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An Eye toward the Stars while Forging a Career in Astrophysics

SUNY Chancellor's Award Student Profile: Nicole Wallack

SUNY Chancellor's Award winner Nicole Wallack has excelled in astrophysics while making a difference in the community. (Photos by Carlo de Jesus)

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 5, 2016) -- University at Albany senior Nicole Wallack is on track to receive a bachelor’s degree in physics. The Staten Island native is also minoring in film studies, mathematics and computer science, all while maintaining a 3.95 GPA.

But her true passion lies in exploring the universe. At UAlbany, she has worked on Associate Professor Kevin Knuth’s Exoplanet Detection and Characterization Group to find planets outside our solar system. She’s also pursued research opportunities at Cornell University and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

"I first became interested in astronomy when I was in high school (Staten Island Technical High School)," said Wallack. It was there that she had the opportunity to meet Charles Liu, a professor at the College of Staten Island and a research associate at AMNH.

"Professor Liu allowed me to conduct astronomy research at the American Museum of Natural History during the summers, which is where my love of astronomy began," said Wallack, who studied the shapes and spectral features of early galaxies at AMNH.

At Cornell, Wallack studied side-by-side with Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Carl Sagan Institute Lisa Kaltenegger, working on a project modeling the effect of atmospheric hydrogen on the reflectivity and surface temperature of Mars.

These projects led her to present her findings at the 2014, 2015 and 2016 American Astronomical Society (AAS) meetings, as well as at the 2016 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) organized by the American Institute of Physics at Syracuse University.

Her passion for astrophysics is in line with history’s great astronomers: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Halley, and Galileo. It would come as no surprise to her professors if she followed in their footsteps by making great discoveries of her own.

Nicole Wallack undergrad research conference
Wallack's research projects include studying exoplanets, galaxies, and Mars. She has presented her work at the last three American Astronomical Society meetings.

"Nicole is a brilliant and exemplary student of physics," said Knuth. "She is a passionate, involved and caring leader, who is not only a model of academic excellence exemplified by her exploration of space where she has already made discoveries in the frontiers of astronomy, but is also dedicated to serving and lifting up her fellow students as well as less fortunate members of her community here on Earth."

For her praiseworthy academic career and commitment to service, Wallack has been named as a recipient of the 2016 Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.

A member of the Presidential Honor Society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and the Emerging Student Leaders Program, Wallack has also dedicated her time to her surrounding community as a member of Circle K.

Through this organization, she has helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity, prepared food for the Capital City Rescue Mission, conducted fundraising for the American Heart Association, and volunteered at the Northeast Regional Food Bank. Her passion for helping others is what led her fellow students to name Nicole the president of Circle K in March 2014.

It isn’t her only student leadership role, either, as Wallack also serves as President of the Society of Physics Students at UAlbany. "Nicole has been the passionate guiding force behind the Society of Physics Students, transmitting her infectious enthusiasm for physics to undergraduates at all levels, organizing events like a faculty panel on graduate school, to ensure the future success of the students in the club," said Matthew Szydagis, assistant professor of physics and faculty mentor for the Society.

But while her honors are numerous, including membership in national honor societies such as Sigma Pi Sigma and Omicron Delta Kappa, her greatest joy is instilling a passion for the sciences in young people. As a member of the University at Albany Astronomical Society, Wallack has helped organize public talks on astronomy as well as observing nights at UAlbany’s Observatory. She also volunteered during Family Earth Day, where she helped more than 200 students from around the Capital Region view sun spots through the University's telescopes.

Somehow she also manages to find the time to write for the Albany Student Press and spar with the UAlbany Fencing Club.

It was her dedication to science, however, that earned Wallack the Class of 1905 Bazzoni Fellowship for outstanding achievement in the natural sciences through the University at Albany Foundation. It's also what helped her earn a spot this fall as a graduate student at Caltech, where she will begin pursuit of a Ph.D. in planetary science.

All of these accolades are just further recognition of what Wallack’s professors already know: that she is a scientific ‘star’ in the making.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.