community.

Stephen Tegler, the chairman of the department of physics and astronomy, said the department has been discussing adding a Ph.D program for years, but said the conversation became more concrete about three years ago when the university asked the department to write a business plan and proposal for the program.

“We have collectively been working on this for decades,” he said.

In addition to building the program for students, Tegler said adding the Ph.D is allowing the department to hire and recruit for more faculty positions, which he said will greatly enhance the department and broaden the fields of study included in the department.

Tegler said faculty members have specialized in a variety of areas, including working to build a flight instrument designed to go to Mars, characterizing potentially dangerous near Earth objects with telescopes and computers and analyzing data from faint signals far from Earth. He said the department is also looking to hire an astrochemist and is seeking out high-quality faculty to build the program.

“This will be a huge expansion of the department,” Tegler said. “We are hiring five new faculty members, which will give both graduates and undergraduates more opportunity to work on research.”

Tegler said the addition of the program represents a shift in the university’s focus toward research. He said while NAU has a reputation as a teaching institution, additions like the doctoral program will help build the university’s prestige as a research institution.

“A goal for me is to become recognized as a high-quality Ph.D program,” Tegler said. “That means not only do we graduate high numbers of Ph.D students, but when they graduate, they become leaders in the field of astronomical research.”

Tegler said program leaders are aiming to have the program be recognized around the country and the world for its discoveries and faculty.

Students in the program will have access to resources at NAU and around the world, Tegler said. In addition to NAU’s observatory and labs, students will also work closely with Lowell Observatory and have access to the Discovery Channel Telescope and other resources at the observatory.

Students at NAU, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona also have access to the Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mount Hopkins, the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham and the Magellan Telescope in Chile.

“We have phenomenal access,” Tegler said of Arizona institutions. “This is as good as it gets.”

Tegler said the new faculty members and course offerings will also allow the university to add extra labs, like for astrochemistry and for building flight instruments.

“We aren’t starting from the ground,” he said. “A lot of what we are trying to do we already have here. We are just making the programs and resources more robust.”

David Trilling, a professor in the department and the graduate coordinator for the program, said the doctoral program will give NAU a chance to compete for research grant funding as well as give students an opportunity to conduct independent research.

Trilling said the first two years of the program, which typically takes a student between five and six years to complete, will be centered on taking course which will promote a broad understanding of planetary sciences. The remaining years will be spent working with a research mentor conducting their own research.

Trilling said there are four students enrolled in the program now, and said they hope to enroll five new students annually, so at full capacity the program will have about 25 students.

“They will have a strong, hopefully positive influence on the personality of the department,” Trilling said. “Ph.D students are always integral to the personality of the department. If the Ph.D students are enjoying it and are having fun, the whole department is a positive environment, and if the Ph.D students are working hard, the department can be really productive.”

Trilling said Arizona is a prominent state for astronomy and planetary research, adding that a researcher from ASU was chosen as a principal investigator on a NASA mission to explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche.

“Astronomy is very significant in Arizona, and more astronomy research and student training in this state just means more opportunities, more prominence, and, not incidentally, more economic growth,” Trilling said in an email.

Trilling said the culture in the city of Flagstaff is the “most aware of astronomy” of any city he has ever lived, and said the city has a high population of scholars and scientists that make Flagstaff a good place for research in astronomy.

“I think this is a very appropriate and a very worthwhile thing to do in Flagstaff,” he said.

NAU President Rita Cheng said the program will grow NAU's reputation for cutting-edge research, locally and around the world. 

“Our Astronomy Ph.D program opens incredible possibilities for NAU students as the exploration of space continues and the discoveries of our faculty, regarded as topic experts and world-class minds, are recognized nationally and internationally," Cheng said in a statement. 

The reporter can be reached at cvanek@azdailysun.com or 556-2249.

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Corina Vanek covers city government, city growth and development for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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