Faculty Spotlight: Aurelian Balan, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics
Aurelian Balan wasn’t sure what the future held for him.
Growing up in New York during his teenage years, Balan was stargazing one evening when he got a rare show in the night sky and, perhaps, an answer to his question.
“I was standing on my friend’s porch in Queens and, you know, you can’t see anything in Queens except for Orion, maybe the Big Dipper if you’re lucky and there’s not a building in the way,” Balan said. “I was just talking to him about what we were going to do and a shooting star flew by and broke apart in the sky, brighter than I had ever seen. That was kind of my sign.”
Whether it was fate or coincidence, the falling star led him to a career in astronomy and physics as an associate professor at Delta College.
Giving students hands-on experience with telescopes and other equipment to observe the night sky helps Balan teach students about practical applications in astronomy. Every assignment involves having the class view or build something.
“I have to show them that I’m excited about astronomy and why studying a star 26 trillion miles away matters.”
To do that, Balan uses Stellarium to simulate the night sky. The free software, available for Mac, Window and Linux, is like having a planetarium for your computer. In fact, many planetariums use Stellarium when projecting images in their facilities.
Problem solving is what Balan tries to relay to his students. One way that he does this is by flipping the classroom; a method aimed more at interaction instead of lecture.
“Instead of telling the class the surface conditions of Pluto, I’ll show them the best picture of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope and ask them to talk in groups for three minutes and come up with everything they can about Pluto.
Unfortunately for astronomers like Balan, stargazing can be difficult in the Great Lakes Bay Area.
“In Queens, you’ll see only the dozen brightest stars,” Balan said. “Here, you’ll see maybe a few hundred. But, honestly, it should be better. Our downtowns are bright. Light pollution is kind of contaminating the area.”
To get a better glimpse of the night sky, Balan will often travel two hours northeast to Lincoln in Alcona County. On occasion, he’ll go to The Headlands in Mackinaw City. It is a 550-acre International Dark Sky Park, one of approximately a dozen in the world.
Balan is also involved in Science Olympiad at Delta. The competition is for middle school and high school students and Balan is the co-director with Assistant Professor in Chemistry Jonathan Gittins and Microbiology Laboratory Coordinator Patty Wood.
Wood said working with Balan is a breath of fresh air.
"His brain is always working a million miles per hour,” she said. “He makes everything you do with him a lot easier because he's in the moment. But he's always 10 steps ahead."
"He's brilliant and he knows exactly what he's talking about," Wood said. "He reads people. You often don't see that in a physicist."
Balan believes astronomy has gained popularity because of two recent documentary series: “The Universe,” which was originally aired on The History Channel and the remake of the “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” which ran on Fox and National Geographic Channel. Each now can be seen on Netflix.
Balan has a message for prospective students looking to attend Delta.
“First of all, you’re a genius for looking at a community college where it’s less than $100 per credit hour,” he said. “Number two, science is awesome. There are many jobs in science. Just make sure you have a passion for whatever you pick and make sure it’s something you can see yourself doing for a long time.”