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Science Has An Incredible Story To Tell

Hello! My name is Shanil Virani and I am the Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium.

About Shanil

Shanil Virani is Director of the state-of-the-art, hybrid John C. Wells Planetarium and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at James Madison University. He did his graduate work at Yale University where he studied supermassive black holes lurking at the centers of galaxies in the nearby and distant Universe. Prior to Yale, Shanil spent 5+ years at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as part of the Science Team of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA's flagship space-based X-ray mission. He was awarded the 2009 Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award medal by the American Astronomical Society for exemplary research as a graduate student. In 2013, he was appointed a Solar System Ambassador by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Solar System Ambassadors communicate the excitement of JPL's space exploration missions and information about recent discoveries to people in their local communities. He has authored or co-authored over 100 publications in scientific journals.

Shanil also hosts #OurIslandUniverse, a weekly look at all things space and how what goes on ``up there'' affects our life ``down here''. The central theme is to promote the public understanding of science, our exploration of the natural world, and how modern science is really a continuation of our species natural desire to understand the cosmos and our perspective within it. #OurIslandUniverse is a co-production between Shanil Virani and WMRA, the Shenandoah Valley's NPR station.

Shanil is a passionate educator and communicator of science. To invite him to come speak to your community group or organization, please use the contact form to reach him.

The John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University is a $2 million, state-of-the-art hybrid facility, one of only a few of its kind in the world. It boasts both an Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5, a ultra-high resolution digital projection system, and a Goto Chronos opto-mechanical star projector that provides visitors with a superior and realistic night sky.

Please visit the John C. Wells Planetarium website to learn more about its free public shows every Saturday, our summer Space Explorer camps for rising 2nd to 10th grade students, and our public science talks. After visiting the planetarium, continue the conversation with us via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Honors & Awards

Public Appearances

Shanil is a confident public speaker who has given engaging science presentations to diverse community groups (public schools, church groups, astronomy organizations etc.), large and small. As a NASA Solar System Ambassador, he frequently visits schools in the Shenandoah Valley to share and communicate the excitement of space exploration and why it matters.

If you would like to request Shanil for a talk please use the contact page.


Physics is not simply a collection of facts and formulas although our students want to see it that way. Science is a mode of thought that allows us to critically engage our world and attempt to understand why things work the way they do. Shanil wants his students, motivated by curiosity and creativity, to see science at work in their everyday lives and to have the ability and confidence to know that they, too, can understand how the Universe works.

Shanil is an experienced instructor who has taught a wide diversity of classes; from Astronomy and Physics, to Mathematics and Science Education. He has organized, prepared and led courses from 10--100 participants. He has taught students (pre-K to 16) with a broad range in background, preparation and learning abilities. He has consistently earned excellent teaching evaluations from students.

Starry Nights

Starry Nights is a week-long series of events designed to raise awareness about light pollution and the steps we can take to end it in our community. Light pollution — the overuse and misuse of artificial light at night — wastes money, wastes energy, endangers our physical, mental, and spiritual health, takes a tremendous environmental toll, and erases the stars from our skies. Worst of all, we have bought into the idea that more light makes us safe. Smarter use of light makes us safe, saves cities/universities/homeowners money, is better for our health and our environment. We can have responsible lighting that ensures our safety and security without polluting our nights. Please join us in celebrating the night and learning how we can implement solutions right here, right now!

Starry Nights, launched in 2014, was created by Dr. Paul Bogard, acclaimed author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, and Shanil Virani.


Shanil Virani's research has primarily focussed on three distinct areas: science education & communication, fundamental research related to astrophysical phenomena, and spacecraft science operations. An extensive and detailed bibliography can be found by clicking on the Publications tab.

Science Education & Communication

Astrophysical Research

It is now recognized that every galaxy likely hosts a supermassive black hole that lurks at the center. Supermassive black holes that showing signs of devouring material in its vicinity are called "Active Galactic Nuclei" (AGN). Much of my astrophysical research has involved in carrying out studies to better understand this phenomenon and the interaction between the supermassive black hole and its host galaxy. In order to understand the nature of activity in galactic nuclei, in particular how it is initiated and maintained, it is reasonable to begin with the question, how do active galaxies compare with nonactive galaxies? But any such statistical comparison is fraught with difficulty since this, at least ideally, requires an understanding of the biases in the samples selected. Moreover, it is not clear just which parameter(s) should be compared. Could an active nucleus, especially in the more luminous members of the active galactic nuclei (AGN) family, have a significant effect on "macroscopic" scales; that is, not only on the immediate circumnuclear environment, but even on the structural parameters of the host galaxy? For these reasons, a comparison of the environments of AGN has been of particular interest in the past two decades, motivated largely by the widely held hypothesis that interactions and mergers play a significant role in initiating activity in a nucleus.

My specific research aims have been to carry out one of the deepest surveys of the hard X-ray sky ever done. We obtained 3 million seconds of time with the space-based International Gamma-Ray Astrophysical Laboratory (INTEGRAL) to find heretofore AGNs that heavily obscured in the nearby universe. I was also awarded time for follow-up observations with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA's flagship observatory for X-ray astrophysics, and with Japan's Suzaku space observatory. I have also used the Chandra X-ray Observatory to image and characterize the X-ray spectrum of an AGN found at a redshift of 6, i.e., at a time when the Universe was only ~800 million years old. Our results for the energy index and α_ox are consistent with no strong evolution in the active galactic nucleus emission mechanism with redshift out to z~6 and therefore with the picture that massive black holes have already formed less than 1 Gyr after the big bang. To understand how AGN activity may have on "macroscopic" scales, I developed a technique that permitted the robust decomposition of the bulge and disk components of a local sample of Seyfert galaxies (i.e., in the nearby Universe), as well as a (control) sample of nonactive galaxies matched to the Seyferts in the distributions of redshift, luminosity, and morphological classification. The structural parameters of the host galaxies in both samples were measured. No statistically significant differences at greater than the 95% level are found in these parameters according to a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Similarly, I found no statistically significant differences between the control and active sample host galaxies in terms of light asymmetries-bars, rings, isophotal twisting, etc. Since AGN were first discovered some 50 years ago, much work still remains in attempting to resolve these enigmatic objects.

Spacecraft Science Operations


Shanil has an extensive publication record. Scholarly publications include research related to astrophysical phenomena, science education, and spacecraft science operations.

Highlights include:

You can find a link to his complete bibliography online at ADS (sorted by citation counts).

Below are selected highlights in each area to provide sense of depth and breadth.

Science Education & Communication

"Improving Science Content Learning with Choreographed Songs'',Doss, K., Mangan, J. M, Virani, S. N., Newman, D. 2017, submitted.

"Cognitive Gains of Middle-School Aged Students During a One-Week Summer Astronomy Camp'', Mangan, J. M., Almarode, J., Virani, S. N. 2017, submitted.

"Tracking Girls' Interest in Science with Summer Astronomy Camp: Demographic Data'', Mangan, J. M., Blackman, M. C., Virani, S. N. 2017, submitted.

"Using Social Media in Informal Science Education'', Turner, R. & Virani, S. N. 2015, Southeastern Planetarium Association.

"Evaluating the Effectiveness of a One-Week Space-Themed Day Camp for Middle School Students'', Mangan, J. M., Virani, S. N., Kaznovsky, C. 2013, American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2013.

Astrophysical Research

Spacecraft Science Operations

Our Island Universe

Shanil created and hosts a series called Our Island Universe produced in partnership between WMRA, the Shenandoah Valley's NPR station, and the John C. Wells Planetarium.

This is a weekly, 90-second look at all things space -- how what goes on ``up there'' affects our life ``down here''. The central theme is to promote the public understanding of science, our exploration of the natural world, and how modern science is really a continuation of our species natural desire to understand the cosmos and our perspective within it. Topics cover how our Ancestors viewed the night sky to new discoveries in astrophysics.

Subscribe to the series via iTunes.