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Professor Helping Solve NASA's Big Questions

Professor Helping Solve NASA's Big Questions

by Carol (Knight '81, MA '08) Best

Andrew Overholt, PhD, assistant professor of physics, may be one of MNU’s youngest professors, but he’s already making his mark in scientific research. Overholt was recently awarded part of a $500,000 NASA Exobiology grant. Yes, that’s NASA as in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

Overholt conducts research with University of Kansas Professor Adrian Melott, PhD, and Brian Thomas, PhD, of Washburn University in a group they call the KU Astrophysics Biology Working Group. The group will receive NASA funding over three years to study the “Terrestrial Impact of Nearby Supernovae.” MNU’s portion of the grant is $150,000 and will be used to support the research, obtain additional computer equipment and fund a student research assistant. 

“This is the kind of research we encourage our students to seek out over the summer at other research facilities,” Overholt says. “It is exciting to get to have it here at MNU for a top science student. This gives them a distinct edge over students in similar programs at other institutions.”

The new research is in an “untouched area,” according to Overholt.

“No one has studied all of the effects on Earth from a nearby supernova,” he says. “Nearby in this instance would be about 10 parsecs or 30 light years.”

A supernova occurs when a star collapses at the end of its lifecycle, causing it to heat up and explode. Overholt says this happens frequently because there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. But statistically it rarely occurs close to Earth. A recent study shows that Earth has experienced a nearby supernova in the distant past. 

The professors each will study separate aspects of supernova effects. Overholt will study cosmic ray secondaries, high energy pieces of matter that can cause radiation sickness and cancer. The research is conducted using computer modeling, requiring data analysis by supercomputers such as the National Science Foundation’s TeraGrid, a cyber infrastructure of high-performance computers at 11 locations nationwide.  

The colleagues hope to learn how bad a worst-case scenario would be, if a nearby supernova is survivable, how close it could be and still be survivable, as well as effects on other planets with thinner atmospheres. 

“This is an unanswered question,” Overholt says. “We know these happen and statistically they should occur near us, but no one knows what would happen on Earth if there was a nearby supernova.”

While Overholt is passionate about his research, he is even more passionate about teaching at MNU.

“At a large university students would be in class with 300 other students,” Overholt says. “At MNU I get to talk with them about everything: life, paleontology, geology, chemistry, and more. Here, I get to know my students and come alongside them in the learning process in a way I would never be able to at other universities.”

As a 2005 alumnus of Southern Nazarene University, he’s particularly attuned to the integration of faith and learning that makes Christian universities special. 

“There doesn’t need to be a competition between faith and science,” he says. “Physics helps me see so many parallels between God’s amazing creation and His own nature. I want my students to appreciate that Christianity and science cooperate. I am blessed to play a part in developing that appreciation.”

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