I was born on July
9, 1972, in Los Angeles, California. I get my strange genetic admixture
from my Mexican mother and Iranian father. My first name is Persian
Saturn, my middle name was my (maternal) grandmother's, and my last
name is my German stepfather's.
I lived in the
funky beach town of Venice until
I was seven. When my mother and stepfather
married, I moved to Encino in the San Fernando Valley (a.k.a. "the Valley"),
where I consider myself to have grown up. The Valley has the dubious
distinction of being the origin of Valleygirl
I never knew my father. He left when I was an infant, never to reappear.
Thus I know nothing of my paternal family history, and I've unfortunately never enjoyed
much connection to my Iranian heritage.
My Mexican heritage, on the other hand, is one to which I relate very
strongly. I was raised bilingually and speak Spanish fluently. My family's
origins trace back to southern Mexico. Beginning with my
grandmother and grandfather, who left Oaxaca for a small village
outside of Guadalajara, my family's history has been a steady push north,
toward the promise of a better life in "el norte".
My mother was one of only two (out of ten) children to venture across
the border when she crossed at the age of twenty. She later met my father,
and returned to Mexico to move the rest of the family closer
to the US (outside of Tijuana). A few weeks before my birth, she decided
to return to the US, intent on having her son born an American citizen.
I was born in Los Angeles on July 9, 1972.
mother set about gaining residency
status and earning a high school equivalency, all while earning a living by cleaning homes
in the Venice area, and we subsisted on food stamps and welfare. I attribute
much of my drive in academics to my earliest memories of my mother studying
late into the night for her equivalency and, later, for her citizenship.
The day my mother became an American citizen was the proudest day of her life.
I moved to a working-class neighborhood in the Valley when my mother
married my stepfather. I took my stepfather's name
when I was eleven, and have used it as my own since. I am one of only two males in my generation carrying the Stassun name.
I was spared mainstream LA schools when I was identified "high IQ" and
was recommended for a gifted magnet program. I attended Sherman
Oaks Center for Enriched Studies for both middle school and high
school. During my high school years I participated in a number of activities:
newspaper editor-in-chief, yearbook photographer, chorus, drama, speech
and debate, varsity volleyball. I graduated second in my class.
I wanted to be an astronaut, I applied and was accepted to the United
States Naval Academy in Annapolis. But I chose instead to attend Berkeley
under a full scholarship. I gave the Navy
a shot for a year, even going through "basic training" on Treasure Island,
but eventually gave it up for good.
I studied Astronomy at Berkeley under the tutelage of Gibor
Basri. While there, I organized a club for undergraduate astronomy
majors, and set up and taught a lab for undergraduate majors. I was
selected to deliver the Astronomy/Physics valedictory
at my 1994 graduation. I also dabbled in theatre, both as an actor and
lighting designer, and eventually as stage manager for the student theater.
I left the sunny climes of California to do my graduate work at the
University of Wisconsin, under the guidance of Bob
Mathieu. It was at Wisconsin that my ideas about the importance
of combining scholarly practices in research, teaching, and outreach
began to crystallize. In addition to carrying out my thesis research,
I also became active in math/science education for minorities in the
local schools, and I developed an astronomy outreach program (Scopes
for Schools) which provides teachers with resources and training
for teaching astronomy.
my PhD in 2000, I spent a year helping to design, implement, and administer
a new graduate fellowship program at Wisconsin called K-Through-Infinity
Professional Development Partnership. This program partners graduate
students in science and engineering with K-12 teachers to both enhance
math/science teaching in the schools and to enhance professional development
of graduate students.
then spent two more years at Wisconsin as a Hubble
Fellow before moving to Nashville in 2003. I currently hold the position of full
professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt
University, and also hold an adjunct position at Fisk
In 2004 I married
Justine Stassun nee Clotfelter at the New
Garden Friends Meeting in her hometown of Greensboro,
North Carolina. Justine is Lab Manager for a pharmacogenomics
of arrhythmia therapy research lab in the Vanderbilt Medical Center.
On July 30, 2006, Justine gave birth to our son Jaime, and on February 2, 2009, to our son Emilio.