Faculty Profile

Picture of Steve Schneider

Steve Schneider


I study issues of low surface brightness (and possibly "no surface brightness") objects. I am interested in dynamical estimates and observational determinations of the amount of mass present in a wide variety of objects--clusters of galaxies, groups of galaxies, individual galaxies, and even planetary nebulae.

I love the excitement when you look out there and know it’s all real. It stretches your mind.

“The history of astronomy is full of situations where people went off in wildly wrong directions,” Steve Schneider says, and he was a prime example. Despite a lifelong interest in the stars—he grew up in the space exploration era, watching Gemini and then Apollo missions—and a talent for math and physics, he was never quite sure about astronomy as a career. He only ended up at grad school in the field because he’d received a fellowship he was sure he wouldn’t get. Now it’s hard to think of him studying anything else.

Twelve years old when the first man landed on the Moon, Schneider loved looking at the night sky. He was an amateur astronomer, member of an astronomy club and going to start parties. He couldn’t see much on the north side of Chicago—it was hard to get away from the city lights. But that didn’t deter him. His passion for star-gazing, combined with a knack for math and physics, got him interested in astronomy in high school. “I had a physics teacher in my sophomore year in high school who saw the beauty of the science,” he says. “It was important to have a mentor who could get me thinking beyond the science in the book or on the tests.”

In college Schneider thought about a variety of majors—ancient languages was one, and even studio art at one point—but his skill in math and physics solidified his choice.”I thought physics was the way to go. I ended up choosing astronomy. It was so closely linked. And I decided partly because I liked the astronomers. It was a different kind of research. There was lots of missing information, It was like a mystery story. There’s lots of incorrect information you think is correct. Lots of holes. The history of the field is full of situations where people went off in wildly wrong directions.”

Then as he was graduating college he started hearing about the challenges of graduate school and that stirred up doubts about getting a doctorate in astronomy. He was looking into possibly teaching at a private school when he learned, to his surprise, that he had received a National Science Foundation fellowship that he had applied for—and he couldn’t defer it. “I had to scramble to figure out where to go,” he says. “I talked to my advisor, with whom I had written a paper in my sophomore year. He recommended Cornell and he knew some people there. It came with a full scholarship. They said, fill out this form and we will accept you. It was a little unusual.”

Perhaps to his surprise, he loved it. “I didn't know was how much fun graduate school is!” he says. “What you find out is, yes there’s coursework, but it’s new courses, and you stretch your mind in new ways, and research is really fun.”

After receiving his doctorate and a postdoctoral position, Schneider made the decision to try to get a faculty position. “I didn’t know much about UMass Amherst and I was quite taken the first time I came here,” he says. “I loved the location and the people I’d met. I was very hopeful that I'd get an offer and they came through. I’ve loved being here ever since. It’s a wonderful area of the country. There very few places where you can be out in the country and have all these cultural benefits.”

To be a successful astronomy student, Schneider says, you have to have strong physics and math skills, and more recently, computational skills, as computers are an increasingly bigger part of the field. “Find out if you enjoy math and physics in high school,” Schneider says. “And then when you come here, take those first classes even if you placed out. Step into those courses and be comfortable in them even if you didn't do great in high school. Try to see it in another way, don't be totally stressed out.” Work on your computational skills as well because those are also important, he says.

Schneider feels that the Five College Astronomy Department, a collaborative program shared among UMass Amherst and Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, gives undergraduates an unusual mix of small private school and big university. All the campuses work closely together, planning collaborations like a winter break trip for undergraduates to to to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, followed by a semester of looking at the data collected. “Our undergrads get this incredible opportunity to access the unique astronomy facilities at all the campuses, take classes with faculty who are terrific teachers, and experience what it’s really like to do astronomical research.”

Looking at stars never ceases to amaze him. “It’s a whole inspirational process,” he says. “I love getting that excitement, when you look out there and know it’s all real stuff, not a hoax, not a projected screen. It stretches your mind just to look at it. You’re on the edge of your seat with excitement about the discovery. It makes it a fun career. And if your hypothesis happens not to be correct, a negative result is still a result. It’s important in putting together the bigger picture.”