A Once-In-A-Lifetime Solar Eclipse With Dr. Holley-Bockelmann

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Solar Eclipse With Dr. Holley-Bockelmann

On Monday, August 21st 2017 there will be a path that crosses the midline of the United States of America where everything will go black... for like two minutes, but they will be a very cool two minutes! The last total solar eclipse that graced The United States was on June 8, 1918, 99 years ago. 


What is a solar eclipse? 

It is when a new moon crosses between the earth and the sun, blocking the light of the sun. When it is a total eclipse, there will be parts of the earth that are fully covered by the moon's shadow, plunging them into darkness for a short, but surreal period of time. 

If you are lucky enough to be in one of these areas, watch your surroundings. How do the animals react to this sudden, mid day, change? It is said, that the animals will suddenly act vey strange, birds might fall from the sky, crickets might start chirping, and/or wild beast might be more easily caught. Make sure during this spectacular event you take a moment to look away from the sky, and observe your surrounds, a total solar eclipse is a full experience.

Do note: that staring at the sun with a naked eye is very dangerous, always wear NASA approved protected eyewear!  

Where can I see it? 

You will be able to see a partial eclipse all across The United States, however, the image below shows the path of the total solar eclipse will take.

Copy write: Xavier M. Jubler

Copy write: Xavier M. Jubler

Looking at this map, you should notice that Nashville is one of the few cities that falls along the moons shadow, for this reason, Jejune wanted to reach out to a Nashville female astronomer to talk to us about the upcoming eclipse, her own research, the challenges of being a female in astronomy and physics, (two very male dominated sciences), and how she helps young women and minorities develop their science careers! 

Please meet the amazing purple haired Assistant Professor in Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann!


Can you please explain your research in lay terms?

I study supermassive black holes, which are black holes that are millions to billions of times more massive than our Sun and lurk in the center of nearly every galaxy. Our own Milky Way has a supermassive black hole that is 4 million times the mass of our Sun, and we don’t know how it got there. I use supercomputer simulations to understand how black holes like these are born, how they grow, and how they transform their galactic homes.  I’m also totally geeked out by gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime itself. As it turns out, when two supermassive black holes collide, they make really strong gravitational waves, so it’s kind of lucky that the two things I love are so related!

Can you please explain what a merged black hole is? Are merged black holes dangerous? What would happen if one came in contact with a star or planet?

When two black holes are close together, they can ‘bind’ to one another and become a binary system. These two black holes orbit around each other like the Earth orbits around the Sun, except these two black holes are whizzing around each other at fairly close to the speed of light.

This black hole binary system makes huge gravitational waves, which kind of bleeds energy away from the binary and draws them ever closer together, until they collide and become one more massive black hole. Naturally, you wouldn’t want to be super nearby the binary when it merges, but they’re not something we need to worry about – space is so enormous that the chance of us veering really close to a black hole is ridiculously small – the Sun will bloat up and fry the Earth in 5 billion years, and in that time the likelihood of a black hole even getting near to the Solar System is much less than 1 in a quadrillion.  

Fun fact: if the Sun were to shrink down to the size of a marble and turn into a black hole, you know what would happen? Well, we’d die -- but only because there’s no more light to keep the Earth warm. Earth is too far away to feel the deep bend in spacetime that defines a black hole, so we’d just keep on orbiting around the Sun/black hole like nothing happened. In fact, you have to get about 100 miles or so from the Sun/black hole before you’d notice that gravity is acting weird.

Image from a press release Dr. Holley-Bockelmann and Vanderbilt University put out on Milky Way's supermassive black hole.

Image from a press release Dr. Holley-Bockelmann and Vanderbilt University put out on Milky Way's supermassive black hole.

I know your research has nothing to do with the upcoming eclipse, but we are all very excited about it! Can you please explain why it is significant? How often do they occur?

You’re right, I don’t work on solar stuff at all, but I’m excited, too! When the Moon blocks the Sun during a total eclipse, we get a view of the outermost atmosphere of the Sun that we still can’t achieve with current technology because the main body of the Sun outshines it. Understanding these outer layers is cool by itself, but there’s also a practical aspect: they throw out a stream of particles, some of which hit the Earth and can cause communication problems in cell phones, satellites, and other things.  There’s not a constant time between total eclipses, but on average, a city would experience an eclipse like this one every 400 years or so. So, this eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event!

Where will you be viewing it? Do you have any recommendations for it?

We’ll go to the soccer field near our house…it’s a nice open space that has trees on the edge. The leaves on the trees will act like little pinhole cameras and will project the image of the eclipse on the ground, which I’ve heard about but never seen. We have some eclipse glasses, too, if we want to look up (but please be careful and never look at the Sun without special eclipse glasses.  Oh, a few more things: during totality, the temperature will drop and animals will react to the sudden darkness, so see if you notice that, too.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? I know you are a first-generation college student. Where is your family from? How did they support you with your education and academic path?

Like many families, this question is complicated! We moved a lot during my early childhood, but settled in Montana for several years, so I call that home. My family is from West Virginia and Wyoming. They cheered me on, and never tried to talk me out of astronomy – I’m so thankful for that. But, being a science geek was so out-of-the-blue different for my family that I sometimes felt like a square peg.

Physics and astronomy are more traditionally male fields, what made you decide to become an astronomer and as a woman did you have any hurdles to overcome as a student or professor?

I can’t remember a time before I wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to be an astronomer before I knew the word for it! And I’ve been pretty single-minded about it my whole life. I found out I needed to go to college and get a PhD, so there was never any question in my mind that that’s what I was going to do. A PhD was just a thing I had to check off to get to be an astronomer.

As a woman who came from outside of academia, I’ve met and worked with people who thought I was too unpolished, or not smart enough, or too quiet, or too combative, or too girly. This happens to so many of us that it’s almost the standard experience for a woman in hard science.

But, maybe the biggest hurdle is that I felt like I didn’t belong – I took every little thing that went wrong as a sign that I wasn’t good enough to be an astronomer, and every success as a lucky break.  Honestly, there are still times when I’m the only woman in the room and I feel like an imposter, but I’ve noticed that this feeling is stronger when I ‘level-up’: like when I went from postdoc to faculty, or am appointed to a national committee.  These days, I take that feeling of not deserving to be here as a sign that I’m about to learn more and gain power, which helps.

Dr. Holley-Bockelmann speaking at TedX Nashville

Dr. Holley-Bockelmann speaking at TedX Nashville

Please tell us more about the Fisk-to-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program.

Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge program was started to prepare talented students with undergraduate science degrees, who require additional coursework or training or confidence, to earn a PhD. Students earn a Masters degree at Fisk University under close, one-on-one guidance of faculty mentors, and develop a strong academic foundation and research skills

We have over 120 students who have passed through the program, and I’m really lucky to be able to work with them and watch them thrive.

Our program emphasizes a more holistic approach to finding talent that looks beyond standardized test scores and uses a mentoring model where faculty, postdocs, students and alumni all form a network of mentors to help one another through tough times and to celebrate their discoveries. We hope that with intense mentoring of one another, we each form a deep sense of Bridge community and have a real stake in the success of every one of us individually and as a program, too.

What role do you play with the Fisk-to-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program?

I started as a faculty mentor in research and designed a bootcamp and now I’m the Vanderbilt Co-Director of the program. We have a Co-Director on the Fisk side, Arnold Burger, and an Executive Director, Dina Stroud – we’re in charge of the program, but really everyone has to pitch in to make it work.

What advice would you give a young woman and minority student looking to get into the sciences?

DO IT! ☺ Try to get involved with research at school to make sure you like doing science, and take as much math as possible – that will give you lots of options for choosing your particular subfield of science. Please know that we need you and that you belong here – yes, there are sometimes people who will discourage you and/or be nasty, but the reward of discovering something about the Universe is so, so worth it.

To learn more about Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann and her research please check out her website here.

For more information on the Fisk-to-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program, please check it out here.

She also periodically tweets under the name: GravityKelly


Don't miss this mind blowing event, for the next one doesn't occur until April 8, 2024.

Also, please look out for our upcoming Solar Eclipse fashion editorial, which will be shot in Nashville on August 21st, 2017!

Happy moon gazing! 

Interview written and conducted by Kira Bucca, Editor in Chief of Jejune Magazine

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