Thursday, February 07, 2008

Science continues to fascinate professor

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. John Martin jokes that, like most children, he became fascinated with outer space when he was four years old, except that he has been "stuck" in that stage ever since.

"I've always been interested in astronomy; it's my first love," he said. "I had really educated parents who told me that 'you need to do the math, you need to do the science.' A lot more people start out in science than make it to the end. You've really got to love it."

Martin, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, has been teaching at UIS since fall of 2006. He said picking the niche of astrophysics - "that a lot of people don't find as interesting as I do" - worked to his advantage when UIS was looking to hire an astrophysicist.

Martin's primary research interest within the field of astrophysics is studying what stars are made of. He admits that stellar astronomy isn't as popular as other topics in the field, but there are still many problems left unsolved in astrophysics because they're difficult.

"I was interested in more challenging problems, and this field presented me with those challenging problems," he said. "I'm basically a chemist that works with stars."

However, it wasn't the research that brought him to UIS, Martin said. It was the teaching, which he found he loves.

Martin is currently teaching two introductory physics classes, and he is essentially the only physics program faculty. He also teaches an astronomy course every semester; this semester, the course is called "Survey of the Universe", which is open not only to UIS students, but community members as well.

"A great thing about UIS is that it has this public affairs and public education mission," Martin said. "When Professor Emeritus Charles Schweighauser started the class, he contacted conference services and said he would be teaching the class and if they wanted to sign people up for non-credit, that's fine. We've just continued that; I think it's a great idea. Some of these non-traditional students bring experience into the classroom that a lot of our traditional students really seem to benefit from."

Martin said he sees the basic level astronomy class as a good course to reach numerous students "who might not otherwise have good thoughts about science". The class is geared toward students who might not have a science background but are interested in learning some of the basics.

"I really think it's important that we have a citizenry in this country that is educated about science," Martin said.

Students in Martin's physics classes are usually part of a pre-professional curriculum, such as pre-med or pre-dental, he said.

"For those students, I want to get through the course with the problem-solving mindset of physics," he said. "Med schools want students coming in to have exposure to that. What I want most for them is to do great on the physics part of the MCAT."

To further these students' studies in physics and sciences in general, Martin said he hopes that the astronomy and physics departments will expand.

"When I look at peer institutions, all of them have at least a physics minor and many have a physics major," he said. "Down the road, I see maybe an expansion in astronomy-physics, so we need to add some faculty and hopefully adding, down the road, a physics minor. It would be nice to be able to offer that instead of just a concentration through liberal studies."