Four students wearing protective glasses look up at the eclipse.

Paths to totality

Image credit: Joel Haskell

Author  Grace Ramsdell
Published on 

Treya Pember ’25 didn’t know she wanted to be an astrophysics major when she arrived at Wellesley. Taking an astronomy course would just fulfill a distribution requirement while she focused on social sciences, she thought. But she felt a pull to the stars. On her way to an economics class first semester, she got a message that she’d made it off the waitlist for ASTR 100: Life in the Universe. “It totally changed my trajectory. I immediately dropped the econ class,” she says.

For Alejandra Rodriguez ’25, courses orbited around astronomy from the start, but college was a hard adjustment—her high school, she says, was underprivileged and under-resourced: “I didn’t really have a strong background.” Once she felt grounded enough in astronomy, though, she set her sights higher still. “As the years progressed, I was like, ‘Maybe I also want to do astrophysics. That’s a little bit more physics—maybe I want to challenge myself,’” she says.

Though the paths they took differed, Pember and Rodriguez ended up in the same place—studying in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and more specifically, witnessing the total solar eclipse in Vermont on April 8 with their peers.

“It’s about once every 400 years that you get a total solar eclipse for a given location on Earth,” says Jonathan Kemp, manager and instrument specialist at the College’s Whitin Observatory. With Wellesley so close to the path of totality for this eclipse, he says, “we had an obligation to make a valiant attempt to experience it and share it with our community.”

Pember, Rodriguez, and 18 other students from the department traveled with professors and staff to see the celestial event. All astronomy and astrophysics majors were invited on the fully funded trip, as were senior physics majors and “a few other students who were substantially involved as either physics majors, astrophysics-interested students, or observatory-affiliated students,” says Kemp, who helped organize the trip.The group decided on the go where they would stop to watch the eclipse, checking weather forecasts in different towns and eventually settling on Derby Line, Vt., on the Canadian border. From a field next to an elementary school, under clear skies, they watched as the moon passed in front of the sun.

“This was such a ‘together’ moment, a human experiential moment … to think about ourselves, our place on the planet, our place in the solar system, our place in the universe.”

Jonathan Kemp, manager and instrument specialist at Whitin Observatory

“Everyone was talking about all the different astronomical effects that they had heard would occur during the eclipse,” says Pember. “It was fun for everyone to be able to use that knowledge.”

When the eclipse reached totality and their environment briefly went dark, Rodriguez says she felt “disconnected from the modern world,” thinking to herself, “Oh my gosh, this is what we’re living in.”

“This was such a ‘together’ moment, a human experiential moment … to think about ourselves, our place on the planet, our place in the solar system, our place in the universe,” Kemp says, adding that he wishes he could have taken the whole College to see it.

Through the Theatre Studies program, students involved in a campus production of the play Silent Sky also traveled together to experience totality in Vermont. “Some of the tech crew joked that the moon was nature’s original gobo—a filter used on stage lights to produce different colors and shapes of light,” says cast member Crystal McArdle-Ventura ’27. As a prospective double major in astrophysics and computer science, McArdle-Ventura was grateful for the opportunity to observe totality. “Seeing the movement of the celestial bodies with my very own eyes has solidified my interest in space,” she says.

Students wearing protective glasses gaze up at the eclips.
Many students from the physics and astronomy department went to Vermont to witness totality. Photo by Alejandra Rodriguez ’25

While many students from the physics and astronomy department were on the road, others from the Astro Students Toward Recreational Observing (ASTRO) Club hosted a viewing at the Whitin Observatory for the partial eclipse visible from campus. More than 1,000 visitors from the College community stopped by over the course of the eclipse, which reached 93% totality in the region.

ASTRO members Amie Lopez ’26, Megan O’Leary ’26, and Caroline Floreno ’27 helped lead the day’s programming. “I am so happy that I was able to experience this with the Wellesley community,” Floreno says. “Seeing that number of people come up to the observatory to look at the sky meant the world to me.” Lopez says he was standing with O’Leary when the crowd clapped at the peak of the partial eclipse. “We mutually said to one another, ‘This is community,’” he recalls.

That community is one Pember and Rodriguez will continue to foster as co-presidents of ASTRO Club next year, inspired anew by viewing the eclipse. “I’m constantly working on outreach efforts to make events like that accessible to more and more people,” Pember says, expressing a sentiment shared by many in the department and club. ASTRO Club regularly hosts observing events and tours at the observatory, as well as informal gatherings for members, who don’t need to be astronomy or astrophysics students to join the club.

Looking up at the night sky is a visceral experience, Kemp says, regardless of one’s field of study. The observatory, which will be 125 years old in 2025, is a home for astronomy and astrophysics students, but it’s also open to anyone “who might have a more casual interest in the sky, or in just being human,” Kemp says.

At the end of the day, Wellesley’s astronomy and astrophysics students are particularly poised for perspective. “Physics is really hard,” Pember says. “The things that keep you going are moments like the eclipse.” There are day-to-day experiences, too. “Using the telescopes here at the observatory is really grounding for me—remembering I love the scale of space and all the objects that are out there,” Pember says. Coming to Wellesley helped her rediscover that love after male-dominated STEM classes discouraged her in high school. “I wouldn’t do astrophysics at any other college,” she says.

Rodriguez, too, has something she keeps in mind when courses get tough: “I always tell myself, ‘Don’t worry, it’s OK, no matter how hard it is, you’re doing it for a reason—you’re doing it to learn more, to be fascinated about things.’”