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Jeff Wilkerson

Associate professor of physics

First year teaching at Luther: 1997

Number of consecutive months in which hes hunted upland birds or fished: 68

Jeff counts almost everything. He even keeps track of the number of trick-or-treaters who visit his house--in 15-minute intervals so he can build a histogram. But he doesn't balance his checkbook. "I just trust that it's close," he says.

Such is Jeff's relationship to his profession as an astronomer and the universe he studies: he spends his time worrying about minutia--such as calibrating instruments so they collect "cleaner" data--and trusts that its the best way to contribute to the whole.

"I tell students doing science is a lot like writing poetry," Jeff says. "There's something bigger than yourself that's beautiful, but in order to be part of it, you have to be concerned about every word, every comma, every breath."

An animated teacher, Jeff is quick to chalk up visuals on the blackboard or pull up pictures on his laptop to illustrate his points. He regularly hosts sky observation sessions and also takes time to respond to the dozens of general astronomical inquiries he receives from the public each month, even when the questions are outside his scope of expertise.

"I've known since my first day as a graduate assistant at the University of California--Berkeley that whatever I do for the rest of my life, I want teaching to be a part of it," he says.

At Luther, Jeff facilitates ongoing astronomical research with several students, using Luther's observation deck atop Valders Hall of Science. "We might not have the most sophisticated equipment in the world or be positioned on a mountaintop, but we have the time to take picture after picture of particular stars night after night after night," Jeff explains.

The data--millions of brightness measurements a night--has helped Luther researchers identify stars not previously known to be variable in their brightness and may eventually contribute to a better international understanding of eclipsing binary contact stars. These are stars that, for unknown reasons, spiraled close enough to touch and orbit each other.

To make sure the observation equipment captures the right region of the sky, Jeff sometimes returns to campus in the middle of the night to make adjustments. But he doesn't mind. "As much time as I spend in front of a computer, I sometimes feel confined indoors," he explains. "I like to sit on the roof, as I'm waiting to take data, and feel the whole vault of heaven open up."