On his first day at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) for his doctoral dissertation research, Windsor “Tony” Morgan was met by his adviser, Penn State Adjunct Professor Richard Griffiths, instrument scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope’s wide-field and planetary cameras.
“Richard met me at the reception desk,” Morgan recalled, “and he said to me, in his Welsh accent, ‘You picked a particularly inauspicious day to come down.’”
It was the day Griffiths and his colleagues announced publicly that there was a problem with the telescope’s mirror.
“I never did use the telescope,” Morgan said, but nonetheless he earned his doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from Penn State in 1995, and shortly thereafter secured a visiting professorship at Dickinson College, where he is now a tenured professor of physics and astronomy, director of the college’s Charles M. Kanev Planetarium, and currently department chair.
Change and Purpose
For his research at STScI, Morgan had applied to work with Griffiths using Hubble to conduct optical observations of extremely luminous objects known as quasars—and was awarded a NASA graduate fellowship to do so—but the problem with the telescope’s mirror forced Morgan to switch to X-ray observations instead.
Then, at Dickinson, Morgan made another unexpected change.
“When we learn about how stars work, or about the dynamics of a galaxy, that’s important,” he said. “It’s increasing our knowledge and understanding of the universe and everything in it over time. But there was an uneasiness, for me, about how is that understanding directly helping people in my community?”
That feeling of uneasiness, Morgan explained, led him to shift his research focus to astronomy education and to be more involved in outreach, “things like the planetarium and department open houses.”
“What I'm doing now is trying to learn about how students understand astronomical principles,” he said. “I'm interested in the human aspect of it, and that also helps inform how I teach my classes—my intro classes, especially, but even my upper-level classes in astronomy and physics. What better way of learning how to teach?”
Since his childhood, Morgan said, he’s been fascinated with space.
“There were two things when I was growing up that got me into astronomy,” he explained. “One was watching the original Star Trek, and the other was watching the missions to the moon.”
Morgan also recalled trips with his parents to the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.
“That was the first planetarium I went to,” he said. “Every time my parents would ask me what I wanted to do, it was to go downtown to the planetarium and the Science Center.”
Those childhood experiences, Morgan noted, have continued to influence him to this day.
“People need to learn about things,” he said. “Every kid is interested in learning, looking, turning over a rock and seeing what's under there. And it’s that innate interest and curiosity that I don't want people to lose. Whatever I can do to help keep that going, it's all for the good.”
So in addition to his research and teaching, Morgan now also directs Dickinson’s Kanev Planetarium and works with the student astronomy club. Together, they host planetarium shows for the public as well as stargazing open houses with the 24-inch telescope at the college’s Michael L. Britton Memorial Observatory.
“It's been very well received,” he said. “Lots of school groups come in, and other community groups. I really like that aspect of it, that Dickinson is not an ivory tower. It’s something that is giving back to the community. And we really enjoy doing it.”
Beyond giving back to the community, Morgan said he sees outreach and the popularization of science with the public as essential to scientific progress.
“People—kids especially—think that science can only be done by certain people, and that's just not a good way to keep science moving,” he explained. “Carl Sagan was a huge influence, and now Neil DeGrasse Tyson—they’re two of my heroes for popularizing science, in particular astronomy. That’s the kind of thing you need. You want people to be interested in science and know what’s going on.”
A desire for gender and racial equity also drives Morgan’s passion for public education and outreach.
“I have a daughter—she's a sophomore in high school now—and I want her to be able to do whatever she wants,” he said. “But girls need to be able to see, ‘You can do science.’ People of color need to see, ‘You can do science.’ And if my presence in front of a classroom influences somebody, or at a planetarium show some kid sees me up there talking about astronomy—maybe that will change somebody's life.”
And Morgan is working with several colleagues in Dickinson’s physics and astronomy department on an initiative to increase STEM diversity through outreach.
“We are trying to encourage more students of color, in particular Black students, to major in physics and astronomy,” he explained. “And we are beginning an effort to get science teachers in the area—and also from places like Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia—to come to Dickinson and learn about what kind of science, in particular physics and astronomy, is being done here. That's something that's important to us—to get more students of color at Dickinson, and particularly in science.”
Although his work is serious, Morgan said he still feels the sense of childlike wonder that first inspired him to study the cosmos.
“Every time I go outside, I will look up just to see what's up there,” he said. “And I know what’s up there. But it's just amazing that we can learn something about it.”