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Thomas E. Oberst

Associate Professor

Physics Faculty


oberstte@westminster.edu

(724) 946-7204


Campus Location:
   Hoyt Science Resources Center
   123
Mailbox: 177


Mail:
Thomas E. Oberst
Department of Physics
Westminster College
New Wilmington, PA 16172

About Me


Associate Professor of Physics
Director, Westminster College Planetarium and Observatory

B.S. Physics & B.S. Mathematics, Duquesne University
Ph.D. Astrophysics, Cornell University

RESEARCH

Discovering new planets

Every clear night, my students and I use a remotely controlled semi-automated telescope on the Westminster College campus to search for new worlds. Our current targets include exoplanetary candidates for TESS, Kepler, KELT and several other projects, which we help to vet and characterize. We have co-discovered over 20 exoplanets to date. One of our discoveries was selected for the cover article of Nature magazine.

Seeing exoplanets directly is very difficult because they are extremely distant and don’t produce their own light, as do stars. Therefore, we wait and watch for stars to dim when their planets cross in front of them – a technique known as the transit method. We are able to detect dimmings of as little as 0.2 % of a star’s brightness, which can correspond to planets ranging in size from super-Earths to inflated Jupiters (see a CBS News article in which I was interviewed about the latter).

I currently serve as a principle investigator of a $250,000 NSF IRES grant that funds students to further study these exoplanets in collaboration with experts around the world (see press releases about student trips to Australia and Italy). And I serve on the senior team for a $1.03 million NSF Robert Noyce scholars grant that aims to encourage more strong science students such as these to consider careers as teachers, particularly in high-needs schools.

Stellar nurseries

My other line of research asks, “what environment are stars born into?” To help answer this, I’ve observed from giant telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and spent several summers working at the South Pole, Antarctica, to install and test state-of-the-art infrared detectors. Stellar nurseries are shrouded in clouds of gas and dust, which are best penetrated by and emit most of their energy in the far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths of light. Because moisture in Earth’s atmosphere blocks these wavelengths, the best telescopes for these observations are located where it’s high, dry, and cold. These observations have helped unveil the conditions into which stars are born.

TEACHING

I teach several courses in physics and astronomy for the Westminster College Department of Physics, including: Planets (AST 141), Observational Astronomy (AST 201), Astrophysics (AST 402), Foundations of Physics (PHY 141 & 142), Thermal Physics (PHY 311), Electromagnetic Theory (PHY 352), and Capstone Research (PHY 601 & 602). I have also collaborated in creating and teaching cross-disciplinary courses in subjects such as classics and studio arts.

In my teaching I provide individual attention to each student and incorporate the latest pedagogical research findings and best practices, including Think Pair Share, Classroom Response Systems, Just-In-Time Teaching, Lecture Tutorials, group problems, interactive demonstrations, software simulations, student presentations, and student inquiry -- as well as some traditional lecture.

OUTREACH

I direct the Westminster College Planetarium, where we offer indoor fulldome programs and outdoor stargazing for the College, surrounding community, K-12 classes, scouts, and other groups. For more information please visit our website at www.westminster.edu/planetarium.

I also deliver many astronomy-related talks and workshops in the community, including for youth summer reading programs at libraries and for amateur astronomer gatherings.

PERSONAL

Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my wife, son, and twin daughters. We travel as much as possible, especially if it gets us into nature. I play and coach ice hockey, and enjoy cheering on my hometown Pittsburgh Penguins. I also like to paint, read novels, do my own home renovations, and numerous other things for which there is always too little time.