Beyond the Eclipse: A Cosmic Conversation with Kent State Alumna Beth A. Cunningham

On April 8, Kent State University will provide a unique opportunity for the public to delve into the wonders of the cosmos in a special event titled "Beyond the Eclipse." This event coincides with a rare astronomical spectacle—a total solar eclipse—that will be visible across much of Ohio and other parts of North America that afternoon.

Led by Physicist Beth A. Cunningham, Ph.D., a distinguished Kent State alumna and chief executive officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the presentation and Q&A will take place from 1:30–2:15 p.m. in the Kent Student Center Ballroom (800-seats on a first-come, first-served basis) and promises to be a captivating journey into some of the mysteries of the universe. It will also be livestreamed and recorded. Directly after the presentation, attendees are encouraged to exit the Student Center onto Risman Plaza to witness the eclipse (with specialized eye protection of course). To see a full list of eclipse-related events on or near the Kent Campus, visit:

Cunningham will speak specifically about the scientific aspects of an eclipse and discuss new discoveries in space and the future of space exploration. She will also delve into recent astronomical discoveries that have reshaped our understanding of the cosmos – from gravitational waves and the potential for life-sustaining atmospheres on distant planets to the groundbreaking insights brought to light by NASA’s revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Beth Cunningham, Ph.D., keynote speaker on April 8, 2024
Dr. Beth Cunningham

James Webb Space Telescope 
“The JWST will add to our knowledge about the history of the universe,” Cunningham said. “It is the largest telescope in space and is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. This means that scientists can look deeper into space to observe the earliest stars and galaxies formed in the universe. It can study distant dust clouds where stars and planets are formed.”

Cunningham explained that the JWST has special cameras and detectors that can record extremely faint signals observed in the mid-infrared (as opposed to visible light which is what NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observes). The wavelengths of light in the mid-infrared are just beyond what humans can see. Observing in the mid-infrared penetrates further in dust and will allow better observation of star formation in dust clouds. Mid-infrared is also emitted by distant (and, thus, very old) stars and galaxies whose wavelengths have been shifted into the infrared because of the expansion of the universe.

“Infrared wavelengths are also emitted by planets and will allow scientists to determine the existence of planets that might have conditions for supporting life,” Cunningham said.

Studying the Eclipse
Cunningham shared a few examples of some of the interesting things that scientists will be able to study thanks to the solar eclipse:

  • Astronomers will study how the sudden drop in sunlight affects our upper atmosphere.
  • A team of astronomers hopes to be able to see new details of structures in the middle and lower corona.
  • A team of astronomers will make observations during the eclipse to learn more about the temperature and chemical composition of the corona and coronal mass ejections, or large bursts of solar material.
  • The NASA-funded Eclipse Soundscapes Project will collect the sights and sounds of a total solar eclipse with help from interested members of the public to better understand how an eclipse affects different ecosystems.

Citizen Science Opportunities
Cunningham will also discuss opportunities for public engagement in science, emphasizing the importance of citizen scientists and amateur astronomers. By fostering a spirit of curiosity and inquiry, attendees will be encouraged to actively participate in the scientific endeavor, contributing to humanity's ongoing exploration of the universe.

“We can learn so much about our world from experiments that are being conducted during the eclipse,” Cunningham said. “NASA has an entire web page of opportunities for citizen scientists to get involved and the American Astronomical Society also has a list of ways that citizens can get involved in experiments during the eclipse. Scientists will need the help of many individuals to conduct these experiments. How thrilling is it to be part of a larger project that helps us better understand how things work!”

About Beth A. Cunningham
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree (’82), a Master of Arts degree (’83) and a Doctor of Philosophy from Kent State University, all in physics. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota, she taught at Gettysburg College for a year.  She then joined the faculty in the physics department at Bucknell University, where she was later appointed as Associate Dean of the Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences. As a faculty member she involved students actively in her research and ran a National Science Foundation funded Research Experiences for Undergraduate site.

In 2006, Cunningham was appointed as Provost, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Physics at Illinois Wesleyan University.  As provost she initiated a strategic curricular review and revitalized departmental reviews to enhance academic programs. Cunningham joined AAPT in 2011 as the chief staff officer. Her role at AAPT involves supporting initiatives that provide professional development for physics educators at all educational levels. She has led several projects focused on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics including a project to retain women faculty in physics and astronomy departments as well as a project to facilitate cultural change in physics and astronomy departments. She serves on several boards including the Council on Undergraduate Research, AIP Publishing, and the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.

# # #

POSTED: Monday, March 25, 2024 05:23 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 26, 2024 01:34 PM
Jim Maxwell