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Appalachian/Nature Research Center partnership enhances science education outreach

BOONE—A partnership between the N.C. Museum of Science’s Nature Research Center in Raleigh and UNC System universities has paired Dr. Rachel L. Smith with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Appalachian State University.

View larger imageDr. Rachel L. Smith, pictured near the Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, is a staff scientist at the Nature Research Center (NRC) who also holds a faculty appointment with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Appalachian State University.

As one of three staff scientists at the Nature Research Center (NRC) who hold a faculty appointment with a partner institution, Smith will teach undergraduate courses in astrobiology and planetary science for non-science majors at Appalachian each semester beginning in spring 2013.

The courses will be taught via distance from the NRC’s SECU Daily Planet theater to students on Appalachian’s campus.

“Appalachian was very pleased when the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences invited us to join them in staffing the new Nature Research Center,” said Dr. Anthony G. Calamai, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Smith’s appointment as a half-time faculty member at Appalachian and director of NRC’s Astronomy and Space Observation Research Lab is a wonderful development for science education outreach. It also illustrates the high-quality teaching and research that occur at our university.”

Smith developed a general education science seminar in astrobiology for non-science majors while she was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She said teaching gives her “the opportunity to extend the availability of science beyond the science majors. Some end up changing their mind and go into science,” she said. “It’s rewarding. If they like the subject, you can influence them to take more classes in science.”

At NRC, Smith will continue her research of solar system chemistry and how solar systems formed. Her work will be supported in part by a $15,000 N.C. Space Grant New Investigator Award to Appalachian’s College of Arts and Sciences. The funding will allow her to travel to Hawaii this summer where she has been awarded observing time on one of two 10-meter (33-foot) telescopes at the Keck Observatory, the second-largest optical telescopes in the world.

The telescope has a near infrared, high resolution spectrograph (NIRSPEC) that will allow Smith to observe massive protostars as part of her astrochemistry work. A protostar is a developing star formed by a compression of gases.

Smith will collect data regarding carbon isotopes found in the gas of these forming stars and compare these observations to carbon isotopes found in the Sun and protosteller ice. The information can help scientists better understand how solar systems form, including how our solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago.

The Space Grant funds also will support her travel to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to work with an astrochemistry group, travel to present her research at professional conferences, and costs related to publishing the data in a scientific journal.

Smith has a Ph.D. in astrochemistry/cosmochemistry (formally geochemistry) from UCLA and was a post-doctoral scholar in planetary science at Caltech.