Department Alumna Reaches for the [Falling] Stars


[Jessica Johnson hugging a block of tephra in the national monument, Tent Rocks. The deposits are from one of the volcanic eruptions from the Valles Caldera.]

I graduated from the Geological Sciences Department at CCSU last May and have recently completed the first year of my Master’s degree at the University of New Mexico. For my Master’s thesis I am working on a carbonaceous chondrite, a primitive type of stony meteorite, which contains material from when the solar system was still forming!

Why did I choose this as the area of Geology to study?

Meteoritics, the study of meteorites, combines two loves of mine that I am deeply passionate about: Geology and Astronomy, two loves that were nurtured and encouraged in the Geological Sciences Department at CCSU! The faculty are like family to me there; a tight knit group of wonderful educators who want nothing more than for their students to succeed, and they will go to extreme lengths to help!

As part of my graduate degree adventure I had to complete a comprehensive exam. I wrote a research proposal on the project I wanted to complete and then defended that proposal in front of my thesis committee (a group of 3 faculty and research scientists) who questioned me for 1.5 hours about my proposal and various topics related to my research. I passed my exam and can continue on in my program! In about a years’ time I will complete my Masters’ degree!!

As scary as all that might sound, I felt incredibly prepared for graduate school because of the many opportunities the CCSU Geological Sciences Department offered me! I was fortunate enough to be able to complete research projects introducing me early on to what research meant and how much fun it was! In the classroom almost all of the classes required completing a small project or research paper and subsequently presenting on that project. Presenting in general can be a daunting and nerve-racking, but it’s inherently important in practically every profession, especially in the scientific world. Because we got so much practice presenting scientific views it has become second nature to me and I have become very comfortable doing it. This skill proved incredibly useful when I needed to present my research proposal to my committee during my comprehensive exam.

There are so many wonderful things that I have learned but probably the most valuable thing I learned from my family at CCSU was to never be afraid of a challenge! Graduate school has pushed me mentally in ways very different from my undergrad degree, but it is a challenge I am up for! Every single faculty member in the Geological Sciences Department made their classes challenging but provided the encouragement and tools to embrace and overcome those challenges. I am proud to call myself an alumna of the Geological Sciences Department and so grateful to have been taught and mentored by the wonderful people in that department!

— Jessica Johnson, CCSU Class of 2016



Giving back is a privilege


[CCSU Astronomy Professor Kristine Larsen explaining to 5th graders how she became a scientist]

Giving back to the public is one of the greatest joys of my job. Whether it is showing the general public views through our telescopes or helping a high school student with a science fair project, giving a talk at a local library or talking about recent discoveries on a local radio station, sharing the wonders of the natural world with the people of Connecticut (and beyond) is something I am passionate about. Recently I was privileged to speak at Career Day at St. Paul’s school in Berlin. The two groups of fifth graders were enthralled by the meteorites I passed around, as well as the reproduction astrolabe, and could not contain their enthusiasm when they got to look at the overhead lights through diffraction grating glasses. It only took two hours of my time, and if I am really lucky, it might have made a lifetime of difference to one young girl or boy. Hopefully I might see some of these young people in my classroom in seven years.

My heartfelt thanks to the people of Connecticut for allowing me to serve them in this capacity. The universe belong to us all. If I can, in any way, help you to understand it just a little bit better, please call on me! You might find it hard to get me to STOP talking about it! – Kris Larsen, CCSU Class of 1985

Rocking Ireland for A Good Cause


[Dr. Piatek at Meteor Crater in Arizona during the 2016 field project]

Dr. Jen Piatek, our planetary geology specialist, is part of a project (funded through NSF’s IUSE: GEOPATHS program) titled “Engaging Students in Inclusive Geoscience Field Experiences via Onsite-Remote Partnerships”. This week, she joins a team of researchers from multiple universities [including Steven J. Whitmeyer and Eric Pyle (James Madison University), Christopher L. Atchison (University of Cincinnati), and Helen Crompton (Old Dominion)] and students for a week of field geology in western Ireland. The project’s goal is to identify techniques and technologies that can provide access to remote field sites for geoscience students with mobility limitations. The first field season took place this past May in northern Arizona (see above picture) with the same students – a video describing the project and the first season is also “live” this week as part of the “STEM for All” Video showcase. The video can be found at – please come by to leave comments, ask questions, and perhaps give the project a vote.

Saturday Workshops Excite Local Students About Science

[Some of the activities done by 7th graders in recent astronomy workshops]

Seventh graders from Meriden and Southington middle schools recently took part in Saturday morning astronomy workshops with Dr. Kristine Larsen as part of the Partners in Science program. Along with a culminating planetarium show, students engaged in hands-on activities such as working with filters, diffraction gratings, and simple telescopes, constructing sun clocks, star clocks, and star finders, handling real meteorites, and using special beads to detect ultraviolet radiation. Students also made models to take home, the first week of the sun (including solar activity such as sunspots and prominences) and the second week of the planets (by size). The program is administered by Dr. Kathy Martin of the Biomolecular Sciences Department, and Dr. Larsen has been a part of the program since 1990.

Students Prepare for Geological Society of America Presentations (Part 1)


Maxwell Meadows, a senior student in the Department of Geological Sciences, began a study of trace elements enrichment within agricultural farmland of Lebanon, CT under the supervision of Dr. Oyewumi.  He is seen here collecting soil within agricultural farmland with the overall goal of examining trace element enrichment and possible impact on the hydrologic systems. Results of his research will be presented at the forthcoming Northeast Conference of the Geological Society of America in Pittsburgh, PA. You can read Max’s abstract here.

Sharing Our Students’ Success at the CCSU Majors and Minors Fair


[Mascot Rex the T-Rex, students Nick Zygmont and Sara Poppa, and faculty member Dr. Kristine Larsen representing the department]

While some departments might find it difficult to find volunteers, the Geological Sciences Department found itself with an embarrassment of riches at the annual Majors and Minors Fair at CCSU, with two faculty members and five students rotating through the table over the course of three hours. The faculty and students shared their passion for geology and astronomy with undecided students as well as faculty and staff from other departments on campus. Of course, having free star finders, candy, and Geology and Planetary Science Club bracelets, as well as an inflatable Saturn (plus an appearance from the ever-photogenic department mascot Rex) never hurts. Please join us at the CCSU Open House on October 30, 2016 or the Bristol Rock and Gem Show on October 15 & 16 and learn more about our programs.

Representing CCSU at the World-famous Stellafane Convention


[Recent department graduate Jessica Johnson (left) and current GPS Club President Sara Poppa (right) delivering registration packets]

For many astronomers, the word “Stellafane” is synonymous with magic. The world-famous annual convention of amateur telescope makers, observers, and general astronomy aficionados is held each summer on Breezy Hill outside of Springfield, Vermont. Each year, members of the Geological Sciences Department at CCSU help to bring this event to life through their volunteerism and expertise. 2016 was no exception. Student Sara Poppa, recent graduate Jessica Johnson, and professor Kristine Larsen began their work on the convention months before the official August 5 start date arrived. Larsen, a member of the Springfield Telescope Makers, is co-coordinator of programming at the convention, as well as facilitator of four sessions of children’s astronomy activities at the convention, and is the moderator for all programming held in the McGregor Observatory Library. This year she also delivered a contributed talk on the observing programs of the AAVSO (in her role as AAVSO President) and was the invited “Shadowgram” speaker, a prestigious honor.

Jessica Johnson, a recent inductee into the Springfield Telescope Makers, reprised her popular 2015 Geology Tour of Breezy Hill, as well as assumed the duties of the docent of the scale model of the solar system walks during convention. She also succeeded Larsen as the coordinator of the Telescope Making Award Ceremony presentation.

This was Sara Poppa’s first Stellafane Convention, and was an active volunteer beginning during pre-convention, helping to set up the registration gate, which she and Jessica helped to man during the initial rush of arrivals. Sara also put in many hours volunteering wherever needed on the 80+ acre convention site.

Many thanks to all the GSCI department members who helped, and we look forward to seeing you on the hill again next year!

Faculty Awarded Grants to Improve Education (and More)

Department faculty members Dr. Jen Piatek (above left) and Dr. Jeff Thomas (above right) were recently awarded nearly a half a million dollars in grants to improve geoscience education and research.

Dr. Piatek, our planetary geology specialist, received two grants. The first is GP-EXTRA: Engaging Students in Inclusive Geoscience Field Experiences via Onsite-Remote Partnerships, a project funded through NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Pathways into Geoscience program (IUSE: GEOPATHS). She is part of a team of researchers [including Steven J. Whitmeyer (James Madison University), Declan G. De Paor (Old Dominion), and Christopher L. Atchison (University of Cincinnati)] exploring how technology can provide solutions to solve the problem of access to remote field sites for geoscience students with mobility limitations. The first field season took place this past May in northern Arizona, where she and her colleagues explored several geologically important field sites (including the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Meteor Crater, and volcanic features around Flagstaff). Students who could not get up close to outcrops or hike up cinder cones were able to see many of the same features via streaming video and communicate with the remote field teams to ask questions and speculate about the geologic features in the videos.  The team is presenting some of the initial results at the national Geological Society of America meeting in September, and will be expanding on these results during the second field season in Ireland next May.  More information about the project can be found at– just keep in mind that the project isn’t accepting any more applications. The grant totals $27,000.

The second project, Constraining crater modification and primary ejecta characteristics of Martian craters via quantitative infrared and visible image analysis, has been funded for $292,000 by NASA’s Mars Data Analysis program. She and her colleagues [co-investigators Livio L. Tornabene (SETI) and Nadine Barlow (Northern Arizona University)] are using a suite of datasets to examine impact craters on Mars, with the goal of identifying the characteristics of the least-weathered craters. At CCSU, she and her research students will be working with thermal infrared data, looking for variations in surface temperature associated with different types of crater deposits. Simultaneously, a team at the University of Western Ontario (led by Gordon Osinski) will be mapping the same craters using high resolution visible images. When both maps are finished, they will compare the results (along with information from databases of crater characteristics) in order to understand what surface deposits have come from the formation of the crater, and which are the result of later erosion or deposition. There is room for more student researchers on this project (which will lead to numerous conference presentations and eventually publications), so contact Dr. Piatek if you are interested.

Dr. Thomas, a specialist in science education, has been awarded $144,900 for a second year of funding for the Next-gen Earth and Space Science Literacy Instruction and Expertise or NESSLIE professional development grant project.  This project is funded by a federal grant called the Teacher Quality Partnership Grant under Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110).  NESSLIE aims to improve the preparation of 38 middle school science teachers’ Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) earth science content knowledge and pedagogy through intensive and focused professional development. During the summer of 2016, teacher participants from 13 districts will complete three NGSS earth science units, focusing on weather, the solar system, and weathering and erosion. Department colleagues Dr. Kristine Larsen and Dr. Oluyinka Oyewumi will be presenting the latter two of these units. In the Fall the participating teachers will apply what they have learned in their own classrooms. For more information about this project, please go to

Congratulations to our faculty!


Introducing the New GPS Club President


[Outgoing president Jessica Johnson (in green) gives a boost to incoming president Sara Poppa (in blue)]

[Editor’s note: The Geology and Planetary Sciences Club (GPS) held its officer elections in May. Graduating senior Jessica Johnson passed the rock hammer to Sara Poppa, the new GPS president. Sara’s comments follow below. We all look forward to her taking the reins of the student organization, and thank Jessica for her two years at the helm of the organization.]

This fall brings new and exciting adventures for me. I will be taking on the role of president for the Geology and Planetary Sciences club. I am both excited and proud to take on this role.  I cannot wait to work with everyone to make this a great year for the GPS Club. When I joined the club and the department at the beginning of the fall semester everyone made me feel so welcome and that inspired me to become more involved. I hope for this upcoming year I am able to do the same for everyone, including the new members that are to come. So make sure to bring a friend to our first meeting of the year because the more people there are the more opportunities will be available to us and more fun we will have doing what we all enjoy doing!

— Sara

Meet the Rock Stars, Part 10: Dr. Kristine Larsen


Name:   Dr. Kristine Larsen

Title: Professor

Year Started at CCSU: 1989

Courses Taught: AST 113 The Cosmos, AST 209 Stellar and Galactic Astronomy, AST 278 Observational Astronomy, AST 418 Astrophysics, AST 470 Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology, FYS 104: First Year Seminar [topics include The Science of Middle-earth, The Science of The Walking Dead, Cultural Astronomy], GSCI 102 Earth and the Human Environment, HON 120 Natural Science and Society, ISCI 118 Women’s Contributions to Science, SCI 111 Elementary Physical/Earth Science

Current research projects: My research is in several different areas:

1) Variable stars: student-centered research involves the classification of individual variable stars through their light curves and physical properties; observations of sunspots and variable stars are submitted to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (of which I am currently President);

2) Science pedagogy: includes projects enhancing the preparation of science teachers and combating misconceptions in science, as well as conducting workshops in the use of a medieval astrolabe for teachers, students, and scholars in other disciplines;

3) Science and Popular Culture: myriad projects involving identifying and critiquing the use of science and depictions of both scientists and the scientific method in literature (including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, and Andrzej Sapkowski), television (including Doctor Who, Lost, The Walking Dead, and Dominion), and film (including the Resident Evil series).

Favorite book: No contest here – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien’s sweeping creation myth

Favorite film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Favorite scientific term: syzygy

Something my students don’t know about me: During my first year as an undergraduate at CCSU I performed the part of Magenta in a live Rocky Horror company in Manchester. Every Saturday night at midnight we would perform the film live while the film itself played above us.