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New Space Grant director

New Space Grant director

Photo by Evan Krape

UD's Matthaeus takes reins of Delaware Space Grant in 25th anniversary year

Many are the mysteries that University of Delaware astrophysicist William Matthaeus has explored in our galaxy for the past four decades or so.

But the news from NASA this week is not so hard to figure. Planet Earth's foremost space agency has named Matthaeus to direct the Delaware Space Grant (DESG), which marks its 25th anniversary this year. Matthaeus succeeds Dermott Mullan, UD professor of astronomy and physics, who was director from 2005-15.

The Space Grant program was created by the U.S. Congress in 1987 to promote interest in space and provide scholarship support for students, in much the same way as the nation's Land Grant and Sea Grant programs do for agriculture and marine studies, respectively. It supports educators, students and researchers in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The program helps to develop a highly skilled workforce from which NASA can draw future employees.

UD is the lead institution in Delaware's Space Grant Consortium, which was founded in 1991 under the leadership of professor emeritus Norman Ness and includes Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College, Wesley College and Wilmington University.

Matthaeus said there are plans to change procedures so affiliate institutions have a bigger role in managing DESG.

About 500 students – undergraduate and graduate – have received support from DESG for summer internships, NASA-related workshops and scholarships since 2000. About 275 of them have received scholarships, including 28 this year, with awards ranging from $3,000 to $27,600, according to program coordinator Cathy Cathell.

The program also administers NASA grants through EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which works to strengthen research and development throughout the region.

Matthaeus is a respected theoretical and computational physicist, with expertise in turbulence theory, solar wind, space plasma physics and numerical simulations. He is part of the Bartol Research Institute at UD and has been a member of the faculty since 1983.

He has strong ties with NASA, having been involved with multiple missions, including Solar Probe Plus, which aims to launch an unmanned spacecraft in 2018 and get closer to the sun than any craft has gotten before, and the $1 billion MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission), launched in 2015 to study magnetic reconnection.

This fascination Matthaeus has for space has been a thing ever since he first picked up crayons.

He remembers watching “Mr. Wizard” as a 4-year-old in Philadelphia and drawing pictures of satellites and rockets. He remembers his keen interest as the Russians launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, which many mark as the beginning of the Space Age, and he was riveted by the United States’ subsequent missions to the moon and learning about astronauts in orbit.

That sense of wonder has only grown, and now it is informed and fueled by years of scientific learning, discovery and research.

"I'm doing now exactly what I was drawing then," he said.

A gregarious man with a knack for explaining difficult concepts in street-level ways, Matthaeus takes the helm at the Delaware Space Grant with a firm commitment to expand its reach, especially among under-represented groups.

In that quest, he has a strong ally in sociologist Brian Chad Starks, an associate director of the Delaware Space Grant. Starks earned his doctorate in criminology at UD, launched the Minority Mentor Lecture Series and now is the CEO of BCS and Associates Consulting Firm, which specializes in social justice and equity.

But a sociologist on the board of the Delaware Space Grant?

That connection was made in the Carpenter Sports Building, where Starks played in many a pickup basketball game. He was a friend of Matthaeus' sons and they introduced him to their physicist father, who also plays. They hit it off immediately.

"His openness and commitment to knowledge – he is one of the smartest people I have ever met," Starks said. "He has a depth of knowledge about so many areas, and he's open to discuss difference."

When Starks learned that DESG wanted to improve its reach with a more diverse population of students, he saw opportunity for a partnership that could link resources with students who might never otherwise consider such possibilities.

"I said, 'Mr. Bill' – that's how we lovingly refer to him in the gym – 'please let me help you,'" Starks said. "Please. These opportunities are generational changers."

Already, DESG is seeing growth in applications from minority students. The number of African American applicants more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, and the number of grants awarded to African American applicants more than doubled in the same period.

"We want the best team on the court and in the field," Starks said. "We want opportunity for students and we want a more diverse population so we have a more competitive pool and do the best science."

That takes more than gestures, said Harry Shipman, the Annie Jump Cannon Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UD and an associate director of DESG.

"We want to not just open this up more to Delaware State University and hope for the best," Shipman said. "We want to do more than that."

Shipman said he will do all he can to help Matthaeus build the program.

"He can be diplomatic when the job requires it, which this job often does," Shipman said. "It's a good program and we hope it will get bigger. It has helped a lot of people."

Matthaeus earned his bachelor's degree (physics and philosophy) at the University of Pennsylvania, his master's in physics at Old Dominion University and a master's and doctorate in physics at the College of William and Mary.

He has been the primary investigator on grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education and has been co-author of more than 400 publications.

He is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Physical Society, and the Institute of Physics. 

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