The 50th anniversary of women’s arrival at Union features a year-long celebration of women and their contributions to the College, their communities and the world.
Rebecca Koopmann '89 majored in physics before earning an M.S., M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University in astronomy. Now Union’s R. Gordon Gould Professor of Physics & Astronomy, she teaches a variety of courses and conducts research in observational extragalactic astrophysics. Becky is also director of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team, a National Science Foundation funded project that provides undergraduate research opportunities to students at 24 institutions across the U.S. A board member of the Astronomical Society of New York (ASNY), she directors the NASA New York Space Grant at Union College and is a reviewer for the National Science Foundation and astronomical journals. Becky’s hobbies include gardening and furniture restoration. Learn more about her here.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
The most rewarding aspect of my career is working closely with students, particularly those who work on research with me. Working with my mentors was the single most important factor in my success as a professional astronomer and I hope that I can provide similar support to my students to help them succeed in their aspirations. The most challenging aspect is finding time for all the things I would like to do!
Who inspired/inspires you, both professionally and personally?
My research colleague, Goldwin Smith Professor Martha Haynes in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University, inspires me every single day. She is an accomplished astronomer and researcher who also recognizes the importance of working with the younger generation to develop their talents. I’ve also found much inspiration in Union’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. Professor Seyfollah Maleki inspired me to continue as a physics major at Union. I lacked confidence that I could complete a physics major and was overwhelmed by the gender imbalance in classes (for a time, I was the only woman physics major). Professor Maleki reached out to me and included me in department activities while I was in my first physics class, and then advised me on a summer project just after my first year. Without his intervention, I would have changed my major and would never have become an astronomer. Emeritus Professor Ralph Alpher and Research Professor A.G. Davis Philip encouraged me as I progressed through graduate school. My mentors taught me the importance of faculty-student interaction. I am thrilled that I can try to emulate their example at my alma mater!
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
Pursue something that you are interested in, something that you enjoy doing, and be ready to work hard at it (if you enjoy doing it, it won’t seem like work!). Be open to and take advantage of the many opportunities that are available. Seek out and value mentors and mentor others.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
Starting my first summer at Union, I worked with Professor Seyfollah Maleki on a hallway demonstration that was installed for many years on the first floor of Science & Engineering. This was transformative. I learned to use tools in the department shop and interacted with the faculty and students on campus working on research. I was then fortunate to work on research projects with Emeritus Professor Ralph Alpher, one of the founders of the Big Bang theory. He was an inspiration, and his encouragement was invaluable. I also greatly appreciated excellent advising by Professor David Peak, who suggested I apply for a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed me to spend a year in Bonn, West Germany. This wonderful opportunity helped my transition to graduate school and gave me a worldwide perspective on astronomy, as well as insight into another country.