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North Medford stars among the stars

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Matthew Hoeper (courtesy photo)
Dr. Rachel Smullen (courtesy photo)
Shane Bechtel (courtesy photo)
North Medford High School graduates to talk about their education in astrophysics at upcoming Zoom talk

“Shoot for the moon,” the old adage goes. “Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Not that shooting for the stars in the first place is a bad thing. On the contrary. No one breezes through an education in astrophysics, no matter what astral discipline they’re focused on.

But three former North Medford High School graduates who have charted such professional trajectories want current high school students interested in studying outer space — be their focus the moon, the stars or something else — that it can be done.

Matthew Hoeper, North Medford High class of 2014, Shane Bechtel, class of 2016, and Dr. Rachel Smullen, class of 2010, will talk about their respective paths to studies and careers in astrophysics and rocket design at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 19, during a Zoom webinar.

The event, sponsored by North Medford High School, Southern Oregon Skywatchers, and ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, is open to anyone. It’s accessible at https://medfordsd.zoom.us/j/97363587874. The room opens at 6:30 p.m. There will be time for questions.

The cancellation of a previous course offered at the high school, focused on college and career pathways, inspired the event, Black says.

“I thought, ’Well, it seems like it should be everybody’s responsibility to give that kind of college and career advice to kids, because it’s something pretty hard to navigate,” Black says.

Black has been part of previous webinars focused on folks with local ties now working in the aerospace industry, including one with former Medford resident Matt Heverly, NASA Rover Program veteran at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Black thought it would be worth it to have similar-minded people speak, too, but thought former students would be a particularly beneficial focus.

“Find some alum that, you know, walked these halls, and get them to impart, first of all, what they’re doing, and then, how did they get to the point where they are now?” he says.

Black came up with a short list of former students whose professional focus and goals remained above the stratosphere. He ended up tracking down Hoeper, Bechtel and Smullen.

Bechtel, an Arizona State University graduate with undergraduate degrees in astrophysics and physics, is a PhD student in the UC Santa Barbara physics program. He wants to be a professor, either in astronomy or astrophysics. At the talk, he hopes to temper any intimidation high school students might feel about pursuing a career in the field.

“In all honesty, you just need a somewhat cursory understanding of a lot of it,” Bechtel says of the work required. “There are a lot of different fields of astronomy, and there are a lot of different places for people to slot in.”

Hoeper, a PhD student at Purdue University, is studying mechanical engineering with a focus on rocket propulsion. He graduated from Oregon State University with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in 2018. He hopes to impart that individuals wanting to become aerospace engineers aren’t bound by a particular academic pathway.

“Don’t worry about getting it right when you start,” Hoeper says. “If you want to want to be an aerospace engineer, you don’t need to have an aerospace major. Every engineering discipline can play a role in the aerospace sector.”

Smullen, who could not be reached for comment, is a Metropolis Postdoctoral Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to an event flyer. She graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2014 with undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy.

“Rachel’s research has spanned a wide variety of topics, from Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, to planets around binary stars, to the formation stars like our sun from giant clouds of gas in space,” the flyer reads.

Black hopes to do more student-led webinars in the same vein. He also hopes other teachers will consider similar programs themselves.

“The pandemic has taught us that we can get people together from all over the place pretty effortlessly,” he says. “I imagine every good veteran teacher’s got kids that have gone on to excel in disciplines they were taught in high school.”

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.