“I Love the Sense of Discovery.” Dr. Eric Wilcots Stays Focused on Science as he Ascends Academic Ladder

    On July 17, 2017, UW-Madison Astronomy Professor Eric Wilcots and his graduate student, Julie Davis (not pictured) take in the immensity of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) during Davis' first visit to the astronomical facility in the remote, desert highland of the Karoo near Sutherland, South Africa. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence†of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record†and†the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

    For the past quarter-century, Eric Wilcots has been one of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s most prominent astronomers.

    “I love the sense of discovery,” he says. “We get to discover things. As a scientist I was fascinated by how the universe works: to be able to see things and understand things that other people have not seen, to be able to see them in a different way, to be able to ask really big blue-sky science questions like, ‘How do galaxies change over time?’ That’s just compelling and fascinating to understand how the universe works and how this planet that we live on got to be here. It’s fascinating.”

    Although astronomy has been his life’s passion, Wilcots is currently providing the leadership for the College of Letters & Science, the largest college at the UW. He has served as the Mary C. Jacoby professor of astronomy, deputy dean, and associate dean for research. On August 5, he became the college’s interim dean when predecessor John Karl Scholz was appointed as the university’s next provost.

    “We do lots of really good things here, so it’s an exciting opportunity for me,” Wilcots says.

    Wilcots has been an important role model and mentor for younger people of color interested in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, which have historically lacked the diversity of the general population.

    “I think that it’s so important,” Wilcots says. “We live in a world in this day and age where we can think of science as driving a lot of what we do. A lot of problems that we wrestle with need to be addressed via science. Yet the scientific community writ large is not tapping the talent that it can. So diversifying the STEM discipline is more than just embracing diversity. It’s recognizing that we are shorting ourselves if we are not tapping all of the talent across all populations. To the extent that I can be a role model and to the extent that there’s a kid out there who sees someone doing science that kind of looks like me … that’s wonderful. I’m humbled by that.”

    Wilcots first became fascinated by astronomy as a little boy in Philadelphia.

    “I got a telescope for Christmas when I was eight or nine, and that’s what piqued my interest in astronomy,” Wilcots says. “I remember watching the Voyager 1 [probe] flying by Jupiter for about a week, and there were all these fantastic images coming back from Jupiter. The people looked like they were having fun. I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that!’ Whatever that was, I wanted to be a part of it.”

    Wilcots spent a couple of years working at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, one of America’s most celebrated museums.

    “The observatory was my favorite place to be in that building,” Wilcots remembers.

    Wilcots went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at Princeton University in 1987 and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Washington in 1992. From 1992 to 1995, he was a Karl Jansky Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico, before coming to UW–Madison.

    “I came here in ’95. The intellectual curiosity that I see is invigorating. I love that kind of environment,” Wilcots says. “We have fantastic students who come through who are remarkable and inspiring in their own way. We have students who could have gone [to college] anywhere, and they decided to come here. Wisconsin is a great place to be.”

    Wilcots’s research interests focus on understanding the evolution of galaxies and galaxy groups, primarily through observations of radio wavelengths, and he loves sharing the process of discovery with UW students.

    “I’ve had a fantastic set of graduate students over the years and an equally fantastic group of undergraduates that I’ve worked with. To be able to have a student come in who is unfamiliar with the discipline but then come out of that process with that sense of discovery themselves, that’s pretty cool,” he says. “Working with students is a fun part of the job. I would not want to be an astronomer and not want to work with students.”