Professor shines as star organization’s president

Jacque Sondgeroth

One of Iowa State’s star professors has been named president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

Lee Anne Willson, professor of physics and astronomy, said her favorite part of AAVSO is the people involved.

“As president, my main interest is maintaining contact with members around the world,” she said. “Many of the society members are linked together through e-mail.”

The society, which meets twice a year, is a network of observers who watch the stars and then produce data, Willson said.

“Some of the stars have been observed for over a hundred years,” she said. “It is a massive, long-term project.”

Willson said meetings include a science session, a business session and a “fun banquet where awards are given for discoveries and most observations.”

For many of the members, astronomy is a side interest. Willson originally got involved in AAVSO for academic purposes.

“I became interested in the society in 1978 when I was in Massachusetts for other reasons and stopped by to look at AAVSO’s light curves,” Willson said. Light curves are a star’s brightness plotted against time.

Willson said she spent days making copies of the light curves, which were done with pencil and paper at the time. After that, Willson did her first round of service for the association. She has been a member for 20 years.

It is this appreciation that makes Wilson qualified to be president, said Janet Mattei, AAVSO director.

“She is a unique theoretical astronomer in that she recognizes the importance of observations in making good theories,” she said.

Mattei said Willson has very special leadership qualities. “Members look up to her,” she said.

Willson has been a professor at Iowa State for more than 26 years. She has been aware of the data produced by the AAVSO since the start of her career in 1973.

She said she recommends the association to her upper-level astronomy students.

“AAVSO is good for those who want to keep up with astronomy while having another career,” she said.

The society receives more than 350,000 observations yearly from more than 550 observers worldwide. The organization is the largest of its kind and has members in more than 40 countries.

This nonprofit scientific and educational society coordinates observations by members, evaluates the accuracy of observations, and compiles and publishes them.