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Beyond the classroom: The stargazing couple

Chad Young Astronomy Feature in Voila 2012

Astronomer Chad Young is also an avid cyclist, riding about 100 miles a week. He and Kaisa along with their son and daughter enjoy riding on their tandem bike, tent camping and admiring the beauty of a star-filled night sky from their treehouse.

Drs. Chad and Kaisa Young are professional astronomers, but the circumstances of their story sound more like astrology.

The stars aligned in 2000, when Chad, a Mississippian, and Kaisa, a Missourian, met in the graduate astronomy program at the University of Texas in Austin. A faculty member who doubled as a matchmaker for several couples in the program introduced them.

Serendipitously, they were both studying the same specialty — low-mass star formation. The only difference was Kaisa focused on stars that form in clusters and Chad on stars that form in relative isolation. Their mutual interests led to several dates, marriage, two children and a relocation to Thibodaux, where they’ve become known as Nicholls’ resident astronomers — a life that both had dreamed of for years.

“I knew I wanted to be a scientist since elementary school,” says Kaisa, assistant professor of physics. “It was always my favorite subject, but it was reading about astronomy, especially Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, that inspired me. By the time I graduated high school, I had decided I wanted to be an astronomy professor.”

Likewise, physics appealed to Chad early on because of its “beautiful, ordered, mathematical view of the world.” In college, he initially went into nuclear physics but found it tiresome and boring. A stint at Los Alamos National Lab pointed him toward the sky.

“The scale and grandeur of the universe’s laboratory was inspiring,” says Chad, an associate professor of physics. “From then on, I was hooked to be an astronomer.”

For research purposes, Chad and Kaisa rely more on star data retrieved from radio/infrared telescopes than on images generated by traditional optical telescopes. Their primary tool is the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, which has been orbiting the Earth since 2003 and collecting unprecedented information on the universe that lies beyond the solar system.

Chad YoungAstronomy Feature in Voila 2012“The Spitzer offers us a huge, new data set,” Chad says, “one that will probably give as many as 100 astronomers as much as a decade of work to do.” The data allow them to calculate distances from the Earth to various stars and to create theoretical, mathematical models of star formations.

Thanks to Kaisa, who became a fulltime faculty member in August, Nicholls offered a basic astronomy course for the first time in 10 years. Aside from classroom work, students have the opportunity to stargaze with the university’s state-of-the-art telescopes. In the future, the couple hopes to host evening stargazing parties, perhaps at the university farm.

Just like when they first met, everything is falling into place for Chad and Kaisa at Nicholls, as if it were predestined — or written in the stars.

— Written by Graham Harvey

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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