Physicist Maura McLaughlin has a nationwide network of high school students on a search for exotic neutron stars called pulsars.
As she and her collaborators embarked on a project to use the Green Bank Telescope to search for and use pulsars in research, they set aside some data for high school students to pore through.
The National Science Foundation-funded project is run jointly with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and is called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.
McLaughlin, an assistant professor at West Virginia University could have let her team of researchers and graduate students do all the work. But that would have missed a chance to spark interest in science careers among the young and give the public an idea of why she seeks answers deep in space.
“Our research is supported by the general public, so I feel that it’s really important to tell them what we’re doing and why it’s valuable,” she said.
When Alan Mollohan was chairman of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, he would field requests from agencies that funded projects like the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.
“The country that strategically invests in research, science and technology will be the country that emerges as the leading economy of the world, so that’s just how important research and science is,” Mollohan said.
Each has a different place in explaining science, but science wouldn’t get as far without the work of those who teach it and those who make it a political priority.
For their work, WVU is awarding McLaughlin and Mollohan the first Harley Kilgore Awards for Promoting Public Understanding of Science and Research, McLaughlin for teaching, and Mollohan for policy. The award is named for former West Virginia Congressman Harley Kilgore, who was instrumental in creating the National Science Foundation in 1950. Recipients of the award receive a medallion and honorarium.
The award was presented Tuesday (April 5) as part of the University’s first symposium on science communication, Science & Technology in Society: Effective Communication Strategies.
“Lifting up the importance of science is a national priority, and I applaud this inaugural event and thank the committee led by Dr. Jay Cole and one of our WVU students, Molly Simis, for all of their work in putting it together,” President Jim Clements said. “I also applaud the Kilgore award winners who have both demonstrated extraordinary leadership in promoting science.”
In the classroom
Through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, McLaughlin, along with Associate Professor of Physics Duncan Lorimer and colleagues at the observatory, works with students – many who live in rural areas and more than 50 percent of them female – via online lectures and then meets the students for a summer workshop at Green Bank and a seminar at WVU.
She also travels the state and region, explaining her search for pulsars and research on gravitational waves – research that could confirm Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and allow us to see previously invisible objects.
So far more than 200 students from nine states have searched the skies, looking for stars that flash like lighthouses. Since 2007, the students have discovered four pulsars.
Effectively communicating science isn’t just helpful to McLaughlin’s audience. It helps her think through her scientific process.
“I think that science will die if we don’t get enough young people interested in it,” she said. “And in order to get them interested in it, we need to be able to explain what we’re doing.
“If you can’t explain your research on a basic level to someone in the eighth grade, then you probably don’t understand what you’re doing.”
Being excited about her work helps her cause.
“Just showing the general public that you’re really enthusiastic and interested in this topic makes them really excited,” she said.
McLaughlin, said she’s honored to receive an award for effectively communicating science, an area that isn’t often recognized as an important part of research.
H. Arthur Weldon, professor of physics at WVU, nominated McLaughlin for the award, citing her international reputation as a radio astronomer and feedback that he has received on her research.
“The research community owes a debt of thanks to the few active scientists like Maura, who take our obligation to the public so seriously,” he said.
McLaughlin, who received her Ph.D. in astronomy and space science from Cornell University, has received the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the Cottrell Scholar Award and the Eberly College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Researcher Award.
Most recently, she and an international team received a $6.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research to detect gravitational waves, a discovery that will enable studies of black holes within massive galaxies and the space-time dynamics of the early stages of the universe.
On the Hill
As a member and later chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Mollohan’s job was to allocate funding for national science groups, including the National Science Foundation and NASA.
WVU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Curt Peterson, who nominated Mollohan for the award, emphasized the important role Mollohan played in taking the scientific information presented to him and using it to enable discovery, protect natural resources and improve quality of life for Americans.
Peterson credits Mollohan with providing vital support to the University’s research on unmanned aerial vehicles and robotics as well as to the West Virginia High Tech Consortium Foundation, which has encouraged high-tech companies to make West Virginia their home.
Mollohan also helped to convince the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to install a supercomputer in West Virginia that benefits the area’s research and education initiatives.
“Mr. Mollohan has effectively emulated the principles of Kilgore and promoted public understanding of science and research, all the while bringing important programs and projects to WVU and a cadre of scientific expertise resident in the Mountain State,” Peterson said.
Mollohan says he worked to advance science for the sake of growing knowledge, and also for the unparalleled economic advantages that it has brought to the state, in many cases in partnership with WVU.
“I’ve always supported robust government funding for both basic and applied scientific research,” Mollohan said. “This is for two reasons. First, for the advancement of human knowledge, which is, in and of itself, good reason. Second, because scientific discovery and the resulting technological advancements are the engines of economic diversification and economic growth. This is true for our nation and it also true for our state.
“Dr. Peterson and the WVU Research Corp. are conducting this kind of research and are having this kind of an impact on our state’s economy. It is essential that their activities are financially supported at the federal and at the state level. An informed citizenry is essential in any effort to encourage our elected representatives to support increased funding for scientific research in our state. The Kilgore Award is an excellent step in that direction.”
Mollohan said he has been proud to partner with WVU, an institution that he says has contributed to significant medical, energy, biometrics, aerospace and defense research while boosting the area’s economy.
“I am honored, first of all,” Mollohan said of receiving the award. “It’s always nice to be recognized by a group that is as prestigious as West Virginia University and this being the inaugural award, that’s a special honor.”
Mollohan served as U.S. Representative for West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District for 28 years until 2011. For 24 years he served on the House Appropriations subcommittee and was chairman for the last four years. He received his law degree from WVU.
By Diana Mazzella
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