Like many kids, Andrew Nadolski thought it would be cool to grow up and be a paleontologist or an archeologist. As he got older, school work was not a priority and he never dreamed of college as an option. All of that changed for the Carbondale, IL native after four-year enlistment with the U.S. Marine Corps and receipt of the G.I. Bill.
His passion for science – astronomy, in particular – did not take shape until he was nearing the end of his undergrad years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He recalls being somewhat disconnected from his peers, and not sure about what he wanted to do next.
“I attended an astronomy seminar about a telescope based at the South Pole,” he said. “I wondered if there was any way I could land a job like that. I expressed my interest to faculty member Joaquin Vieira, who happened to be working on that South Pole Telescope project. He asked me if I might consider graduate research. I asked him if I would be able to travel to Antarctica – he said yes, and the rest is history.”
Nadolski studied cosmic microwave background radiation – the first light emitted after the Big Bang and the oldest radiation in the universe. “By looking at how this radiation interacts with everything between us and it, we can begin to get a sense of how the universe came to be the way it is today,” he said.
His focus was on the design of a specialized coating for the ceramic lenses used in microwave telescopes, and he had the chance to deploy his knowledge during several trips to Antarctica – the longest being for 11 months in 2017.
“Each day, my teammates and I would hike out to the telescope, which was about a kilometer from the station,” he said. “We would perform mechanical checks; make sure that everything is functioning as expected. Then we would turn the telescope to whatever parts of the sky in which we wanted to collect data.”
An exciting highlight came in 2017 when the telescope became part of the array known as Event Horizon Telescope – the project that produced the first-ever photograph of a black hole in 2019.
“The EHT project uses millimeter-wave radiation in a different way than the SPT a slighter shorter wavelength than microwave radiation, so we had to retrofit the telescope,” Nadolski said. “We bolted on a different type of detector, optics systems and a different set of mirrors.”
Nadolski defended his dissertation in March and will graduate with a Ph.D. in astronomy this May. Then, he is off to Oregon to start a job with Intel. Beyond his outstanding and unique educational experience at U. of I., he says he is thankful for some of the personal bonds he forged on campus.
“I made a lot of great friends here at the U. of I., and will always look fondly on my time here.” He said. Perhaps most special to him is his time spent tinkering with equipment and keeping the Campus Observatory running with volunteer Craig Sutter.