For Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, astronomy is more than a job – it’s a calling.
by Kara Furlong
photo by John Russell
In some ways, Kelly Holley-Bockelmann is an unlikely astrophysicist.
For one thing, she’s a woman carving out a career in a male-dominated field. For another, she doesn’t hail from a long line of scientists or scholars.
But the new assistant professor of physics and astronomy has always had an insatiable curiosity about the universe, and her determined pursuit to satisfy it has taken a winding path that ends at Vanderbilt.
Growing up, Holley-Bockelmann moved around a lot. “My mom always thought that the next place was going to be better – it was that kind of life,” she said. “I’m sure that for my family, having a girl with this pie-in-the-sky dream of being an astronomer was a little impractical.”
From an early age, she showed an aptitude for math and science and realized these talents would serve her well in her chosen profession. “Even though I didn’t know what the word ‘astronomer’ really meant, I always liked space. I would lie in my backyard and look at the sky and wonder what was up there, and if somebody in another galaxy was looking up at us right then. That kernel has stayed with me throughout my life.”
Fortuitously, her family’s travels landed Holley-Bockelmann in Big Sky Country – Montana – where she found a mentor in high school physics teacher Jim Harkins.
“He would always tell the story of the first day of school, when this odd girl walked into his office and said, ‘I want to be a theoretical astrophysicist,’” Holley-Bockelmann remembers. “He didn’t know what to do with me. Theoretical astrophysics wasn’t exactly a part of the curriculum.”
Harkins answered her declaration by creating an independent study course in which Holley-Bockelmann and other students could pursue scientific topics of their choosing.
“I think that really opened a door for me, because I could design my own research,” she said. “I studied how quasars grouped together in space. We entered my project into science fairs, and I got a sense of validation that I could actually do the work I wanted to do. I loved that he gave us the support to be able to pursue our interests.”
A first-generation college graduate, Holley-Bockelmann received a physics degree from Montana State University in 1993. When it came time to choose a graduate school, the stars aligned once again.
“I didn’t know where to go for grad school, and this was before the Internet had really taken off,” she said. “How do you know, in the middle of Montana, what is a good graduate program for astronomy?
“So I read a bunch of scholarly papers and found one about black holes that I really liked – in fact, I thought it was pretty awesome,” she said. “I wrote to that school and said I want to work with this professor studying this thing – which is a little weird, I realize now, being on the other side of it.”
Holley-Bockelmann got her wish: She studied black holes with Douglas Richstone at the University of Michigan, receiving her master’s and Ph.D. from the school in 1995 and 1999, respectively.
What’s so fascinating about black holes? As Holley-Bockelmann sees it, what isn’t?
“Black holes happen when you have a large amount of matter in a very small point,” she explained. “You get so much matter packed into so small an area that it kind of rips through the fabric of space-time. I remember reading about black holes as a kid and wondering, what would happen if you fell into one? Could you slip into a different universe, or a different part of our universe?”
That may sound like science fiction, but researchers have found evidence for a black hole at the center of our galaxy, Holley-Bockelmann said. “When a massive star dies, it blows most of its guts into space but leaves behind an extremely dense remnant of material that is no longer burning or fusing. That material can’t support itself and collapses into a stellar mass black hole. The one at the center of our galaxy is millions of times more massive, and nobody knows for sure how it got there.”
If that’s still too abstract, Holley-Bockelmann said to think of it this way: “What I do on a day-to-day basis is try to figure out what the link is between a galaxy and the black hole that lives within it. How does it help in forming the galaxy? Does it change the shape of the galaxy in any way? Does it affect the way the galaxy moves and evolves and ultimately dies? My job is to figure out how the black hole and the galaxy communicate with one another.”
This pursuit led to post-doctoral work at Case Western Reserve University, the University of Massachusetts and Penn State University’s Center for Gravitational Wave Physics. Holley-Bockelmann arrived at Vanderbilt, and her first faculty position, last fall.
One of the reasons she was drawn here is Vanderbilt’s Advanced Computing Center for Research and Education (ACCRE), a supercomputer housed on the Peabody campus. Since much of her research is highly theoretical, Holley-Bockelmann inputs data into ACCRE, which in turn simulates the behavior of black holes, which by their nature can’t be directly observed.
Her recent research has predicted the existence of rogue black holes: nearly impossible-to-spot black holes that roam the galaxy, each weighing several thousand times the mass of the sun. She presented the research, done in collaboration with colleagues from other universities, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January.
Another thing that attracted Holley-Bockelmann to the university was the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which encourages students, particularly underrepresented minority students and those from low-income backgrounds, to get the coursework and experience they need to prepare them to pursue Ph.D.s in physics, astronomy or the biomedical sciences. Participating students earn a master’s degree in physics at nearby Fisk University, and are then eligible for fast-track admission to a participating Vanderbilt Ph.D. program.
Helping young, talented scientists is a cause close to her heart.
“Because I’m a first-generation college graduate, it’s important to me to be inclusive of students for whom science is a whole new world,” she said. Holley-Bockelmann believes the program succeeds by building a community – which includes extra mentoring and financial support – around students who might otherwise be derailed by the obstacles often encountered in pursuing a Ph.D.
“It’s very much one-on-one, and I think that’s key to these students not feeling lost,” she said. “Because when no one else looks like you, when no one you know is going through the same demanding academic experience, it can be lonely. The Bridge Program allows very talented minority students to feel as if they have a net.”
Holley-Bockelmann – the unlikely astrophysicist – experienced that isolation coming up, but now finds her differences empowering.
“I can’t really avoid being different,” she said. “Roughly 10 percent of physics professors are women. It was very common in school for me to be the only woman in a class, and it’s very common now to be one of the few women at a conference.
“I want to show that in order to be a successful scientist, you don’t have to act or look or speak in a certain way. Although it requires dedication and hard work, you don’t have to be super competitive. I’d like to help overturn the paradigm that science is rigid and scary, because it’s absolutely not. I want to be clear that it’s possible to do science simply because you love science, not because you fit a certain mold.”
A new challenge she’s facing is making the transition from long-time student to tenure-track professor.
“It’s a strange experience to go from years of taking orders to being the one giving them to students. My time is now completely filled from morning to night, and it’s exciting. But sometimes I do have to remind myself – when I’m in the middle of doing 18 different tasks, when things are piling up on my desk – that I’ve always wanted to be an astronomy professor. This is what I love.”
Still new to Nashville, Holley-Bockelmann is eager to explore the city as her busy schedule allows.
“I’m from many different places – mostly all small towns – so this seems like a big city to me,” she said. “I’m still getting settled, but I think it’s going to be great. I feel like I’ve finally found my place.”