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New Faces: Jason Steffen

The physics professor on astronomy, heroic efforts, and how to board a plane.

People  |  Oct 12, 2015  |  By Shane Bevell

Jason Steffen, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. (Courtesy of UNLV Physics & Astronomy)

As we board airplanes, most of us think to ourselves, “There has to be a better way.” Well, there is. And the person who devised it is assistant professor Jason Steffen, the newest faculty member in physics & astronomy. After being stuck in a long line at the airport in 2008, he came up with a more efficient process. Read Vox's "The Way We Board Planes Makes Absolutely No Sense" or Google the “Steffen Method” and enjoy.

Why UNLV?

It is very exciting to be part of UNLV at this time as the university plans to increase its research presence. The new Cherry Creek computer is a world-class instrument that will be very valuable to my work and that of my students and collaborators. In addition, the Las Vegas area is a great place to live and raise my family.

What is your area of research?

I study various properties of exoplanets and exoplanetary systems (systems of planets that orbit distant stars). I’ve been a part of NASA’s Kepler mission since 2008 and work primarily with Kepler data. I’m looking forward to the launch of NASA’s TESS mission, which is a successor to Kepler.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

Understanding how our solar system compares with the other planetary systems that we have discovered. There are thousands of planets known to orbit distant stars (more than 500 known planets for each one in the solar system). However, most of these planets are nothing like the planets in the solar system. They are either a different size (halfway between Earth and Neptune) or they are on much smaller orbits (a few tens of days instead of a few hundreds of days). We still don’t know how or where these planets formed in their various systems and how they may have arrived at their current positions.

What drew you to your profession?

I think the combination of learning how things work and having challenging problems to solve were the main things that drew me to physics.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

As our measurements become more and more precise in this field, we are finding that most of our uncertainty comes from our lack of understanding of the stars that the planets orbit.

Where were you before UNLV?

Most recently I came from Northwestern University where I was a Lindheimer Fellow. Prior to that I was the Brinson Fellow at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Both of these institutions are in Chicagoland.

Do you have one tip for success?

Great things come through small and simple means. People tend to make much more progress by taking a large goal and then breaking it down and accomplishing small, bite-sized tasks than they do by making the occasional “heroic” effort.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Google the “Steffen Method” to find out.

What can’t you work without?

I hope that I never know.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Fruit Heights, Utah — a suburb a few miles north of Salt Lake City. So, moving back to the Intermountain West has the benefit of bringing me closer to my family.

What is the proudest moment of your life?

When I married my wife 15 years ago.

What are your hobbies?

Raising kids, though I enjoy reading nonfiction books, which I discovered in graduate school, and reading the occasional fantasy novel.