Alex Filippenko - Passion Statement

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

I have always been strongly motivated to communicate science to the public in a clear, enthusiastic, and engaging manner, enriching lives by providing a deeper understanding of our origins and place within the universe. It gives me great satisfaction to see people become interested in new discoveries and their implications, and in the methods by which scientists achieve them.

Through research, scientists can rid people of their fears of science and mathematics and help produce a scientifically literate public. Equally important is igniting a spark of curiosity and fueling a sense of wonder about the physical universe-a universe that can be understood through careful thought, observation, and experimentation. Fundamentally, I just love to teach and to make a real difference in the lives of students.

At the University of California, Berkeley, I have taught "Introduction to General Astronomy" one semester per year for the past two decades. I continually improve the course based on student recommendations and my own observations. My class has become one of the most popular on campus (one-sixth of all students take it), with an enrollment of 730 to 830 students (others typically have 100 to 200 students). I teach with passion and make astronomy "come alive" for students who are primarily taking the course to satisfy a requirement while making it challenging and inspiring for the more interested or advanced students. My recorded lectures are on the Web, and I have developed lecture guides, allowing students to absorb what I say without the distraction of taking copious notes.

To alleviate the impersonality of the lecture hall, I encourage questions, treating each with respect and never intimidating students. Students also use my office hours to discuss topics further. Lecture is fun and informal: I wear astronomy-themed T-shirts, play music with astronomical references, recite celestially themed poetry, and tell science-related jokes. I clarify difficult concepts with demonstrations.

For example, I jump from the floor to chairs to desks as I catch colored balls students toss at me to illustrate the change in atomic energy level by electrons absorbing photons. At Halloween, I demonstrate the quantum-mechanical evaporation of black holes by dressing up as a black hole and throwing students astronomythemed candyâ??Starburst, Milky Way, Mars, and Eclipse gum.

Often, I conduct evening discussion sessions where students explore topics in detail, and I organize field trips to view meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and other celestial events.

A hallmark of my teaching is exposure to top-notch research at Berkeley and elsewhere. When astronomical discoveries are announced, I explain their importance and relevance to what students have been learning. I also describe my own research endeavors. I take small groups of students to nearby Lick Observatory. (Students compete for the all-expenses-paid overnight trips by submitting essays, poems, artwork, or other evidence meant to convince me of their genuine desire to go.) In this way, students get a close-up, personal view of science conducted at a major research facility.

Since I believe that excellence in teaching and research go hand-in-hand, I invite a few undergraduate students to become members of my research team. At Berkeley, I've mentored about 60 undergraduates, usually for two years each. Most start by helping with my Lick Observatory robotic search for nearby exploding stars, or supernovae, which forms the foundations of my main research program. My undergraduates have found hundreds of supernovae and received official credit in telegrams and formal publications. Some students stay in my group for several years, writing and publishing quite advanced research before moving on to graduate studies.

I am honored to have taught, mentored, and inspired so many excellent students. The thrill of discovery and the joy of learning about the wonders of the universe experienced by all my students has been my ultimate reward.