Randall McEntaffer, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, physics, and of materials science and engineering, has been named the new head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, effective August 1, 2021. McEntaffer succeeds Donald Schneider, who has served as head of the department since 2011.
“At the core of our department are the incredible faculty, researchers, and staff that drive a productive and world-renowned research endeavor,” said McEntaffer. “I look forward to continuing to foster strength in our in our research program, while also working to make important positive changes in the department’s climate, teaching mission, and mentorship programs.”
McEntaffer has served as the associate head for the graduate program in the department since 2018, where he helped implement a graduate student mentor program and has worked to improve the climate of the department and inclusivity of admissions. He has also taken an active role in several department committees regarding admissions, promotion and tenure, development, climate and diversity, and faculty searches.
"In addition to Randy’s outstanding scholarly accomplishments and effective leadership, he cares deeply about the wellbeing and reputation of the department and its future,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “I am excited to work with Randy and the department to achieve an even higher level of success."
McEntaffer’s lab group focuses on the design, fabrication, and testing of incredibly precise instruments called “diffraction gratings” to improve detection and analysis of X-ray and ultraviolet emissions from cosmic sources. The gratings split up X-ray light into different wavelengths with incredibly fine distinctions. Using these tools, McEntaffer studies X-ray emitting objects in space, including supernova remnants and how they interact with their environment. The lab uses microfabrication and nanofabrication tools on campus to develop the gratings, which are used on a wide variety of NASA missions, including suborbital rockets, Explorer missions, and larger flagship missions.
McEntaffer was named a Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Faculty Fellow in 2020, for which he will lead a team to incorporate virtual reality-based lessons into introductory astronomy courses at Penn State. His awards and honors also include being named a University of Iowa Scholar of the Year in 2015, a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow in 2014, and a NASA Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellow in 2011. He received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the United States National Science and Technology Council in 2012. McEntaffer also leads an outreach program called Rockets for Inclusive Science Education (RISE) to provide STEM research opportunities to underrepresented minority high school and middle school students.
Prior to joining Penn State in 2016, McEntaffer served on the faculty of the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy from 2008 to 2016. He earned a doctoral degree in astrophysics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2007 and bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy from the University of Iowa in 2000.