Astronomy professor stays grounded with orchestra

Astronomer by day, Jessica Sunshine spends her Thursday nights with Symphony of the Potomac.
Photo by David Friedlander

Jessica Sunshine spends her days pondering the stars. A professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, she studies the surfaces of planets, asteroids and comets.

But on Thursday evenings, Sunshine puts aside her telescopes and picks up her viola to join the Symphony of the Potomac for its weekly rehearsal at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. She’s played with the symphony, which performs Beethoven and Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Saint-Saens, for 17 years.

Under Music Director Joel Lazar’s baton the orchestra plays four concerts a year at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. “These performances are not trivial,” said Sunshine, 51. They require months of preparation.

As for fitting in practice outside of the orchestra, she does what she can between her research, teaching and personal obligations. “I’ve been playing for 45 years, so sometimes I’ll just catch up right before rehearsal,” she said.

Sunshine began viola lessons as a second-grader in Tenafly, N.J. She played throughout high school and joined the competitive Bergen Youth Orchestra as a teen, then continued to play throughout college and graduate school at Brown University, which had a vibrant music program that was open to non-music majors. She stopped playing just twice in her life: when she was finishing up her PhD. and when she was pregnant with her oldest son.

While on maternity leave, “I desperately wanted to play again,” she said. “I happened to get a copy of the Washington Jewish Week in the mail and flipped it open and saw an ad for auditions for the JCC Symphony Orchestra,” then the name of the Symphony of the Potomac. “I hadn’t played in months, but I dragged myself to the audition – I didn’t play that well, but I told Joel [Lazar] where I used to play. And he took me based on my [musical] resume, not my playing at the audition.”

And, like riding a bicycle, Sunshine said, form and technique does come back. And so does she, week after week, season after season. “The great thing about playing with the orchestra is that it’s a community. We have all ages, from retirees who still play in their 80s to talented kids,” she said.

“Jessica is a very solid player and a very devoted one,” Lazar said. Non-professional musicians who have a day job “bring a whole different perspective. She’s an academician so she knows committee work and grant applications,” which helps keep this all-volunteer orchestra on track.

This image of comet Tempel 1 was taken 67 seconds after it obliterated Deep Impact’s impactor spacecraft in 2005. Jessica Sunshine worked on the Deep Impact mission. NASA

Playing viola complements her work as an astronomer. Sometimes she’ll arrive at rehearsal exhausted, but 2 ½ hours later, she said, she’ll feel reinvigorated.

“While there’s lots of anecdotal evidence that people who love math and science are also strong in music — and there is of course physics behind music — for me playing with the orchestra provides a balance to my life,” she said.

Sunshine has participated on a number of space mission teams over the years. She worked on the 2005 Deep Impact mission, which sent a space probe on a collision course with comet Tempel 1 to determine the composition and structure of its interior. Deep Impact went on to observe a second comet, Hartley 2.

“We found small chunks of ice floating around the comet and we had assumed that everything instantly turned into gas. It was like flying through a snow globe,” she said.

Sunshine’s role included examining those icy particles using spectroscopy to determine their makeup.

The music she plays is just as spectacular.

“It’s a great privilege to play this music — Beethoven, Brahms, the great composers — and to understand that someone took this out of their head and wrote it down,” she said. “Then hundreds of years later, we can make it come alive again.”

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  1. Jessica is the most talented and the most low key person. She is always willing to listen to the most mundane questions with a smile. She is a wonderful mother and a most loved niece. We are very proud of her accomplishments


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