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MSU-B professor leaves Montana for Texas
Longtime Billings educators Matt Benacquista and Marcia Selsor are leaving Billings for Brownsville, Texas, where Benacquista will do research at the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy and teach. Selsor will continue doing artwork and ceramics workshops.

Matt Benacquista has enjoyed teaching physics at Montana State University-Billings for the past 18 years. But when the opportunity of a lifetime came along, he couldn't turn it down.

Benacquista will be moving to the University of Texas at Brownsville to teach and continue his research on gravitational waves in space.

Billings loses two talents with his departure.

Benacquista's wife, well-known ceramist Marcia Selsor, will accompany him to Texas.

The job at the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy on the UTB campus had "too many good things" to turn down, Benacquista said.

The benefits include teaching graduate and post-doctoral students and being part of a larger department. At MSU-Billings, he was one of two physics professors.

Brownsville has seven or eight professors who do what Benacquista does. Although he's kept up with colleagues across the country through e-mail, it will be nice to walk down the hall to discuss things face-to-face.

The UTB center also provides a larger salary and more money for travel and staff to make arrangements.

One more plus about moving to Texas is that Benacquista will have more time for research. At MSU-Billings, he has taught as many as four classes a semester. In Texas, he will teach one.

Another incentive to go to Texas was that a NASA grant he has had for the past 10 years might not be renewed.

NASA likes to fund programs that involve graduate and post-doctoral students because it develops scientists of the future, Benacquista said.

For the past 12 years, Benacquista has been researching gravitational waves, defined on the LIGO Web site (www.ligo.caltech.edu) as "ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events in the distant universe." Such violent events include the collision of two black holes or an exploding star.

The LIGO, or Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, project is a U.S., land-based project to detect gravitational waves. Although gravitational waves have not been detected yet, there is indirect evidence that they exist.

In addition to working on LIGO, Benacquista has worked on Virgo, a European ground-based facility seeking gravitational waves.

As a Fulbright scholar in 2004, he went to Italy to teach and do research on the AURIGA wave detector.

Benacquista also has worked on the LISA project, a NASA and European venture that may launch a system of detectors into space.

Recording a gravitational wave would provide direct and precise evidence of Einstein's theory of relativity. Although the theory is well accepted, "it's always nice to test it," Benacquista said.

Gravitational waves also could teach us more about the universe, including its origins.

"If instruments (detecting gravitational waves) are good enough, we could see all the way back to the big bang," he said.

Tasneem Khaleel, dean of the MSU-Billings College of Arts and Sciences, said she is sorry to see Benacquista go.

"He is a great teacher and a great researcher," Khaleel said. "His leaving will be a big loss for us."

At the same time, she said she knows that joining UTB is a wonderful opportunity for him, and she wishes him well.

For the past couple of years, Benacquista has taught half time and done research half time courtesy of the NASA grant.

Steven Wiles, who taught the other half of physics classes, will continue to do so this fall, Khaleel said. The university is looking for another person to teach the classes that Benacquista would have taught.

Even with the pluses of his new job in Texas, Benacquista regrets leaving and will miss MSU-Billings.

Over the past 10 years, the university has improved and has been supportive of him, he said.

He's particularly proud of recent MSU-Billings students who have gone on to Ph.D. programs in physics, including Stephanie Morrison at Notre Dame University; Trevor Stevens at New Mexico State University; Joe Plowman at Montana Sate University in Bozeman; and Tammi Walker at the University of Kansas.

That's an accomplishment considering MSU-Billings doesn't have a physics major, he said.

Benacquista's Texas job officially starts today, but he won't be getting there until later in the summer.

First, he'll teach a physics class for 11 days in Nanjing, China.

Leaving Billings will be difficult, too, for Selsor, who retired from MSU-Billings in 2000 after 25 years of teaching ceramics. Since then, she has created ceramic works at Grafix Studio.

Selsor, who was a Fulbright scholar in Spain and speaks Spanish, is looking forward to living close to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Her ceramic arches and other architectural pieces have been influenced by Spanish art.

Moving to a warmer climate will give her a chance to fulfill a dream.

"Since I lived in Spain, I've wanted to grow bougainvillea," she said.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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