Faculty Profile – Dr. Grant Thompson
Oystein Fjeldberg, Staff Writer
Dr. Grant Thompson teaches the popular astronomy class at Wingate University, where students learn how to tell the time by the phase of the Moon, how stars move across the sky during the year, how our Solar System is held together, and why stars have different colors, along with an introduction to how the Universe works in general.
Dr. Thompson’s passion for astronomy developed early in his life. He grew up on a farm under clear skies, and what he saw during the nights fascinated him.“It was a combination of awe and ‘what’s going on?’” Dr. Thompson said. That awe has persisted to this day. “Astronomy is seemingly never-ending; you can always learn something that you didn’t already know.”
As a student he pursued this interest, and wrote his dissertation at the University of Kentucky on the center of galaxies, called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). He wrote his dissertation there on the center of galaxies, called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN).
These centers, AGNs, are usually extremely powerful black holes that the rest of the galaxy revolves around, and are among the most energetic things in the Universe. By studying how a galaxy as a whole and its central black hole impacts one another scientists can learn about how galaxies changed over time, and this gained knowledge can help us better understand how the Universe works.
Although there has been a good amount of research on AGNs in the last two decades, there are still unanswered questions. In his research, Dr. Thompson compared the light emitted from different types of AGNs. The project earned him his Ph.D. in astrophysics in 2012.
A few years later, during the summer of 2015, Dr. Thompson continued his research work on AGNs with the assistance from senior Alex Manzevitsch. They eventually found that the two types of AGNs actually seem to be the same, as the differences between them are merely caused by which way you’re looking at them; while we may have looked at one AGN from the side, we had looked at the other one head-on, which would give different results even if they were identical.
Dr. Thompson and Alex presented their results at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Orlando in January this year, and even though the research was “basic for an undergraduate project,” according to Dr. Thompson, their findings were “eye-opening for professional astronomers.”
Research has, however, not been the main focus of Dr. Thompson’s career. Ever since he graduated, Dr. Thompson has taught astronomy as a professor, trying to help students see how it affects their lives.
“I am so inspired by astronomy that I want other people to appreciate the science,” he said. “Everyone is looking down these days, looking at their phones, but I want them to look up at the sky.” As a teacher, his knowledge has come to good use. “Lots of people come into astronomy with misconceptions; I enjoy the wow-moments of students, when they begin to understand [something] for the first time,” he said.
Outside of the classroom, Dr. Thompson is always looking for ways to improve himself as a teacher. He goes to state and national meetings in science education, where he seeks to pick up new teaching techniques to bring to the classroom.
Techniques that he has already incorporated into his astronomy class include computer simulations, quick response multiple choice quizzes, simple experiments to illustrate concepts, and handing out whiteboards to pairs of students who will use them to solve a problem.
The desire to teach astronomy also extends beyond his class, as he arranges public astronomy nights at least once each semester, typically at Campus Lake. He brings with him binoculars and telescopes for people to use, which are powerful enough to allow them to see the full shape of the planets in our Solar System, the moons and bands of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, nearby nebulae, and, if the conditions are good enough, certain galaxies (such as the Andromeda galaxy).
During the event he is available to whoever has questions, and he will often talk about the constellations spread across the night sky. “It’s more about just watching the sky, not lecturing,” Dr. Thompson said.
Anyone is welcome to join, and the attendance has normally been in the range of fifteen to twenty people; mostly students, but some non-student community members as well.
Edited by: Sara Gunter