By J.M. Brown
Saint Mary's astronomy professor Ron Olowin may have his eye trained on the stars, but his focus is always much closer to home.
For more than two decades, the 65-year-old Olowin has been working diligently to raise the profile of the School of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, where the number of students majoring in science grew 11 percent from 2001 to 2010. He has mentored a generation of students in the school's astronomy and physics division and played a central role in the creation of the campus observatory.
In recent years, the longtime Lafayette resident has also turned his energy to boosting the relationships between town and gown, giving talks about the intersection of science and religion at his church, St. Perpetua Catholic Community, and Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. He is also increasing his ties with the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, where he is a candidate to join the board in a couple of weeks.
"He is somebody who is a rare bird -- he really cares so much about students and has such a wonderful way of showing them the breadth and depth of science," said Lafayette resident and library board member Margaret Race, a principal investigator for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View.
"The idea of making a community of scholars is what he is all about," Race said.
Olowin knew he wanted to be an astronomer at the age of 7, when he would lie down in the yard of his Pennsylvania home and stare up at the night sky. He studied geophysics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia and worked at an observatory in South Africa before returning to the U.S., where his wife, Mary, attended medical school.
He joined the faculty at Saint Mary's in 1987 after deciding he wanted to be an educator.
"It was a really good match -- the opportunity to do research and teaching, the two things I love," Olowin said.
There is often a wait list of students to take Olowin's general astronomy course. Olowin estimates at least 2,000 students have taken the course over the years.
Olowin, who received a $117,000 National Science Foundation grant two years ago for student summer research, took students last weekend to the Arecibo National Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico to see the world's largest telescope. He has taken other students to Puerto Rico, as well as sites in New Mexico, where they studied connections between astronomy and archaeology.
But Olowin is most renowned for garnering a National Science Foundation grant and a major donation from a well-known alumnus, Bay Area dentist Louis Geissberger, to establish the Norma Geissberger Observatory, where a research telescope was installed in 2004. Saint Mary's is developing a solar telescope program for what is now known as Observatory Hill.
"We have major opportunities for our students," Olowin said. "It's really about them, whatever we can provide for them. Having a research facility doing observational astronomy is a real asset."
Olowin wants to develop programs connecting the Lafayette Library to the observatory so younger students can be exposed to astronomy right in their own backyard.
"It's a reflection of (the) Saint Mary's mission -- engaging in community and really thinking about educating the student broadly where they are fitting into the bigger work and what their contribution would be," Race said. "He has always been talking about the bigger picture."
Olowin, a father of three who has lived in Lafayette for 22 years, can't help but be tied into the local community. His children attended local schools, and his wife is the chief of psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente's Diablo Service Area.
Of particular interest to Olowin is engaging with the community around issues of religion and science, how to incorporate the theories of divine creation, the Big Bang and evolution. He has been a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, worked with the Vatican Observatory and next month will speak to priests in the Catholic Church's Oakland Diocese about contemporary cosmology.
"People are honest and eager to talk about these things," Olowin said. "I can offer the opportunity to have an open dialogue on those matters."
Father John Kasper, head of the St. Perpetua Catholic Community, said Olowin has been central to keeping the church membership up to date on astronomical advancements through an adult education series. Kasper said Olowin is a good resource for exploring connections between faith and science.
"We can't go to science to answer questions about theology, nor can we go to the Bible to get scientific answers -- they are two different realms," Kapser said. "But because of Ron's unique position as a member of the faith community, as well as a member of the academic and scientific communities, he acts as a bridge."