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Daniel Patnaude
Young Alumni Award

Burned out on biology classes and eager to try something new, Dan Patnaude combined one course in physics with one "astronomy-related" science fair project and lots of hard work and perseverance to earn his Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from Dartmouth College ('05). Now, just twenty years past NAHS graduation, Patnaude is an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, MA, who has achieved international acclaim as the leader of a team of astronomers that recently discovered the youngest black hole inside of an exploded star.

Dan describes himself as "average" in high school and credits Mr. David Vito and Miss Elaine Bedard as being two of his "favorite and most influential teachers." He also recalls fondly that physics teacher Mr. Frank Kelly had students build things. This interest in building things prompted Dan to purchase a book that he still owns entitled "How to Build Your Own Radio Telescope." It was this book that eventually led Dan to design a project in which he would "observe eclipsing binary stars and then try to model the light curves with a computer program." The project earned Dan a 3rd place finish in the state science fair and convinced him to major in astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (’95).

Dan's aptitude for building things continues today. He is "most proud" of the fact that he "contributed to building something that was launched into space more than 10 years ago (the Chandra X-ray Observatory) and it is still working well, even though it was initially designed as a five year mission." Dan offered, "It is rewarding to know that so many people have discovered so many things with something that I contributed to building." It was the very same Chandra X-ray Observatory that allowed Dan and his team to discover the aforementioned black hole.

Dr. Patnaude is quick to credit several individuals for their profound influence on his professional career. He cites his graduate thesis advisor, Rob Fesen at Dartmouth College, as probably his biggest influence. In addition, Dan praised the two co-authors on their black hole paper- Christine Jones, "who has been something of an informal advisor of mine since I came to SAO in 1995 and then returned in 2005, and Avi Loeb, the director of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, who encouraged me to take some risks in my research (which ultimately paid off)."

Prior to assuming his current position at the SAO, Dr. Patnaude has held teaching positions at UC Santa Barbara, Dartmouth College and Lebanon College. Also, he was honored with a NASA Space Grant (2004) and the Smithsonian Achievement Award for Chandra Ground Calibration (1997). In addition to his membership in several professional societies and his varied professional service, Dr. Patnaude has been principal investigator on grants totaling $365K and co-investigator on grants totaling $425K, as well as author or co-author of dozens of scholarly publications.

When pressed for additional insight relevant to his career success, Dan had this to say: "I think it is important to take chances. Astronomy and science in general are becoming big and expensive. It costs several billion dollars to build space telescopes or telescopes on tops of mountains. Because of this, science is now generally done in large collaborations. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it leads to scientific results which tend to be incremental, because no one wants to take a risk since the stakes (in terms of funding dollars) are too high."

He continued, "Incremental science is about as boring as it gets. I know this because some of the stuff I do is incremental in nature. But I am a big believer in taking risks and trying new things. The way I look at it, the worst that can happen is that you are wrong or that what you tried to do did not work. Is that really so bad?"