Student Spotlight: Joseph Bernstein

Joseph Bernstein

Joseph Bernstein
Major: Physical Science 

College of DuPage graduate Joseph P. Bernstein, Ph.D. is an expert at dark energy. Having worked for many years at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, he's now helping the next generation of scientists at the University of Chicago.

While at Argonne, Bernstein was part of the Dark Energy Survey collaboration, which includes institutions from the U.S., Chile, Spain, the United Kingdom and Brazil. His group at Argonne also was leading the effort to determine what strategy the DES should use to search for supernovae in the night sky.

“Understanding dark energy has been described as one of the most important challenges of modern science,” he said.

Bernstein explained that in 1998, distant supernovae of a specific subtype were discovered to be fainter than they would be if the universe contained only matter. The leading explanation is that 75 percent of the universe is made up of a mysterious or “dark” energy that has accelerated the expansion of the universe, resulting in these supernovae being further away.

He was first interested in science as a child, when he’d look up at the night sky and wonder what was going on “up there.” He also was intrigued with stories about his grandfather, who was an atmospheric scientist. The work of his aunt, a marine biologist, was also inspirational. The homeschooled Bernstein knew he wanted to be an astronomer, and he and his parents saw COD as a good place to begin.

“I benefited greatly from the small class sizes and personal contact with the faculty,” he said. “Direct interaction with the faculty without going through teaching assistants was especially important. The fact that faculty engage students in research meant that the faculty members I studied under were very well positioned to guide me toward a career in science.”

Bernstein earned his Associate in Science from COD in 1993. While at the College, he was an Honors Scholar and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honors society. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of Chicago, receiving Physics department and college honors. His master’s in Physics came from the University of Kentucky, followed by a master’s and doctorate in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Michigan.

Bernstein wanted to step out of research so he could apply his knowledge toward helping the public understand science. In 2012, he became the Communications Lead for the Physical Sciences and Engineering Directorate at Argonne, which consists of five research divisions and five centers/user facilities.

Now he's returned to the University of Chicago in a position that allows him to help students on a daily basis.

"As the Associate Director, Graduate Student Preparations, I oversee the Graduate Services team that provides career services to the Biological, Physical and Social Sciences Divisions as well as the Humanities Division and Divinity School," he said. "In addition, I serve as liaison to the Physical Science Division, working with administrators and faculty on a broad spectrum of career programming for graduate students, alumni, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates interested in graduate school."

Tom Carter, professor of Physics at COD, applauds Bernstein’s success.

“I’ve known Joe as both a researcher and a fellow educator, and he’s impressive in both fields,” Carter said. “I’m only disappointed I wasn’t around to have him as a student. I’m sure he asked tough questions that kept his teachers on their toes.”

Bernstein enjoyed his study of dark energy because of its “ultra-mysterious nature” and its importance to understanding the fate of the universe.

“I wanted to contribute to the understanding of whether or not the amount of dark energy in the universe varies with time,” he said. “Answering this question will elucidate the physical properties of dark energy, thereby allowing scientists to advance the understanding of it."

More about the Physics program