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Faculty member has big plans for astronomy at MU

Oct. 28, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- John Saken has been a part of several well-established astronomy programs at other colleges and universities he's taught at. But he was intrigued by the opportunity to come Marshall where he could build a program from the ground up.

"I'm the only astronomer on staff," Saken said. "(The program) is in its infancy. We have very good students, just not a lot of them."

He said he sees a lot of potential for growth and has the backing of the university. Funding already has been approved for some equipment, and he is working with a landowner to host a small observatory.

Saken also is in the final months of getting his planetarium ready. He said students are sewing a large parachute, which will reflect the images through a project fitted with a birds-eye lens.

He said he's been passionate about astronomy since he was 5 years old, when his grandfather gave him a book about the planets. He calls being in awe when reading that Jupiter was bigger than the Earth.

"It wasn't long before I wanted to be an astronomer and I have never wavered," he said.

Saken attended MIT and then went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for graduate school. He did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

He previously worked at Appalachian State University, which has a well-equipped program. But he said at Marshall, he could build it from scratch and leave something behind for others when he is gone.

When everything is operational, he said it will include online remote access so his students and those in the local high schools can study astronomy using real-time data.

"The best way to teach science is to let students do science," he said.

Currently, he is teaching an upper-level astronomy class for students majoring in education and wanting to teach science. In the fall of 2013, he said a freshmen-level will be rolled out.