Mark Krumholz: Rising star

Astrophysicist Mark Krumholz studies star formation and galaxy formation. (Photo by Shmuel Thaler)

By R. T. Sideman,

Mark Krumholz came to UC Santa Cruz last year after completing three prestigious postdoctoral fellowships at Princeton University. He could have taught anywhere, his colleagues say, but UCSC was his first choice. Besides its status as a world-class research center, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, he said, also offers a friendly and collegial environment.

The rookie professor, 32, may study the skies, but he has his feet planted firmly on the ground. He taught astronomy at San Quentin State Prison and continues to advocate for college-level inmate education in Santa Cruz County. While a grad student at UC Berkeley, he volunteered long hours as a top officer with the teaching assistants union. He recently led a statewide campaign to preserve research funding in the UC system.

"Just because we're scientists doesn't mean you can forget about the fact that you're a citizen, too," said Krumholz.

Last spring, he launched a volunteer teaching program at Santa Cruz County Jail. Through classes such as algebra, Krumholz imparts to inmates a strong message that better jobs await those with quantitative skills.

Krumholz's own schooling was carved out by his love of computers and physics. Growing up glued to his computer screen in the suburbs, he admits to not seeing the Milky Way until he became a grad student.

His pioneering research marries for the first time the two fields of star formation and galaxy formation.

That's why his resume floated to the top of potential candidates for the job, said department chair Sandy Faber.

"This is one of the few great departments in the country where you can study both," Faber said. "He and the other new professors are the future of our department."

That's why it's critical, Faber said, that even in the midst of fiscal difficulties, UC retain the top talent it's attracted.

One day last summer, Krumholz sat down at his computer and pounded out a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in which he challenged the state of California to preserve funding for the sciences at UC or risk losing talented young professors and world-class programs that are already stretched to their breaking point.

With the help of fellow faculty members, the letter gained momentum. It garnered national attention after being signed by a group of 300 of UC's most prominent professors, all members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

But Krumholz is turning his attention to the new academic year. He has secured time at two of the nation's supercomputer sites to run his simulations. He'll be working closely with grad students and teaching an undergrad course called Physics of Stars.

"The students have all arrived and I'm very impressed," he said. "It's going to be an exciting year."