K-12 to UVI to the Stars and Beyond

Derrick Thomas and Antonino Cucchiara look lovingly at their prize solar telescope. (sap photo)
Derrick Thomas and Antonino Cucchiara look lovingly at their prize solar telescope. (sap photo)

Sci-fi movies and books have long captured the imagination with images of earthlings being shot at speeds beyond light to other galaxies and even parallel universes. Even in real life, recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that black holes might provide avenues between universes yet to be discovered – someday.

The dreams of two local professors are more modest. Antonino Cucchiara and David Morris would be happy to be able to guide and transport students from their desks at the territory’s elementary, middle and high schools to the physics program at the University of the Virgin Islands.

Using the Imagination

Antonino Cucchiara shows a general idea of what the UVI satellite he intends to launch will look like. (sap photo)
Antonino Cucchiara shows a general idea of what the UVI satellite he intends to launch will look like. (sap photo)

In Cucchiara’s dream, the wide world of physics and astronomy and their practical applications will be introduced to elementary students and up throughout the territory as a matter of course. And he is realizing his hope on an ongoing basis.

“I made my first presentation at a high school yesterday,” he said on Friday in an interview in his office. He and his students have previously offered presentations at a few middle and elementary schools as well.

“I start by asking the students what they want in life.” A home, a family, a car. “And how do you get those things?” A job. So, despite his chosen career in academia as an observational astronomer, Cucchiara is well aware of the many less esoteric choices.

He is fired up by the broad possibilities offered by a career in physics not just for research, discovery or theorizing, but for jobs and personal and community development opportunities, which Cucchiara sees as endless.

He has drawn several students, including two whose dreams have expanded under his tutelage into his lair … or I should say, “lab,” at the university.

He was also, along with Morris, instrumental in dispatching them to other worlds last summer, namely NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they had the time and resources to develop their own experiments.

Practical Applications

Azhar Hussein presents the short version of her very long experiment. (Photo provided by The Forum)
Azhar Hussein presents the short version of her very long experiment. (Photo provided by The Forum)

Azhar Hussein will shortly be the first student, along with two others, to graduate from UVI with a bachelor of science degree in physics. She is busy these days applying to graduate school, and said she spent 10 weeks at MIT conducting computational research through machine learning using neural networks to replicate brain activity. Her sigh at the mathematical requirements, reading, and learning new computer programs all at the same time is accompanied by a broad smile and unmistakable sparkle in her eyes. It is clear that she is turned on. Her focus in grad school will be medical physics with a secondary look at bioengineering.

“Imagine what you could do for something like Alzheimer’s if you could replicate on a computer what happens in the brain,” she said of the vision of the future that is already alive in her. It would be a chart for what you could do for a person to reroute their brain, creating new neural pathways around the dysfunctional ones, thus avoiding the devastation of the disease. It is easy to see the professional and humanitarian opportunities for Hussein and others here.

Derrick Thomas shows his outer space vacuum tester. (sap photo)
Derrick Thomas shows his outer space vacuum tester. (sap photo)

Speaking of engineering, which Derrick Thomas loves to talk about, there is much more than civil engineering. Thomas spent his summer at NASA, building a vacuum tube, replicating on a smaller scale one that is used at NASA to study the effects of conditions in space, like gasses, upon man-made components that would be found in satellites or even space stations.

Thomas is part of an ongoing experiment at the university to build its own small, launchable satellite. But first you have to create correspondingly small components, such as batteries, that can keep the satellite in space.

Hence, the need for a vacuum where tiny components will be bombarded with gasses that would be encountered in space to see how they would respond to this foreign environment.

But Thomas has greater aims. His passion lies in renewable energy, which is not, of course, separate from the need for tiny, practical batteries. Along with using nano technology and research to eventually have minuscule batteries that can store vast amounts of energy from – say – the sun, Thomas also sees the same possibilities for solar panels.

Thomas, who was accepted for early admission at UVI at 17, took a physics course soon after he started school. As he continued with more courses in the field he began to see the correlation between engineering and physics.

At 19 and three years into his university studies, Thomas sees the potential for capitalizing on what is being developed at UVI and is intending to work on a vacuum that can hold larger items for experimentation, thus drawing clients who need such testing to get it done at UVI instead of going to the trouble of creating their own vacuum container.

Professors play a vital role in shaping what your interests are, according to Hussein. “Drs. Cucchiara and Morris really care for their students,” she said.

Right now the ratio of teachers to students is more favorable than at many larger schools. Morris said he would love to have 100 engineering students in the program “who want to do something physical.”

Just for Fun
Astronomy Days, utilizing the department’s blow-up planetarium, allow children and adults to see the moons, planets, and galaxy very close up. A solar telescope acquired by the department safely provides a close up view of solar flares and other phenomena. Astronomy Days are held at the UVI library the last Sunday of every month. As if all this weren’t enough, in March, scientists and researchers and engineers from NASA’s new rocket program will traverse all three islands, providing teacher training and inspiration. Visual reality glasses with a view of a planet made only of water can also bring students and others to a place that would otherwise never be reachable.

Students Equals Funding Equals Opportunities
To hear Morris talk, there are many funding opportunities that support the kinds of programs Hussein and Thomas were able to take advantage of. There were 24 students from across the globe participating in Hussein’s NASA program. What Morris is looking for is support from the community and the university to continue the physics and astronomy program. As the enrollment grows, so will the grant opportunities which in turn expands the students’ horizons and knowledge. With the help of Morris and Cucchiara, students from UVI have done everything from travel to Australia, to – believe it or not – discover a new planet.

Expanding the program and the opportunities is a parallel path, Morris said. You need the students to make administrators see there is interest and if you get that, it is easy to make a case for more granting from federal agencies, not only to support the summer programs, but to help finance the continuation of the entire physics and astronomy program.

Usually students find their way into these specialized areas after entering the College of Science and Mathematics. But Morris sees a gradual growing awareness of the unique opportunities offered by UVI’s physics program. For the first time, two students have applied directly to UVI’s physics program for this coming fall.

“We don’t even know how they knew about it,” Morris said as he and Cucchaiara shrugged their shoulders simultaneously across a large laboratory table holding a solar telescope.

A few years of connecting with local public and private school students early will no doubt lead to many more young people entering the program as their dreams expand in the way that Thomas and Hussein’s have.

“That’s what we want; that’s what we started this for,” Morris said.