Teaching the Stars

            Paula Turner, 52, is an admirable physics and astronomy professor.

            That’s a message that comes from her students at Kenyon College in Ohio, her students on the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus in San Luis and her teaching colleagues.

Dr. Paula C. Turner, professor of physics and astronomy
Dr. Paula C. Turner, professor of physics and astronomy

   Turner grew up on a farm in Illinois, she said, and attended the University of Illinois, Champaign, where she received a bachelor of science degree in physics.  She then went to graduate school at the University of Rochester, New York, where she attained her master of science in physics, as well as a doctorate in physics and astronomy.

            Although she liked the idea of being a lawyer when she was young, she said, she loved all aspects of school.  When her high school science instructor advised her to major in physics in college, he put a new idea into her head.

            “So I got my undergrad degree as a physics major, but astronomy happened as an accident,” she said. “I was asked to be a teaching assistant for a junior-level astro/physics course, so I had to learn the astronomy part really fast.”

            Once she started doing her own research, she realized that making measurements and understanding lab physics could lead to more specific information about how the stars work.

            Turner said that she learned later on that research did not give her nearly as much satisfaction as teaching.

            “I love teaching,” she said.  “I am a teacher because I have a compulsion to explain things to people. I am a teacher first, and an astronomer second.”

            Turner has developed some strong relationships with her students over the years and many have expressed a sincere admiration and appreciation of her.

           Maggie Huff studied under Turner at Kenyon College.

           “My favorite thing about Paula as a teacher is that she is incredibly thorough and great at explaining things,” Huff said.  “If you really want to understand a concept inside and out, not just how to do a certain calculation to get a result, she is the best.”

           Huff said that Turner had gained her highest recommendations.

          “She is an incredible friend and professor,” she said.

            She has made a similar impact on her UGA Costa Rica Maymester students in just three weeks.

         “I am positive that there are few other professors that could have taught me astronomy as well as Paula did, even if I took it for an entire semester,” said Henry Schunk, a senior at the university.

            Outside of astronomy, Turner said, she likes to make things.

            She said that whether it was cooking, woodworking or crafting jewelry, she is definitely a very “hands-on” type of person. This is why teaching fits her so perfectly.

             Turner’s teaching colleagues also find that she has something to give them.

“Paula’s enthusiasm for the night-sky can inspire interest in anyone,” said Jaime Bull, an art instructor from the University of Georgia who is working the Maymester term at the San Luis campus in Costa Rica.  “Her energy is contagious.”

Turner has earned a lot of admiration over the years from her physics and astronomy students, but nothing was ever as rewarding for her as teaching.

The best part about her job, she said, is helping students who are afraid that they will never understand science concepts.

“They may not get it 100 percent,” she said. “but, they can always get better.”

    Story by Stephanie Ventura, student in Journalism and Astronomy

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