• Caltech Students working in the Cahill Optics Laboratory
    Caltech Students working in the Cahill Optics Laboratory
  • Caltech Students working in the Cahill Optics Laboratory
    Caltech Students working in the Cahill Optics Laboratory
  • Dimitri Mawet, Associate Professor of Astronomy
    Dimitri Mawet, Associate Professor of Astronomy

Hands-on Experience for Tomorrow’s Astronomers

Sustaining the Lasting Impact of Caltech’s Leadership in Astronomy Innovation

This year, the Associates' Innovation in Education Fund supported Associate Professor of Astronomy Dimitri Mawet's proposed modernizations for the Cahill Optics Laboratory and enhancements to the undergraduate student curriculum to spark leading-edge experimentation and education in astronomy.

The Astronomy Department at Caltech, part of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, performs cutting-edge research in astronomy and astrophysics, including theory, observation, and experiments, and educates and trains students and postdoctoral research associates who will be among the scientists and leaders of tomorrow.

The department engages in a wide variety of astronomical research, with topics ranging from the nearby stars to the most distant galaxies in the universe. Observational resources available to the Caltech community are often described as unparalleled. From the historic Palomar 200-inch telescope, for which graduate students can propose projects as the principal investigator, to the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes, many means of accessing world-class data are easily available to students wishing to perform optical or observational research.

This year, Associate Professor of Astronomy Dimitri Mawet was provided with funding from the Associates' Innovation in Education Fund to introduce new courses and modernize the Cahill Optics Laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment so that new telescopes, space missions, and instruments can continue to be created. The Innovation in Education Fund was established in 2009 to underwrite new courses, facilities, and other teaching enhancements for undergraduates' educational experience at Caltech. We met with Dimitri Mawet to learn about the continued impact of this fund and how he is augmenting the educational and research experience for astronomy undergraduate students at Caltech.  


Can you share a little about why the upgrades to the Cahill Optics Laboratory are important?

Technology in observational optical/infrared astronomy is evolving at a fast pace, and it is vital that students are introduced to the latest techniques in the field early on. For many students, it will be their only contact with instrument hardware, and for a few it will be the spark that will make them the instrument builders of tomorrow and lead them to work on projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope or future NASA missions.  

The Optical Astronomy Instrumentation Lab, also known as the class Ay 105, was introduced in 1988–1989 by alumnus Jim McCarthy. Its content has somewhat evolved over the years, covering basic instrumentation for optical/near-infrared astronomy, including photometry, optics, spectroscopy, polarimetry, CCDs, and infrared cameras. When I arrived at Caltech in early 2015 and was asked to teach Ay 105 with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Gregg Hallinan, I realized quickly that the lab was in dire need of modernization. Moreover, student feedback in recent years has highlighted the large amount of time students waste due to malfunctioning or non-functioning equipment in the existing experiments.

With professors in the department, including Gregg Hallinan, Lynne Hillenbrand, Sterl Phinney, Chuck Steidel, and Frank Rice, we proposed to upgrade the equipment available in the Cahill Optics Lab to modernize it and introduce new state-of-the-art and exciting experiments. Our original proposal was a strategic investment in future generations of scientists that will perpetuate Caltech's leadership in innovation for astronomy.


How has access to the fund made a difference in what you have accomplished through your teaching at Caltech?

Last year, I introduced a new experiment using a didactical adaptive optics system kit from Thorlabs, one of the major optical equipment companies from New Jersey. Adaptive optics is a technology available at all major ground-based optical and near-infrared telescopes, including Caltech's 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory and the giant 10-meter telescope from the W. M. Keck Observatory on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Adaptive optics senses and corrects the corrugation of the light waves coming from stars and resulting from traveling through our turbulent atmosphere and the imperfect telescope and instrument optics. It uses a wavefront sensor and small deformable mirror.

Adaptive optics has been a revolutionizing component of modern instrumentation and will be essential for future giant ground-based facilities such as the Thirty Meter Telescope. The next generation of space-based telescopes will also make heavy use of wavefront control technologies—for example, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, WFIRST, LUVOIR, and HabEx


What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduates at Caltech and, specifically, your instrumentation lab course?

Teaching undergraduates is a new and exciting challenge for me. I really enjoy introducing the students to these amazing concepts and technologies for the first time and seeing the spark in their eyes when they connect the dots with the rest of their courses. It also forces me to go back to the basics, and this process is very often humbling.

Laboratories and telescopes are natural environments where I thrive, so it is easy for me to communicate my passion for astronomy at the very places where the science meets the technology. Not all undergraduates majoring in astrophysics take Ay 105, unfortunately. I am hoping we can change that after I finish overhauling the syllabus. In my opinion, it is quite vital that the next generation of astronomers understands where the empirical evidence comes from.


From this funding, you have also been able to create a new course. What will this offer?

Due to the different scope and time constraints of the various labs for undergraduates, I am hoping to introduce new experiments that will be lighter and simpler. The content of the course, called Ay 122, has historically been very experiment-free, and I heard previous years' students' disappointment loud and clear. With this funding, I intend to change the status quo this coming year, and instead of introducing students to key instrument concepts on the board, I will do it in the lab, interactively, with the hardware in front of me.


What are your thoughts about the Associates' Innovation in Education Fund, and how has it helped Caltech in general?

I am very grateful for the Innovation in Education Fund. This has allowed us to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and introduce contemporary experiments. This investment will pay for itself very quickly!