Astronomy department builds strong student community

On average, the department has the lowest number of declared majors, with approximately three to six.
Katie Brule/Photo Editor

The College prides itself on giving personal attention to every student through mostly small classes and approachable professors around every corner. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in the astronomy department, one of the College’s smallest departments. Composed of two distinct majors, astronomy and astrophysics, the department graduates around three to six majors each year. Both majors require introductory physics and math courses, as well as a handful of lower- and higher-level astronomy courses. The astrophysics major differs from the astronomy major in that it requires more physics and math classes and is overall more pre-professional, with a graduate school track.

The astronomy and astrophysics faculty, however, want people to know that the department is not as intimidating as it may seem and that a student does not need to be an astronomy major or a physics whiz to get involved. “You don’t have to want to be a professional astronomer or astrophysicist to take astronomy courses or major in astrophysics,” Chair and Professor of Astronomy Karen Kwitter said. “We’ve had alums who have gone on to law school, medical school [and] business school.”

Johnny Inoue ’20, an astrophysics major, agreed. “Astrophysics is daunting, and there’s going to be a lot you don’t understand,” he said. “But if it’s what you want to do, if you think it’s cool, you can do it. There are resources to help you and professors there to cheer you on.” Despite difficulties, Inoue has found the department to be a welcoming place where he can succeed.

Though the astronomy department here may be small, other institutions do not even offer such a program. “Williams is one of the only colleges that offers an astronomy major for undergraduates,” Brendan Rosseau ’19, a double major in astronomy and economics, said. “Usually, to get that kind of specificity, you need to get it as a graduate degree.” For Rosseau, who knew he wanted to pursue astronomy as a high school senior, the existence of the major was a motivating factor in his decision to attend the College. “That really appealed to me – that a school that’s this good [with] small class sizes offers specifically astronomy,” he said.

That said, the department is hardly monolithic, and its students and faculty have widely varying interests under the umbrella of astronomy and astrophysics. Kwitter’s field of study is in nebulae, or “gas clouds that are emitted by stars near the ends of their lives,” she explained. She is teaching a course this semester on the interstellar medium and emission nebulae. Inoue wants to work for NASA to join the effort to send humans to Mars. Rosseau is interested in the privatization of space travel and hopes to work for a private spacefaring company such as SpaceX.

Despite these lofty dreams, Rosseau believes that the tight-knit group of majors and faculty keeps him grounded. “There’s a great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s got a real team feel to it… You learn a lot about your fellow students and your teachers in a way that I haven’t experienced in other classes and departments.”

Inoue has had similar experiences with the department. “It’s a really close group. Like most things [at] Williams, it’s not cutthroat – there’s a GroupMe for the tutorial I’m in,” he said. “Everyone’s really friendly, and it gets to feel like more of a group of friends than just a class.” Indeed, it’s the collaborative community that keeps even the smallest of departments alive and well here at the College.

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