Alex Filippenko - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year National Winner
Alex Filippenko
Professor of Astronomy
University of California, Berkeley

I am extremely honored to be here today. Looking at the list of past winners and their accomplishments, and knowing that a very large number of highly qualified candidates had been considered, I can hardly believe that I was chosen for this coveted award, but I'm very glad that Dean Robert Holub decided to nominate me.

I know it will help motivate me to continue and even expand my efforts at outreach and education on all fronts.

Of course, the award is also a reflection of the outstanding support and inspiration I've received all of my life, from a very large number of people, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them.

First and foremost, my parents recognized my early interest in science, and did all they could to nurture it-for example, putting up with smelly experiments in my basement chemistry lab, and getting up in the middle of the night when I would show them a faint, fuzzy object through the telescope they gave me.

I'm very happy that my mother is here today, and I'm sorry that my father was too ill to make the trip, but he is in my thoughts.

My wife, Noelle, has given me unending love, support, encouragement, and patience. She also had more confidence in me than I had in myself, urging me to consider all facets of my outreach and teaching when composing the essay for the nomination.

I would also like to thank my brother Ivan, with whom I have had many thought-provoking discussions on a wide range of topics. As a teaching assistant in a linear algebra course I took, he was a model of clarity and rigor.

Although my children Zoe and Simon are in school and could not be here, they have shown much patience during the many times when I've been very busy with my teaching and research activities.

It is easy to become a good teacher when one has had as many positive educational experiences as I have, and been influenced by great educators.

Most inspirational to me during my undergraduate days at UC Santa Barbara was Professor Stanton Peale, who is here today.

He taught me to think critically, and he showed me how top-level teaching and research go hand-in-hand.

Besides giving me the opportunity to teach my own astronomy course at UCSB, he landed me a job at Lick Observatory for two summers, where I conducted research and gave tours, learning how to explain astronomical concepts to the general public.

I'm fortunate that Professor Wallace Sargent, my doctoral thesis advisor at Caltech while I was a Hertz Foundation Fellow, is also with us.

Although I never had the pleasure of taking a formal class from him, he taught me much during the many long nights we spent obtaining data (and waiting for clouds to clear) at Palomar Observatory.

Moreover, his strong letters of recommendation landed me a professorship at Berkeley, paving the way for my teaching and research career at a great public university.

I am grateful to all of my undergraduate students at UC-Berkeley over the past two decades, for the opportunity to teach the wonders of the universe.

Many of the astrophysics majors have gone on to succeed in graduate school and beyond, and I am thrilled to have played a significant role in their education.

It has been especially fulfilling to teach a large introductory astronomy class for non-science majors-showing them the beauty of the cosmos, the value of science, and the methods by which scientists come to their conclusions.

Although most students initially take that class mainly to satisfy a requirement, it is gratifying to me that by the end of the semester, a substantial fraction of them wish the course were continuing an additional semester.

I am especially grateful to the most inquisitive students, like Heather Newman, whose unending questions far beyond the scope of the course led me to gain a much deeper understanding of the nature of the physical universe.

I cherish the feeling of having deeply affected so many students at the intellectual and emotional levels.

An extremely rewarding aspect of my job at Berkeley is that I am able to have many undergraduate students on my research team.

Over the years, I've mentored about 60 students, usually for about two years each, mainly as part of my search for exploding stars conducted with a robotic telescope.

The students receive invaluable hands-on training, and they directly experience the thrill of discovery early in their careers.

Berkeley is perhaps best known as a fantastic doctoral and research university, and I have been fortunate to work with a large number of post-doctoral fellows and graduate students, such as Ryan Foley, a current student of mine.

They have contributed immensely to my research program, and we have made discoveries beyond my wildest dreams-culminating with the accelerated expansion of the universe, driven by mysterious "dark energy."

Of course, maintaining such a large research group would have been impossible without the generous financial support of the National Science Foundation, NASA, and private donors, and I'm happy that several key members from these organizations were able to join us here today.

The Teaching Company provided the opportunity to bring astronomy to a very wide audience, through video tapes of lectures that I deliver in their studio.

I'm currently producing a third course with them, consisting of 96 lectures on introductory astronomy-their largest course ever.

Jay Tate and Zachary Rhoades, who are here today, have been working non-stop with me, and I'm sure the president, Brandon Hidalgo, who is also here, will be very happy with the final product.

It has been profoundly gratifying to receive letters from people all over the country, telling me how much they enjoyed learning about astronomy through my classes, textbook, video tapes, television documentaries, and hundreds of public lectures.

Seeing the thrill and joy of students near and far, as well as the understanding and inspiration they have gained, has been the ultimate reward.

Thank you, once again, for this great honor.