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Exoplanet Research Expanded

Eliza KemptonEliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, has received the Cottrell College Science Award to “exoplanets” — planets that exist outside this solar system. Kempton’s research has focused on modeling and characterizing the atmospheres of low-mass exoplanets known as super-Earths since she was a theorist in the initial pioneering observational studies of super-Earth atmospheres.

Kempton’s project, “Exoplanet Science with Grinnell's Grant O. Gale Observatory,” focuses on planets in distant solar systems.

“Under the dark Iowa skies we are able to view a large number of planetary systems,” says Kempton, principal investigator for the two-year project. Using the observatory’s 24-inch reflecting telescope, Kempton and her students will collect data that may lead to confirmation of planetary candidates or even discovery of additional exoplanets.

“We detect these planets using the transit method,” Kempton adds. “A transit occurs when an orbiting planet passes in front if its host star, causing a periodic dimming of light from the star. The regular dimming of the host star allows us to infer the presence of a planet.”

Kempton’s $40,000 award, plus additional funds from the Office of the Dean, will help Kempton and her students conduct research over the course of the next two summers.

Kempton and four students working with her already have obtained initial high-quality transit light curves and compiled a data reduction pipeline for transit data obtained with the Gale Observatory telescope. Plus they have started using a new Apogee camera, as well as a filter wheel and a smaller auto-guiding camera. This equipment improves the precision of future transit data obtained with the telescope.

Additional upgrades to the telescope hardware made possible by the award will enable Kempton and her students to expand detection thresholds to smaller planets orbiting fainter stars. This research ultimately will contribute to the overall understanding of what types of planets exist around stars in our galaxy, how they form and evolve, and how typical systems like our solar system might be — getting to the age-old question of “Are we alone?”

The award will fund student workstations for performing data analysis, supplies for the observatory, stipends for summer students and Kempton, who also will receive a research computer. In addition, funds for travel will be used to attend conferences and advance collaborative work.

Kempton has co-authored more than 30 articles related to exoplanets in journals such as Nature and the Astrophysical Journal.

About the Cottrell College Science Awards

The Cottrell College Science Awards, from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, are carefully reviewed by a selection panel of top scientists and have supported the research work of more than 1,500 early career scientists at 400 institutions over the last 16 years.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement was founded in 1912 and is the second-oldest foundation in the United States (after the Carnegie Corporation) and the oldest foundation for science advancement. Research Corporation is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America’s colleges and universities.


Decoding Diversity

Lester Alemán ’07 became an advocate and a leader while a Posse Scholar at Grinnell College. He also worked as a program director for nearly four years at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles. So it’s only fitting he had a chance showcase those skills while discussing the often controversial topic of diversity at the first-ever TEDxGrinnell event.

We talked with Lester about his TEDxGrinnell experience and time as a Grinnell student.  

What was it like giving a TEDxGrinnell talk?

Lester Alemen, left, talks to TEDx attendeesDelivering a TED Talk is, by far, one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career. I’m honored that Grinnell College thought of me as someone who is a subject-matter expert in the field of diversity initiatives. My speech delivered a dose of obvious. But what’s more striking to me is that no matter how obvious diversity is in this country, we — as a nation— still resist it. I wrote my talk not only for the sociology majors of the country, but for people who need a reminder of what truly shapes this nation, and how we continuously perpetuate our lack of acceptance. “It’s not okay” somehow became my tag line. So when I think of how many people kept repeating that after my talk, I think I drove a message home. Now the work rests in the hands of those who listened.

Thinking back as a student, what is the most striking way you were affected by the culture shift from your home in Los Angeles to Grinnell?

Attending Grinnell College allowed me to understand the fabric of our social landscape. It also taught me to be very vocal and persuasive in the pursuit of social change. Going from an urban environment to a rural setting taught me to be adaptable. Those four years really shaped my vision for how I live my professional life.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would share with prospective Grinnellians?

The biggest piece of advice I can offer any prospective student is that Grinnell College is not the college for just anyone. Grinnell not only offers the unique opportunity to learn about the unique world we are all a part of, it offers the opportunity for you to truly become an agent of change. If change isn’t what you were made to do — then this isn’t the school for you. If change is what you live for, then welcome.

What’s the most important way Grinnell College assisted you in becoming the leader you are today?

There were caring adults who wanted nothing more than to see me thrive — and knew exactly how to help facilitate that growth. That was new for me. They taught me the most important thing a leader needs in this world: true and active compassion. 

  • Taking a course with Kesho Scott, associate professor of sociology and American studies, is a must for anyone that appreciates witty, insightful banter — the kind that gives you an eye-opening dose of what we are doing to each other in this world.
  • Karla Erickson, associate professor of sociology, taught me that only I could dictate my path and pushed me to make tough decisions as my major adviser.
  • Kara Lycke was a soundboard for the frustration I felt the more I learned about the injustices in our education system.
  • Judy Hunter had the patience to really teach me how to put my feelings and thoughts into words at the Writing Lab.
  • Katherine McClelland helped me overcome my fear of math so I could pass my statistics class.
  • The late Howard Burkle indulged all my life questions — and my appetite, I should add — as my Posse Mentor.
  • Charlie Duke gave my Posse a home away from home when Howard could no longer do that.

Alemán currently works at NBCUniversal in the Page Program, Talent Development Group.

Energy & Climate: Breaking the Link

Richard Wolfson, Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of physics at Middlebury College, will give a free public talk, "Energy and Climate: Breaking the Link," at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 13, in Alumni Recitation Hall Room 302.

In his talk, Wolfson will discuss energy consumption, the sources and uses of that energy, and the most recent evidence of its impact on climate. He will conclude the talk by offering suggestions for breaking the energy-climate link, which could lead to a future where Americans can enjoy the benefits of energy without damaging the planet.

Wolfson will also present a  seminar on solar physics, “Wild Sun: A Drama in Three Acts,” at noon Tuesday, April 14 in Noyce Science Center Room 1023. Food will be served.

Wolfson, who teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program, completed his undergraduate work at Swarthmore College, where he majored in physics and philosophy. He also holds a master's degree in environmental studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in physics from Dartmouth College. His current research involves the eruptive behavior of the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, as well as terrestrial climate change and the sun–Earth connection.

He is the author of several books, including the college textbook titled Energy, Environment and Climate. He also interprets science for those who are not scientists through his contributions to Scientific American and his books, Nuclear Choices: A Citizen's Guide to Nuclear Technology and Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified.

Both talks are sponsored by the Harold W. ’38 and Jean Ryan ’38 Squire Lectureship in Physics.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. ARH is wheelchair accessible and has an elevator at the south end and accessible restrooms on the third floor. Automatic door operators are located on the southeast and southwest sides of ARH. Several accessible parking spaces are available along Park Street. Accommodation requests may be made to conference operations.


Sample Schedules

Traditional Intro Format - No Study Abroad

First Year
Fall: PHY 131, MAT 131
Spring: PHY 132, MAT 133

Second Year
Fall: PHY 232, MAT 215
Spring: PHY 234, MAT 220

Third Year
Fall: PHY 335
Spring: PHY 337

Fourth Year
Fall: Physics Elective
Spring: Physics Elective, PHY 462

Traditional Intro Format - Fall Semester Study Abroad

First Year
Fall: PHY 131, MAT 131
Spring: PHY 132, MAT 133

Grinnell a Top Peace Corps School

Sachiko Graber '12

Sachiko Graber ’12 (left) with her teachers on day of cultural celebration.

For the third year in a row, Grinnell College has earned a spot on Peace Corps’ annual list of the top volunteer-producing colleges and universities. Moving up 11 places, Grinnell ranks No. 10 among small schools nationwide with 11 alumni currently serving overseas as Peace Corps volunteers.

Since the agency was created in 1961, 374 Grinnell graduates have made a difference as Peace Corps volunteers.

“The Peace Corps provides an indispensable opportunity for young people out of college to put their unique skills to work making a difference for communities around the world,” Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. “Volunteers make lasting change by living and working at the grassroots level in their communities of service and using their talents to tackle some of the most critical challenges in international development.”

Sachiko Graber ’12 makes a difference as an education volunteer in Namibia. She teaches eighth grade math and leads several sports programs, including soccer, rugby, and track and field. Arriving in Namibia in July 2012, Graber chose to extend her service a third year to teach English and develop a science laboratory.

Graber graduated from Grinnell in May 2012 with a degree in physics

“Grinnell gave me was a self-sufficiency and self-motivation that has helped me immensely in Peace Corps,” she said. “At Grinnell, I always filled my schedule with every possible activity — organized or not — and I have been lucky enough to bring that same mentality to the village. I have found or created a lot of new projects, such as starting a science laboratory project, and I think that I was able to do this in part because of the confidence and willingness to branch out into many different disciplines that I acquired at Grinnell.”

Nationally, the University of Washington in Seattle pulled in the highest number of volunteers with 72 graduates currently serving in the Peace Corps. You can view the entire top 25 rankings for each school size category.

Service in the Peace Corps is a life-defining, hands-on leadership experience that offers volunteers the opportunity to travel to the farthest corners of the world and work on sustainable development projects in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development.

Volunteers return home as global citizens with cross-cultural, leadership, language, teaching, and community development skills that position them well for advanced education and professional opportunities in a 21st-century job market.

This year’s rankings follow historic reforms to Peace Corps’ application and selection process, led by Hessler-Radelet, that resulted in a 22-year application high for the agency in 2014. Through a one-hour online application, applicants can now choose the countries and programs they’d like to be considered for. Graduating college students are encouraged to browse open programs and apply by April 1 for assignments departing fall 2015.

Iowa-based Peace Corps recruiter Ryan Cairns, a returned volunteer who served in Bulgaria, advises Grinnell candidates.

Approximately 68 Iowa residents are currently serving in the Peace Corps. Overall, 2,316 Iowa residents have served since the agency was created in 1961.

About the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps sends the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment, and youth development. 

Through their service, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy. Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, nearly 220,000 Americans of all ages have served in 140 countries worldwide.

For more information, visit Peace Corps' website and follow Peace Corp on Facebook and Peace Corp on Twitter.


Changing the Face of Science

Jessi L. Smith, a noted expert on social psychology, will deliver the Scholars' Convocation at noon Wednesday, April 1, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101. The lecture is free and open to the public with a free pizza lunch provided.

Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted extensive research on theories of stereotypes, with a focus on understanding the practices and policies that create equitable environments. At MSU, she chairs a 47-member team charged with enhancing faculty diversity and equity in order to foster learning among all faculty and students.

Smith's talk, titled "Changing the Face of Science: How to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive STEM Community," will feature Smith's work in experimental social psychological science. Smith will present her findings on the prevalent role of unintentional biases within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community, and discuss how to create more equitable environments in these fields.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations.

Shaping Students

Two Mentored Advanced Projects (MAPs) in theatre, one in chemistry, an internship with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and a job managing the campus pub — the key points on Ben Doehr ’15’s resume indicate the chemistry/economics double major’s depth and breadth of knowledge.

Grinnell strives to produce “T-shaped students” such as Doehr, the depth and breadth represented respectively by the vertical and horizontal line of a T. This model stands in contrast to both the traditional university model, which emphasizes depth, and the perception of the liberal arts model, which is sometimes viewed as providing a base of knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep.

When they were applying to colleges, both Doehr and Iulia Iordache ’15 wanted something they struggled to find elsewhere. Iordache was looking for an alternative to the system of higher education in her native Romania, which would have required her to know exactly what she wanted to study when she applied. Doehr wanted to have the opportunity to study physics and economics in depth while also doing technical theatre and design work. 

Both have credited the College with expanding their knowledge within their key areas of study and helping them develop transferrable skills such as critical thinking and strong writing skills.

Developing deeper understanding

Doehr and Iordache point to MAPs as a key means of gaining depth. MAPs offer students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor. The results of these collaborations are frequently presented at academic and professional conferences as well as on campus.

Doehr likes to joke that being manager of the campus pub, Lyle’s, has taught him as much about economics as his coursework has. It’s not that much of an exaggeration: “Managing the pub gave me a very hands-on experience on the practical side of things,” Doehr says. His MAPs with the theatre department also allowed him hands-on work with interactive design. He and fellow student Caleb Sponheim ’15 created a series of three interactive installations in Roberts Theatre.

Iordache also credits her professors — both the degree to which they care about their students’ success and how accessible they are — for the depth of her knowledge. Iordache completed an education MAP that involved traveling to Romania to study the impact of voluntourism on the local population. Initially, she intended to be an economics major, but changed her mind and pursued psychology instead. She added a second major in Russian, and after completing a summer MAP with Assistant Professor of education Cori Jakubiak, decided to pursue international education when she graduates.

Establishing a broad base of knowledge

Iordache came to Grinnell in part because the open curriculum allowed her a chance to explore her interests. Outside of class, her perspective has been broadened by the views of other students. On a regular basis, she finds herself having conversations that relate to what she is studying. “We were talking about dualism in my psychology class,” Iordache says, “and I ended up having a conversation about dualism versus materialism in the Grill with a friend who wasn’t even in the class. It was a great discussion.” Iordache enjoys these kinds of conversations because everyone brings their own knowledge to bear on a subject.

A summer internship with the FDIC helped Doehr realize how his breadth of knowledge benefited him outside classes. He walked in knowing very little about the day-to-day operations of the FDIC, but quickly learned how the organization worked. He worked with a number of young FDIC employees and found that he could write on the same professional level as they could. He credits his liberal arts education for both his writing skills and giving him the ability to tackle new problems without being specifically trained for them.

Attitude of Gratitude

8,700 miles and 18 hours on his first plane ride separate Bazil Mupisiri ’18 from his hometown in Zimbabwe. Yet, it’s the milestones, not the miles, that truly set this first-year student apart.

Bazil (pronounced Bay-zl) first learned about Grinnell through the U.S. Student Achievers Program (USAP), which provides access to higher education “for determined, bright, low-income youth, producing highly-skilled and liberally-educated leaders for tomorrow’s Zimbabwe.”

Education was a high priority for Bazil’s widowed mother, who teaches in a rural school. “My mother is my hero and greatest influence,” Bazil explains. “She placed great value on education and would often go without eating so we could go to school and learn. We had to grow our own food and save as much as we could. I became a serious student because of her.”

He also became serious about community service. 

“Charity events are very important to me. I started a club to assist those that might quit school otherwise. We offered opportunities for study help and to get them back in school. In my country, without education, there is no hope.

“I also started an environmental club, and we planted a school orchard that supplied fruit for the students. We coordinated with the town council to organize tree planting. It’s wonderful to see the trees grow.”

Bazil also worked to prevent HIV/AIDS and support children without parents because of the disease. “I loved making a difference in my community, and these experiences shaped my life.”

The prosecutor

His true passion, he says, is public speaking and debate.

“They called me ‘The Prosecutor’ because I like argument and busting opposing teams. I especially like discussing economic and political issues. Our [high school] team won the national championship in 2011 and 2012.”

Because of his interest in local issues, Bazil expects to get involved in student government and has already joined Model U.N.

IPOP surprise

Grinnell won Bazil over immediately. “My impression of this place started at the airport, where Jon and Karen Edwards were there to greet me. I thought ‘Wow! There is no college like this in Africa.’ I immediately fell in love with the small, quiet town. People here are so friendly; it’s so secure.”

Once on campus, Bazil was immersed in the International Pre-Orientation Program (IPOP) that precedes New Student Orientation for international and global nomad students. There he met his host family, David and Susan Willig, parents of Jacob Willig Onwuachi ‘95, physics. He was also greeted by his aunt from London, who supported his education after his father died.

“My aunt surprised me by coming to see me at IPOP. I had last seen her in 2005 when I was still in boarding school.  My host family, the Willigs, who are wonderful people, invited my aunt to dinner in their home.”

“When we first met Bazil,” Susan Willig relates, “he was high on all the excitement of his first plane ride, first time in the U.S. We had a student from China last year, so we expect to involve them both in our holidays and family dinners. Our grandchildren also get to be involved and expand their knowledge of different cultures.”

Generous, grateful

Bazil Mupisiri ’18 working with child on a project

Although it’s early in his Grinnell career, Bazil feels confident that he will major in computer science and economics. “I want to be a software engineer, to design software and return home to implement,” he says. In the meantime, he’s taking full advantage of all that Grinnell has to offer, including his First-Year Tutorial, “New Worlds and Ancient Texts: Origins of Liberal Education in the Americas,” advised by Aysha Pollnitz, assistant professor of history.

“This tutorial has really changed my interest in history,” Bazil says. “I hated history in high school. Now I love it and will try to take another course, plus all of the others I want to take.”

While there is much for Bazil to experience before returning home to give back, there is much for Grinnell to learn from this first-year’s spirited enthusiasm for generosity and gratitude.