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UW-Whitewater physics alumnus heads NASA observatory

December 01, 2020

Story by Kristine Zaballos | Photos submitted


Image of telescope in space

Pat Slane, who earned a BSE in physics education with a second major in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1977, was recently named director of the Chandra X-ray Center, which controls science and flight operations for NASA’s flagship X-ray telescope, housed at the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is one of the remaining NASA “Great Observatories,” along with the Hubble Space Telescope. The satellite was launched into space on the Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999, at a cost of $1.65 billion. The telescope is specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the universe; because X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 86,500 miles in space. At Chandra, Slane oversees the staff who operate the satellite, process the data and distribute it to scientists around the world for analysis.

Slane has been involved with Chandra since before its launch, including leading the mission planning team, and served as assistant director for science since 2015. His research interests include the study of supernova remnants, young neutron stars and pulsar wind nebulae. 

“I have been working in high-energy astrophysics, and specifically X-ray astronomy, for much of my professional career,” said Slane. “It is an honor to be taking over as director of Chandra, which is one of the crown jewels of NASA and all of astrophysics.”


Image of Pat Slane

Pat Slane was appointed director of the Chandra X-ray Observatory on Sept. 28, 2020. Image courtesy Pat Slane/Center for Astrophysics.

Slane’s path to becoming a director of a key NASA observatory included studying education as an undergraduate, several years teaching in a high school, a graduate degree in mathematics from UW-Milwaukee and a Ph.D. in physics from UW-Madison.

“If you look at it, I was on a very linear path,” said Slane, who was born in Milwaukee and grew up in New Berlin. “Once I made the decision to go to UW-Whitewater to be a high school math teacher — which I made before I got there — that’s what I did. I didn’t know at any step of the way, honestly, what was to come five years down the road. It wasn’t a discrete plan from beginning to end; at each step of the way it was ‘OK, this is what I am going to do now.’”

As a student at UW-Whitewater, Slane found unexpected opportunities.

“For reasons that remain mysterious to this day, the physics faculty recognized potential in this young, quiet, long-haired kid and embraced me as part of the department,” said Slane. “Hugo Tscharnack offered serious advice. Elmer Redford arranged a job as a tutor in the campus tutorial center, where I got my first real experience teaching. Ron Bergsten picked me out of the class of students to do independent research, leading to my first publication. These are debts that I’ve spent a career to repay.”

Professor Emeritus Ron Bergsten remembers working with Slane as a young student.

“At the time that I first met Pat, I had for many years been considering the possibility of conducting the research for a paper on Fourier Transform Spectroscopy,” said Bergsten. “But I felt that the project could serve as an independent study project for a worthy student, and thus waited for such a student to enroll in the physics program at UW-Whitewater. Upon meeting Pat, I was impressed with his interest in and enthusiasm for the project, so I invited him to collaborate. He willingly and proficiently executed the project, which resulted in the writing and publication of “Fourier-transform spectroscopy with inexpensive interferometers” in the American Journal of Physics in December 1978.”

Slane started out teaching after college, before going on to graduate school, describing it as “where I learned the depths of responsibility, effort, and knowledge required to do an honest job of educating students — and just how rewarding that endeavor can be.”

Image of Pat Slane teaching in a classroom

Pat Slane as a teacher at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Image courtesy Pat Slane/Center for Astrophysics.


Along the way, he kept his ties to UW-Whitewater.

“Pat has been a very active alumnus, particularly when he was serving on the College of Letters and Sciences Dean’s Council and Science Alliance,” said Robert Benjamin, professor of physics. “He has done many seminars for our students over the years, and the students are always interested.”

Slane has also served as an alumni mentor, including to one of Benjamin’s students, Heidi Watry.

“The alumni mentor program was for upper-level undergraduates to be paired with alumni,” said Watry. “I was studying a ‘space math’ emphasis, which was a way to apply science to math, to use math outside of the teaching realm. I was paired with Pat Slane, an astrophysicist.”

Benjamin and Slane conceived a plan for Watry to go to Chandra X-ray Observatory and work with both X-ray data and the Spitzer infrared data she had already been studying.

“It merged my existing research project experience with Dr. Benjamin with my mentorship with Pat,” she said. “That summer, I toured Chandra’s facilities, worked under Pat, and compared data sets. I got to experience what it would be like to be a researcher under Pat’s tutelage as well as learn about the other jobs at a telescope center. I ended my UW-Whitewater experience knowing that I had a real interest in astronomy, though telescope jobs are rare to come by, so after graduation I got a job at Epic.”

Watry, who graduated in 2005, soon got the opportunity to pursue that telescope job.

“Nine months into my job at Epic, Pat said, ‘By the way, I have a job opening for a data specialist.’ I applied, moved to Boston and went to work at Chandra in 2007. I worked there 4.5 years, working on Pat’s team with five other data specialists, planning out the schedule for what the telescope could observe.”

“Nearly 10 years after leaving my job at Chandra, I can still feel the excitement of working for the Chandra planning team, due the experience of working for Pat,” Watry said. “Pat meets you where you are and always has time. He pulls up the white board, pulls out the graph paper. He always left room in our job responsibilities and time in the workday to explore and find out what we are going to be passionate about. I was into scheduling optimization. Pat gave me the room to come to that niche.”

Reflecting on his continuing work as a mentor, Slane said, “Part of it is a payback thing. Part of it is that something special happened at Whitewater, something that made a difference that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Ever the educator, Slane continues to relish opportunities to teach.

“One of the things I enjoy about coming back to campus is that I’m back to being that kid. I like engaging with students from anywhere. They ask questions that set me back into thinking, ‘That’s right, not everyone knows this. Oh yeah — this is an exciting thing to talk about!’ It gives you a new appreciation for what you are doing, to be able to explain it to others.”

Slane will talk about some of those exciting things in a virtual public lecture, “ All About NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (Whitewater Observatory Lecture),” including how the Chandra X-ray Observatory operates, some of the things that this telescope has discovered in its 20+ year mission, and some of his own personal observations about using and managing this flagship X-ray telescope. The lecture, which is free, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4.