Entrance Torch

Boundless: Katie Willenbrink ’18 Studies the Course and the Stars

Whether it’s in the classroom, at the observatory, or on the golf course, anyone who encounters Katie Willenbrink ’18 is bound to take note of her cool and collected demeanor.

That ability to stay calm helps Katie pull off a virtual juggling act as she thrives academically as a physics major and athletically as a member of the women’s golf team, in addition to working with Bruce Hrivnak, Ph.D., professor of physics and astronomy, as a research aid.

“Keeping up with everything can be really difficult; there are some long days,” Katie says. “My professors have been very accommodating to me as an athlete, and my coach has been accommodating to my academic priorities. They all want me to succeed on both fronts.”

The seeds of Katie’s love for astronomy were planted during her sophomore year of high school when her astronomy class learned about the transit of Venus. While Katie’s parents are both involved in business and marketing, they encouraged their daughters to pursue the sciences. Katie’s sister is a biomedical engineer.

By the time Katie made her college decision, the passion that began to form during her early high school days had sprouted full force. But she had another love to keep in mind — one for the sport of golf — and she didn’t want to give that up either. That’s where Valpo entered the picture.

Fast-forward four years, and everything that attracted Katie to Valpo in the first place is still what makes this the place for her.

“I’ve had countless opportunities with the physics and astronomy department,” she says. “I’ve been involved in the department since my sophomore year — I was a lab aid and a summer intern, and I’ve been doing outreach for astronomy. I knew Valpo could provide me with the opportunity to compete in big-school athletics while still giving me the small-school value of these great opportunities.”

Katie owns a 3.53 grade point average in physics. Her mentor in the field? That’s Professor Hrivnak, who has hired her to work for him the past two summers. First she stayed up late at night studying and observing stars in 2016, then she performed analysis in 2017.

“She is very dedicated and does her work carefully,” Professor Hrivnak says. “She has always been a reliable, enthusiastic, and pleasant person to work with. She practices strong time management. She’s not one who is calling in with excuses. The travel can be very stressful and time-demanding for student-athletes, and she has done an extremely good job managing it.”

Like Katie, Professor Hrivnak exemplifies what Valpo is all about. During holidays when students are still on campus, he and his wife will invite students to their house.

“It really is a family — you come on campus and everyone is so friendly, especially the athletic department and the professors,” Katie says. “Everyone at Valpo is willing to provide you with all of the opportunities in the world, you just have to take advantage of them.”

And take advantage Katie has, as she will attend the national conference for the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., the second week of January. During the conference, she’ll present her work on the Spectral Classification of Evolved Stars, a project she started with Professor Hrivnak during the summer and continued into the fall semester. She is able to determine the temperature and size of a star based on the absorption features she sees in its spectrum of light.

The conference is an important event, offering Katie the unique occasion to interact and network with professional astronomers and graduate students. Professor Hrivnak estimates that he has had six to eight students present at the conference throughout the last 20 years. He expects approximately 2,000 astronomers to attend the event.

On the golf course, Katie finished the fall season as the team leader in scoring average and owns an 82.32 career average, which ranks fifth in program history.

“Golfing at Valpo has been an extremely positive experience,” she says. “As a senior, I have tried to help push our team to a point where we can succeed in the Missouri Valley. It’s been enjoyable to be in a new conference, and we’re trying to make history as a team.”

Less than a month after her trip to our nation’s capital, Katie will board a plane again, this time on her way to Port St. Lucie, Florida, for the first of four tournaments during the spring season, which culminates with the Missouri Valley Conference Championship in Newton, Kansas, in April.

“Katie representing Valpo at a national conference holds great significance for our program,” Valpo head women’s golf coach Jon Haas says. “That’s the type of players I want to bring in from a recruiting standpoint, and Katie’s accomplishments can pave the way for those athletes. One of our athletes representing Valpo academically on a national level speaks volumes about what we’re trying to accomplish.”