Student spends summer at Vatican Observatory School for research


After submitting an application and two letters of recommendation, Rutgers graduate student John Wu spent this past summer as one-half of the people accepted into the Vatican Observatory Summer School from the United States.

Wu, a graduate research assistant, has managed to put his vast scientific knowledge to use in Castel Gandolfo within the Vatican City State. 

In Europe, Wu, along with 24 other students from 22 other countries, attended the prestigious VOSS program while residing with his colleagues in a nearby hotel, located 20 minutes south of Rome. 

Wu had never been to Europe and said his primary reason for attending VOSS was for academic research purposes.

“[I] went for the purpose of studying galaxy evolution and formation with some invited faculty from institutions around the world,” Wu said. “There was a big emphasis on international collaboration and cultural enrichment of being able to work with people from around the world. It was something that I had never done.”

Working at the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the School of Arts and Sciences, Wu was driven by his interest in astrophysics during his time at the Vatican.

“Just as most scientists and definitely physicists, [we] really like to strike at the fundamentals of why anything does what it does. As an astrophysicist, I care about why the universe exists as it does,” Wu said. 

He added that the diverse nature of galaxies and its inability to be fully accessed make it a difficult area to study.

Along with Rachel Mandelbaum, his undergraduate adviser from Carnegie Mellon University, Wu credited Andrew Baker, associate professor at the Rutgers Department of Physics and Astronomy, for helping him get accepted into VOSS. 

While both individuals supplemented his “standard application” with letters of recommendation, it was Baker who encouraged Wu to apply to the program. 

“The particular theme of this year’s school — ‘Galaxies: Near and Far, Young and Old’— was a good match for John’s background and interests, so I thought he’d be able to get a lot out of the school if he were able to attend it,” Baker said.

In addition to his advisers in the U.S., Wu also impressed Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., planetary scientist, research astronomer and coordinator for public relations at the Vatican Observatory. 

“John was an excellent addition to our school,” Consolmagno said. “His knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy was infectious, and I saw first hand how the way he shared his own multicultural heritage helped a lot of the other students, who themselves came from so many different backgrounds.”

While it is true that he would frequently spend 12 to 14 hour days working at the Vatican Observatory, Wu was also able to enjoy being in Italy during his time off on the weekends. 

He and his colleagues visited the cities of Rome, Florence and Assisi, though he did not venture out of Italy. 

Despite the obvious religious affiliation with the Vatican and his once-in-a-lifetime “amazing” private audience with Pope Francis, Wu and the Vatican Observatory kept to the scientific tasks at hand.

“[Religion] is a bit of a confounding variable, in terms of how it impacts my scientific output. There isn’t much I could or would do to entail the two,” Wu said. “The whole time, though, the Vatican Observatory was all science.” 

On a typical day, Wu would walk with his colleagues from their hotel to the Observatory to attend various lectures, discussions and open forums in the mornings. Only taking actual breaks for meals, they would continue to work on any of the research projects they were involved in. Wu, in particular, was working on three. 

As taxing as his work was, he maintained motivation and a positive attitude because he loved what he was doing. Wu’s analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data and the changes with cosmic redshift would hopefully allow him to discover or refine theories within the study of our universe.

“The work that we did had some good results, and a lot of it looks really promising,” Wu said. “[We’re] hoping to publish a journal article some time in the future. We’ve got our fingers crossed.” 

Although he appreciated time spent conducting galactic research at the prestigious Vatican Observatory, Wu was mainly concerned about scientific research and analysis for academia’s sake.

Unlike many individuals, he does not and will not stop trying to make sense of the universe because he is not only insatiably curious, but he loves being involved in this field. His dream is to become a professor, which will be aided by his travels of the world.

“You need to have a very broadened mind and perspective of things, not only with science but with culture. That gives you more to draw from just in having different modes of thinking … It’s good way of becoming a better scientist,” Wu said. 


Dan Corey

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