This is the sixth in a series of articles highlighting new faculty members from each college at Washington State University.
After finishing up an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University, Vivienne Baldassare’s career options were as vast as the galaxies she studies. The supportive environment in WSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy won her over, and she joined the faculty as an assistant professor in August.
“I applied for faculty positions pretty broadly, but I was really charmed by the Palouse really welcomed by the other faculty members here,” Baldassare said. “I got an incredible vibe from my whole visit here. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic when I got the offer. I wanted to be somewhere I could make a difference. The faculty here wanted to hear my perspective, and were enthusiastic about my ideas.”
Baldassare’s fellowship at Yale was sponsored by NASA, and she was part of a team that discovered what was then the smallest known super black hole. She uses repeat imaging – looking at pictures of the same object over and over – to detect variances over time, and potentially discover black holes.
“Most galaxies have a black hole at the center, so we want to learn how they form,” Baldassare said. “One way of trying to find that answer is to look for the smallest of them. Using a variety of telescopes and surveys, you really develop skills in working with big data sets and images and you become a good problem solver. You have to piece together a story, which is very challenging, but also fun.”
Baldassare is teaching Principles of Astronomy this semester, guiding 11 undergraduates. As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated STEM field, she hopes to inspire her students and others to tackle tough challenges and explore careers in science.
“Part of what I see as my role is to make education accessible to everyone,” Baldassare said. “I want to help make universities a place where everyone can thrive regardless of their racial or gender identity. I love to do outreach in the community and show everyone that science has a place for them.”