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Villanova University President's Report
Focus on Understanding How Things Work

What constitutes the universe? What controls objects on the go? What drives human behavior? Questions about matter, motion and mind absorb faculty and students. They seek answers that have practical outcomes and spark new inquiries.

Two Villanova students review Observatory Telescope Instructions Manual while standing next to a large telescope
Members of the Department of Astrophysics and Planetary Science collaborate with leading scholars around the world on projects funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation and other premier agencies to acquire new and deeper knowledge of the universe and to share it with academia and the public.

Stellar Year for Astronomers

Astronomers in Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have their eyes trained on the skies, and their commitment and expertise have led to discoveries with implications for our world, our galaxy and beyond.

Edward Guinan, PhD, ’64, professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, and Scott Engle, PhD, ’03, research assistant professor, played major roles in two significant studies that received widespread attention.

As leaders of a team of American and Canadian astronomers, Dr. Engle and Dr. Guinan discovered a surprising new class of pulsating variable stars—ones that are X-ray active. The revelation has astronomers particularly excited because the star that is producing these pulsed X-rays represents a group of supergiant stars known as Classical Cepheids. The properties of Cepheids help scientists measure distances to other galaxies and determine the universe’s rate of expansion. As they reported in The Astrophysical Journal, the researchers used new images obtained from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to make the discovery.

Dr. Guinan and Dr. Engle also participated in an international team that made a landmark discovery: evidence of an exoplanet—a planet outside the solar system—orbiting the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun. The significant breakthrough was featured on the cover of Nature for the Aug. 25, 2016, issue.

The team, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, PhD, of Queen Mary University of London, found that the exoplanet, called Proxima b, is slightly more massive than Earth, orbits in its host star’s habitable zone and has a surface temperature that could allow liquid water to be present—conditions that raise tantalizing questions about its potential for supporting life.

In evaluating the habitability of exoplanets, Dr. Engle and Dr. Guinan have a resource nearby: Andrej Prsa, PhD, an associate professor and expert in eclipsing binary stars. Dr. Prsa is the principal investigator on two National Science Foundation grants that will improve theoretical models of eclipsing binaries and the planets that orbit them. Key goals are to more accurately measure the stars’ masses and radii, and to determine their compositions. Dr. Prsa will carry out this work with Villanova and Penn State colleagues. The funding also supports Dr. Prsa’s revisions to the modeling codes themselves.

Such successes arise from international collegiality—a spirit that Professor Edward Sion, PhD, embodies. A renowned expert on isolated white dwarf stars and white dwarfs in cataclysmic variables, Dr. Sion is a founding member of the Lebanese Academy of the Sciences, which was established in Beirut in 2007. In January 2017, Dr. Sion and other members of the executive committee presented to Prime Minister Saad Hariri the academy’s first report to the nation on the strengths and challenges of scientific research and education in Lebanon. One of the well-received proposals: the creation of a “super-planetarium” in Beirut that would double as an educational center and a tourist attraction.

Water, Soil Experts Track Materials on the Move

Villanova students collaborate with assistant professors Kristin Sample-Lord, PhD (left), who researches the design and evaluation of soil barrier systems to protect human health and the environment; and Virginia Smith, PhD (right), who investigates how rivers, reservoirs and floodplains change over time.
Kristin Sample-Lord, PhD (left) and Virginia Smith, PhD (right), collaborate with graduate and undergraduate students.

Faculty in Villanova’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering dig into questions about when soil, water and other matter should—and should not—be on the move, and the consequences for human health and the environment.

No community wants a reservoir or a hazardous waste landfill to leak. Engineered barriers are key to restricting hydraulic flow and the migration of contaminants, and geotechnical engineer Kristin Sample-Lord, PhD, PE, assistant professor, focuses part of her research on the design, materials and performance of these barriers. Her recent publications analyze the properties of sodium bentonite, a clay that is used in many critical containment applications.

In some cases, however, impediments to water flow create a different set of problems. Water resources expert Virginia Smith, PhD, assistant professor, and students in her Urban Coastal Rivers Research Group undertake projects related to hydrology, sediment transport and climate. Dr. Smith was the lead author on a study published in Geomorphology that is the first geomorphic model of a river’s downstream response to a dam. The consequences of sediment buildup in the reservoirs of dams can be serious, including downstream bed erosion and changes in a river’s form, which affect infrastructure and ecology downstream.

Changing Temporal Perception to Reduce Drug Cravings

With a three-year grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Matthew Matell, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is using Pavlovian conditioning to study how the perception of time affects drug cravings. For more than a decade, NIDA, an organization within the National Institutes of Health, has funded Dr. Matell’s research into how changes in temporal perception may contribute to the use and abuse of addictive drugs.


Access to a blood substitute that doesn’t require refrigeration could be the difference between life and death on battlefields and in remote areas. Investigations into the potential of earthworm hemoglobin for this purpose earned Jacob Elmer, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering, an Academic Research Enhancement Award (R15) from the National Institutes of Health. The funding also creates a collaboration with researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and supports undergraduate students involved in the project.


Military defensive systems need to be able to respond quickly and precisely to intercept warheads and other hostile threats, and a Villanova engineer has developed a novel and efficient algorithm to help ensure that they do. Hashem Ashrafiuon, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of Villanova’s Center for Nonlinear Dynamics and Control in the College of Engineering, has been addressing the challenges of how to compensate for the unstable shape of rockets and other crafts without sacrificing maneuverability and precision. Dr. Ashrafiuon’s findings were published in IEEE Transactions on Control Systems Technology.


Professional soccer is big business and deals in big bucks. To win, coaches want to implement the most effective strategies—especially when it comes to how players move and shoot the ball. Bret Myers, PhD, assistant professor, Management and Operations, in the Villanova School of Business, and an expert in business and sport analytics, is mining for answers. Dr. Myers collected data from England’s Premier League to examine how changes in pass behavior in the “attacking third” (the portion of the field closest to the opponent’s goal) affect the ability of the team with the lead to claim victory. His findings appeared in The Sport Journal.


Great scholars through the ages have explored aspects of human psychology and agency. One of the most contentious and complex concepts they wrestle with is that of free will. Jesse Couenhoven, PhD, an associate professor of Moral Theology in the Department of Humanities, was one the leading researchers from around the world asked to contribute chapters to The Routledge Companion to Free Will, a compendium of essays on influential figures and essential topics. Over the centuries, philosophers, theologians from various cultural traditions and scientists alike have commented on free will—and few more influentially than Augustine. In the chapter he penned, Dr. Couenhoven expertly clarifies and explains the development of Augustine’s views of freedom, sin and grace, and raises contemporary questions about the nature of the human person.