Meet John Martin
Assistant Professor, Astronomy/Physics
- B.A. Astrophysics: University of Virginia
- Ph.D. Astronomy: Case Western Reserve University
- I was born in Washington D.C. and I grew up in that area. My father worked for the federal government at the National
Institute of Standards in Technology for 25 years. My
mom had her master’s degree in biochemistry but was a stay at home mom. So I had parents that were very interested in science and in math and encouraged me in those directions. At the age of six I had a talk with my mom about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told her that I liked physics and I liked outer space and I asked what a good job would be, she said astrophysicist, and I latched onto the word and stuck with it.
- I’m the oldest of four children. I have three younger sisters. When I did my dissertation I went down to West Texas to the McDonald Observatory. It is one of the darkest sites for a professional observatory in the continental U.S. If you step outside on a moonless night down there you can see more stars than you could ever count. It was just an amazing place to go.
- Stars. Primarily hot stars and what makes them tick. I’m studying stars that are ten or more times the mass of our own sun. This makes them much hotter than the sun—two to five times hotter—and much more energetic. These stars are important because the universe started out made completely of hydrogen and helium, but our bodies have more in them than hydrogen and helium, so where did it all come from? Well, it was made inside stars, particularly large stars that go supernova and spill all of the stuff from their interiors back into the galaxy. The origin of all of the neat elements like iron, carbon and oxygen that we rely on to live were formed in these stars.
Major project underway:
- Teaching is my major project for most of the year, but I have collaborators at the University of Minnesota. We work on projects with the Hubble Space Telescope studying some of these massive stars. We also have research going on at the research observatory at UIS on a similar type of star. We’re doing some long-term monitoring of several different stars to get a handle on what they’re doing. They exhibit some unusual behavior so we’re trying to understand the process that they are going through.
- When I teach Astronomy 101 we do at least one group exercise every class. I try to have the students extrapolate knowledge beyond what I’ve given them—not anything groundbreaking, but that would make them say “Well if I know this and I know this, then I can conclude a third thing.” I try to present my students with problems and then have them discuss what they know that might help them find the answer and then how to solve the problem.
- I try to keep in touch with amateur astronomers in the community through the Sangamon Astronomical Society. I also help run Star Parties. We have these on clear nights on Fridays during September, October, March, and April. We invite people to come to the campus observatory from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. We usually give a little talk and then give people the chance to look through the telescopes and ask any questions they have. We also do these for special events like lunar eclipses. It’s just a night open to everyone to come out, look through the telescopes, and ask our astronomers questions.
Advice to prospective students:
- The idea of a whole education is very prized here. What I mean by a whole education is that you know your math, you know your history, you know your science, and you know your English. Students might not enjoy one or any of those, but that’s like eating your vegetables. You have to eat them so that you’re healthy and prepared for everything else. If you build yourself a strong foundation from the beginning, you will get a lot more out of your education.
Best thing about UIS:
- Small classes. In Physics, we start introductory classes with 30 students in the fall, and that winnows itself out by second semester down to 10 to 15 people. At any other state university, no intro class would have as few as 30 students. One other thing we’re really proud of is that the professors teach the labs. It’s not graduate students, it’s professors. This gives our students a great advantage. My focus is teaching, so when students come here, they get a lot of individual attention. They get to know their professors and profit from that interaction.