Every other week, the West Virginia University Astronomy Club gathers on the rooftop of White Hall to gaze at the night sky.
Planetary nebulas, constellations, clusters – if it’s visible through the Observatory’s 14-inch Celestron telescope, the club members will geek out about it.
Among the students is a bearded fellow who chats up his classmates on courses they’re taking, favorite professors and eateries on High Street. For the past few years, they’ve elected him club president.
He’s a lot like them. Only he’s got a few more gray hairs and 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.
“Want to look at Saturn?” he asks, just seconds after positioning the telescope.
Rodney Elliott’s fascination with space began while growing up in Bogata, Texas. He got into “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and other sci-fi programming. Now 41 and married with two college-aged daughters, his curiosity for the wonders of the universe has become the beginning of a new life.
“I never seriously thought that I could pursue this as a career,” Elliott said. “I finished high school and joined the Air Force. College was an option, but I couldn’t afford it. Being a first-generation student, I wasn’t made aware of scholarships or student aid.”
One driving factor for Elliott joining the Air Force was just that – to receive funding for college. His original plan involved completing one enlistment and then leaving the military for school.
But he kept reenlisting.
He began his military career as a driver delivering aircraft parts in South Korea. He was later retrained to work as a database administrator for several years. Then the Air Force sent him to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in California to train as a linguist.
“I fully expected to be trained in Arabic but they taught me Russian,” he said, which is why the physics senior is also majoring in Russian studies.
His time in the Air Force also came with a few deployments. He was sent to Saudi Arabia twice for Operation Southern Watch, an air-centric military operation conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense from 1992 to 2003. That mission called for monitoring the airspace in southern and south-central Iraq. Elliott also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the mobilization following 9/11.
“I was in Baghdad but not during the hottest part of the war,” he said. “We saw mortar fire a few times on base where you had to take cover. … It’s weird to say, but I felt safer in Iraq than in some places in the U.S. because you’re on a well-protected base and you’ve got body armor.”
He credits his military and global experiences for his success in college and life in general.
“The biggest benefit I got from my time in the military was being exposed to people outside the bubble of my hometown,” he said. “You’re forced to work with people from all walks of life. It gives you a different perspective and the travel obviously was one of the highlights. I got to live in South Korea, Hawaii, Arizona and California, just to name a few.”
It took 20 years, but he finally made it to college. His wife, Kami, whom he met in the Air Force, is a Fairmont, W.Va., native, which played a role in him choosing WVU.
“I looked at WVU and saw they had a phenomenal astronomy staff,” Elliott said. “And the fact that the Green Bank Observatory is affiliated, that really attracted me to this University.”
Elliott retired from the Air Force in January 2016 and started at WVU that same month.
In April 2018, he won the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering fields. The scholarship, worth up to $7,500, is awarded to sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming America’s next generation of research leaders.
Elliott’s primary research focus is supermassive binary black holes, which are formed as remnants of galaxy mergers and are a source of gravitational waves.
“Most galaxies have a supermassive black hole in the center, including our own,” Elliott explained. “When two galaxies collide, the two supermassive black holes eventually merge. In the process, they would orbit each other and emit gravitational waves of a frequency that we should be able to detect – but we haven’t yet – by using pulsar timing arrays.”
Elliott, who researches with Sarah Burke-Spolaor, assistant professor of astronomy, hopes to continue this endeavor after he graduates in May 2019. He’s eyeing graduate programs across the country in astronomy and astrophysics. Someday he hopes to land a job as a staff astronomer at an observatory.
In the summer of 2017, he attended what he called a radio astronomy dream camp at Green Bank where he worked on a research project estimating the mass of the Milky Way galaxy.
“The whole experience confirmed my desire to study the cosmos and share that knowledge with others,” Elliott said. “I feel so fortunate to work on my degree at a top research school like WVU.
“A lot of people in the military do their 20 years, retire and get a civilian job doing the same thing they did in the military. I could have done that.
“I probably could have gotten a really good-paying job in intel. But I wanted to do this. I wanted to do science.”