Ask an Antelope: Adam Jensen answers cosmic questions

Adam Jensen joined UNK’s Department of Physics, Astronomy and Engineering in 2014. The associate professor not only teaches physics and astronomy classes but also serves as the planetarium director.

A Council Bluffs, Iowa, native, Jensen earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and computer science with a minor in mathematics from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2001 and a master’s degree in astrophysical and planetary sciences from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2004. He completed a doctorate in the same field at CU Boulder in 2007.

Jensen was a NASA postdoctoral program fellow from 2007-09 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Oak Ridge Associated Universities and a postdoctoral researcher from 2009-10 at the Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Maryland.

What brought you to UNK?
After getting my Ph.D., I held two postdoctoral positions on the East Coast for six years, first in Maryland at NASA Goddard and then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After my position at Wesleyan, I was a visiting instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for one year before landing my current position at UNK. In the long term, I was interested in teaching at a smaller school, and my wife, who is from Minden, and I wanted to move back to the Midwest. Having small classes, interacting with students, giving planetarium shows and getting to know faculty, not just within my department but across the campus, have been some of my favorite aspects of being at UNK.

What classes do you teach?
I teach a variety of physics and astronomy lectures and labs at all levels – freshman through graduate. My current favorite class to teach is our LOPR 126 freshman seminar called “Fermi’s Paradox.” I co-teach this with Frank Kovacs from chemistry and David Rozema from philosophy, and we examine the question of why humanity has yet to detect extraterrestrial life. We explore this question using perspectives from our respective areas of expertise in astrophysics, biochemistry and philosophy.

Why did you decide to study and ultimately teach astronomy?
From a young age I was interested in many different sciences (astronomy, chemistry, paleontology, etc.), and astronomy was the one that I stuck with. I’ve been fortunate enough to use some of the biggest ground-based telescopes in the world like the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, as well as space telescopes like the Hubble. My career highlight is being the first person to detect a particular but relatively common form of hydrogen on any planet outside of our solar system.

How do UNK’s physics and astronomy classes prepare students for their future careers?
We have small class sizes and significant opportunities for one-on-one student-faculty interactions. Our courses teach problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that are useful in areas beyond just physics and astronomy. We also offer students practical experience with the technology and coding practices in our fields.

What sets this department apart from other colleges and universities?
UNK’s Physics and Astronomy Department has the most astronomy faculty who are active in research of any institution in Nebraska. Our three astronomy faculty members have a broad range of research interests, covering everything from planets to stars to galaxies. This means students have opportunities to be involved in a wide variety of research topics, and they can likewise draw on varied expertise from their instructors.

What was it like working at NASA?
My day-to-day work was very similar to other academic positions I have held. That is, I didn’t do a lot of the “cool space stuff” that one might associate with NASA, but I did research by analyzing telescope data on my computer. Nevertheless, it was a great place to work, and I got to make connections with a lot of cool people.

Share a fun fact about yourself:
I have been married to my wife Lani for more than 18 years and we have three kids, ages 11 through 15. I’m a musician for my church, where I play guitar and bass, program drums and sing. I’m a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan and finally getting two Super Bowls in the last four years hasn’t at all made me an insufferable fan! (Note, the prior statement has not been peer-reviewed.) Finally, I’m the two-time reigning champion of the annual Tour de UNK biking competition held in March at the Wellness Center.

“Ask an Antelope” is a Q&A series highlighting UNK faculty and staff and their impact on the campus and community.