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Regina Jorgenson at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii with telescopes, the Keck twins (the two round domes) and the Subaru telescope (the cylindrical one), in the background.

Regina Jorgenson has arrived!

If you were on island during the first two weeks of Feburary this year, some of you may have been fortunate enough to accept the Maria Mitchell Association's invitation for a gathering held on Feb. 12 to meet Maria Mitchell's new Director of Astronomy, Regina Jorgenson. 

If you couldn't make this meet-and-greet, I've asked Regina to answer a few questions so the rest of us can get acquainted with Maria Mitchell's extraordinary new hire to head up its Astronomy Department. But first, a little background excerpted from a note Regina sent out in Maria Mitchell's E-Comet Newsletter on Jan. 14.

Regina first journeyed to Nantucket to be a summer research intern in the National Science Foundation funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program hosted here at the MMA.  

During that summer of 1997, I simultaneously fell in love with both astronomy and the island, and my experiences here shaped not only my career but also my life. 

I have a distinct memory of leaving on the ferry that summer and my good friend (and fellow intern) telling me that if I threw a penny into the water, I would one day return. Well, it turns out he was right! In fact, I returned two years later, after finishing my B.S. degree in physics and travelling the world for a year as a Watson Fellow, to work as the Assistant Director, under then director Vladimir Strelnitski. I eventually left the island again to pursue my Ph.D., followed by two postdoctoral positions in Cambridge, England and Hawai'i, and a short stint as a professor, before finally realizing my dream to become the MMA Director of Astronomy. 

Some of my first plans as Director are to develop and formalize the REU alumni network, to remodel the Vestal Street Observatory museum -- which is long overdue for an update! -- and to prepare for the incoming summer REU interns. This last task will be made a bit easier with the generous support of the Dunham Foundation from which we recently won a small grant to purchase a dedicated Mac workstation ideal for astronomical data reduction and analysis. I am eager to begin work with the new summer students on projects that will range from the search for extra-solar planets to the study of how galaxies like our own Milky Way formed and evolved over time.

As I begin in this new role, I am inspired by Maria Mitchell's pioneering spirit -- a person truly ahead of her time, both in education pedagogy and women's rights -- and I am honored to be given this opportunity. I look forward to meeting all of you in the near future, both island residents and friends from afar, whose pennies may bring them back just as mine did. 

Below are the questions I asked Regina followed by her answers:

When do you or did you officially begin as director of astronomy for MMA?

I officially began as director on Jan. 4.  However, that first week I was in Florida at the AAS (American Astronomical Society) meeting helping with the student poster presentations and hosting a reunion breakfast for MMA NSF-REU (National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates) alumni.  

What are you duties?

My duties are to run the astronomy programs, which consist of a range of things, from research to public outreach.  One of my major duties is to run our Presidential award-winning student research program, which is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation called Research Experiences for Undergraduates.  Each summer, we host six undergraduate students from around the country to participate in astronomical research here on Nantucket.  Because of the strength of the program and the fact that it has existed since the 1950s when it was started by then director Dorrit Hoffleit, it is really well known and respected in the astronomical community.   We routinely receive well over 200 applications for the six spaces, making our program one of the most competitive to get into.  

I also run open nights and tours of the observatory, talk to the public and media about astronomy, talk to school groups about what it’s like to be a scientist, etc. 

What specific things do you want to bring to the program?

I hope to bring a broader recognition, both within the local community and off-island, of what we do here and of the resources that we have.  For example, we have the largest telescope continually open for public viewing in New England.  We also do world-class research and publish in top journals, while at the same time running numerous public programs.  It always makes me sad when I meet a Nantucketer who has never been out to look through our telescopes at Loines! I really hope to inspire people to come out and take advantage of this unique island resource!  

I am a very big advocate of the “learning by doing” philosophy that was in fact a big part of Maria Mitchell’s life.  It is now an important part of all MMA programs, including our research experiences for undergraduates program.

I hope to start more year-round programs – both for research and education.  I would like to have astronomy researchers here year round – both at the postdoctoral level (post-PhD) and possibly also start a program for students who have received bachelors degrees, but have not yet started graduate programs.  This is a key demographic as more and more STEM students decide to take off time before starting graduate school.  I would also like to teach adult education programs in astronomy for the local community.  

I hope to find a small grant to help renovate the Vestal Street Observatory museum.  While it is a great resource, it is somewhat outdated and could use an update!

This will come off as a corny question, but what are there astronomical objects that you’re fond of and are following?

Locally, I am pretty interested in the search for water, and hence, life, elsewhere in the solar system.  Generally, this means moons – for example, Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, that we now know likely has an ocean of water underneath its crust.  Saturn in by far my favorite planet – especially to view through the telescope as it is just so darn beautiful with its ring system.   Recently Pluto has really stepped up to the plate, with the recent fly by of New Horizons spacecraft.  I am keenly following all of the developments that are coming out of that mission, as we get the closest look at this very distant object – people are making all sorts of discoveries that we never thought possible. I also love Mars – all the recent discoveries there – especially flowing liquid water currently exists.  The plan to send people to Mars – something I would love to see happen in my lifetime. 

Exoplanets – very exciting stuff!  I love hearing all that comes out of this field.  And I hope that we at MMA will contribute.  It’s a field where we can put our telescopes here to use!

Farther out, in my own research, I am searching for the first galaxies – and using these to help us understand how our own Milky Way galaxy came to be.  So I have some favorites in this field, but unfortunately, they don't have exciting names, just numbers, like street addresses, to identify them.  


The Maria Mitchell Association's next stargazing nights are March 14 and 15, so there is plenty of time between now and then for you to read up on Regina Jorgenson and make plans to meet her in person up Maria Mitchell's Loines Observatory on these nights at 6 p.m. at 59 Milk St.