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Physicist to speak at DSU in honor of her grandfather

February 24, 2016

Dr. Katherine Dooley, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Mississippi, returns to Dakota State University on Friday, March 4 at 1 p.m. in the Science Center Auditorium. This is Dooley’s second speaking engagement at DSU, and her presentation, “Listening to black holes collide: the first detection of gravitational waves,” addresses one of the hottest subjects in science right now. It is free and open to the public.

This past month the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that for the first time, scientists have observed gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes. These waves confirm a prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and according to LIGO, “…opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.”

Dooley is a senior member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of researchers that have made the first direct detection of gravitational waves, use them to explore the fundamental physics of gravity, and develop the emerging field of gravitational wave science as a tool of astronomical discovery. She has also spent over eight years working directly on upgrading interferometers and designing new techniques to improve their sensitivity to gravitational waves. Before joining the University of Mississippi faculty in the fall of 2015, Dooley did extensive postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology and Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, also known as the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany.

Even though Dooley’s research and knowledge has taken her all over the world, she still has strong family ties that bring her back to South Dakota. Her father recently moved to Madison from New York, and she frequently visits her grandparents, Delmer and Thalia Dooley, who make their home on a farm close to Ramona. She wishes to remember and honor her grandfather, a World War II veteran who passed away peacefully on February 13, a month shy of turning 96.

“He was always a supporter and fan of my scientific endeavors,” said Dooley. 

Both of Dooley’s grandparents proudly attended the presentation she gave at DSU a couple of years ago. Her grandmother recalls how impressed her grandfather was and that he commented, "Well, she sure knows what she's talking about!”

Dooley’s grandfather was not only an avid fan of his granddaughter’s research, he served as a role model for her as well.

“My grandfather's path through life and attitude towards it has always been a source of great inspiration for me, and I'm sure for my brothers as well,” said Dooley. 

Her grandfather sought a career that took him back to Europe after World War II so he could help rebuild society from the damage that was inflicted by the war.

“I only first learned this during my last visit with him, and it struck me as such an honorable and touching goal,” said Dooley. “His career took him in a slightly different direction, but it still involved helping people around the world. He first helped develop and then he led programs to improve the agricultural economies and living conditions of communities in countries from Jordan and Iran to South Korea. The tremendous respect and diplomacy that my grandfather always showed towards everyone he met will forever remain with me as one of my strongest impressions about the essence of who my grandfather was at heart. They are qualities that I can only strive to emulate.”

Dooley also reflected on her grandfather’s family values and ties back to the local community. He retired at his childhood farm in Ramona where he continued to farm, raise sheep, and restore antique tractors. Dooley believed that his connection to the land and her grandmother’s steadfast love and support carried him through all of these years with such remarkable health and spirit.

“Both of my grandparents impress me profoundly with the sharpness and clarity of their minds and thoughts. They have never felt old to me,” said Dooley.

Her grandfather’s legacy of touching so many lives with such respect, and his deep caring for his own family have inspired Dooley to approach her career as a professor and life in the same way.

“One of the reasons I wanted to become a professor is because of the opportunity I'd have to reach out and have an effect on so many students. I am new to the job, yet already gaining such satisfaction from the interactions and new perspectives my students and I can share with each other,” explained Dooley. “Also, my grandfather's fearlessness in traveling the world and living in foreign lands gave me the courage to do so as I've followed my physics career to places in the country and world where I had never imagined living. It's a journey I'm happy to be on and I wish my grandfather could know how grateful I am for his endearing influence.”