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April 2011  •  Volume 4 Number 1

Scientist, Educator and Entrepreneur – Eric Hilton

Eric Hilton. Image credit: L. Klein

Eric Hilton is poised to complete his graduate studies at the University of Washington in 2011, but he’s already launched other aspects of a multifaceted career. While enthralled with his science, as co-founder of Technically Learning, an educational non-profit started with several friends, he takes rigorous, research-based science lessons to teachers and teens. His love of science and dedication to research find expression in getting the coolest activities developed by working scientists and engineers to inner city, low-income teachers and kids.

After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University with a B.S. in Physics in 2003, and seeing a poster for the Peace Corps, Eric deferred his start on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington (UW) and traveled to Guyana to spend two years as a secondary school teacher. This experience increased Eric’s interest in communicating the wonder and process of science to youth and ignited a passion parallel to his dedication to scientific research. On his return to the States and UW’s graduate program, he began to add efforts in science education and outreach to his research activities. His non-profit hired an Executive Director this summer to grow the business based on the partnership of rigorous research and education. His stint in the Peace Corps also initiated travels to over twenty countries to date.

“I think it’s incredibly important that the average person has some understanding of science because science has a lot to say about some of the world’s most important problems such as climate change, energy policy, health and medicine – the list goes on and on.” In addition to co-founding Technically Learning, Eric started Engage: The Science Speaker Series with graduate student scientists at UW for the general public and taught a seminar in Fall 2010 to train scientists how to communicate their science effectively.

Working with Suzanne Hawley and Paula Szkody at UW since 2005, Eric focuses his research on flares on low-mass stars. “Although there are billions of them in the Galaxy, they are faint, especially in blue bandpasses. So not much is known about their bulk properties far from the Galactic plane, nor about their variability in the blue. Learning about things no one else knows is one of the most satisfying things about my work. I really enjoy the excitement that comes along with working on a project that will provide so much new science. LSST will see thousands upon thousands of transients every night. Many of them will be understood (known variable stars, etc). But some objects appear as true optical transients – present in one or more images, but then go away, not to be seen again. M dwarf flares have the potential to contribute to this group. The problem is that M dwarf flares might contribute so much that they make finding other kinds of interesting or unknown transients difficult. They could be the haystack hiding the needles, so to speak. Part of my thesis is on estimating this rate of M dwarf flares appearing as blue transients, so that other science can account for it. This is an important part of transient science, and a good reason why my thesis is very relevant to LSST. I am building a model of the Galactic M dwarf flare rate, and I will ‘observe’ my model with the LSST cadence and depth to estimate this.”

Given that Eric has a wealth of experiences and interests, LSST and especially the Transients and Variable Stars science collaboration, provides a great match. “I like the way the project is being run, especially the way that the science collaborations contribute. Collaborating with large groups of people who are not paid to do this work can be challenging. We try to find ways to make the work we’re doing to prepare for LSST work for us and be useful for others.”

Science, collaboration, communication – all part of this young scientist/educator’s plan to move forward into new and unknown research areas and career opportunities. “It’s very likely that LSST will observe all kinds of interesting phenomena that we currently don’t know anything about. It’s the surprises that are especially interesting. We’ll just have to wait and see what’s in store. I hope to be working on LSST as this happens for the next 5, 10, 15 years.”

Article written by Anna H. Spitz


LSST is a public-private partnership. Funding for design and development activity comes from the National Science Foundation, private donations, grants to universities, and in-kind support at Department of Energy laboratories and other LSSTC Institutional Members:

Adler Planetarium; Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL); California Institute of Technology; Carnegie Mellon University; Chile; Cornell University; Drexel University; Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; George Mason University; Google, Inc.; Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Institut de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules (IN2P3); Johns Hopkins University; Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) – Stanford University; Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, Inc.; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL); Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL); National Optical Astronomy Observatory; Princeton University; Purdue University; Research Corporation for Science Advancement; Rutgers University; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Space Telescope Science Institute; Texas A & M University; The Pennsylvania State University; The University of Arizona; University of California at Davis; University of California at Irvine; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Michigan; University of Pennsylvania; University of Pittsburgh; University of Washington; Vanderbilt University

LSST E-News Team:

  • Suzanne Jacoby (Editor-in-Chief)
  • Anna Spitz (Writer at Large)
  • Mark Newhouse (Design & Production: Web)
  • Emily Acosta (Design & Production: PDF/Print)
  • Sidney Wolff (Editorial Consultant)
  • Additional contributors as noted

LSST E-News is a free email publication of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project. It is for informational purposes only, and the information is subject to change without notice.

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