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Yotes travel to New Mexico to stargaze into deep space

The backyards in the village of Mayhill, N.M., all have a certain feature in common—an observatory. Sitting at an elevation of 7,300 feet with special ordinances in place to protect the dark skies, it was the perfect place for former College of Idaho professor Joe Daglen to construct a house with two observatories a mere 100 feet from his back porch.

And for the past several years, Dr. Daglen has opened his home to Yotes interested in researching the final frontier. Such was the case for junior Natasha Dacic and senior Will Callahan during winter break. Taking a pause from “snowmagedon,” the pair traveled to New Mexico for six clear nights of stargazing.

“I wanted to take what I’ve learned in physics and apply it to a real-life research opportunity,” Dacic said. “A lot of times, students don’t get to do that.”

Their first few nights were spent huddled in jackets and sweaters under crisp skies, learning how to use Daglen’s telescopes for astronomical spectroscopy. Pointing the telescopes at stars millions of miles away, Dacic and Callahan received and recorded their light emission.

Spectroscopy is used to measure light that is emitted, absorbed, or scattered by materials. It can help researchers understand how an object like a black hole, neutron star, or active galaxy produces light, how fast it is moving, and what elements it is composed of, according to NASA.

The students also had the chance to peer at our galactic neighbors through a traditional telescope. They even learned how to do astrophotography, capturing images of the Orion and Running Man nebulas.

“When the students come down, it’s just a treat for me,” Daglen said. “I enjoy the astronomy and the students have the opportunity to get an experience they really can’t get anywhere else.”

Astronomy began as a hobby for Daglen, who ran a family practice in Caldwell for 28 years. After retiring, he had the chance to teach anatomy, physics and astronomy at the C of I from 2007-2013. He also had more time to devote to astronomy, which led to building a house in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.

“We built the house with the idea that students could come and stay here,” he said. “It gives them an authentic research opportunity to devise a plan, use scientific equipment to obtain their data, process it and present it. I think that’s one of the most important experiences in college, to learn how to do that.”

A usual “day” for Dacic and Callahan involved some classwork to understand concepts and equipment. Then after dinner, it was off to the observatory to focus in on their targets and start collecting data. That process continued until about 2 a.m. and required a fair amount of coffee.

They also explored New Mexico, visiting the city of Alamogordo, with its rich space history, the White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns and the National Solar Observatory.

“It was neat to gain the experience and have the opportunity to go down to New Mexico,” Dacic said. “Learning about the night sky and space has always interested me.”

Now, the duo is taking the information they gathered during winter break and analyzing it to see what each spectra can tell them about the stars. They’ll present their findings at the upcoming C of I Student Research Conference in April.

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit