campus news

Total eclipse steals UB's heart

Hayes Hall (on the right) frames the total solar eclipse. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published April 9, 2024


It wasn’t quite the show we were hoping for. But in the end, most had to agree that it was truly an amazing experience.

Despite fairly cloudy skies, UB students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors gathered on the North and South campuses, and at the UB Anderson Gallery, to take in the total solar eclipse. And breaks in the cloud cover allowed for peeks of the celestial event, including totality and the awe-inspiring change from day to night and back to day — all within a matter of minutes.

It was a time to celebrate what for most was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime moment with family, friends and colleagues.

The SEDS students walk the inflated orb up the knoll to the top of the hill. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Student scientists with the money shot

Here’s an eclipse news flash: For those still a little frustrated with Monday’s cloud cover and craving the money shot of the total solar eclipse, UB’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is on the case.

The student club launched a weather balloon during the eclipse viewing event on Lee Road near the University Bookstore and Lake LaSalle that carried a 360-degree Go-Pro camera. The hope was to get photos of the total solar eclipse unimpeded by the changing skies.

When aerospace engineering graduate student Nick McNally released the balloon at the top of the hill, the faithful cheered as it ascended toward the clouds. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“This is an ongoing project for our club, and we have brought it back for the eclipse,” said Krish Patel, a senior physics student who was among the handful of SEDS students setting up the weather balloon for launch around 2:30 p.m. A large crowd watched and cheered them on.

“Buffalo is a very cloudy place, so we wanted to have a balloon that would go above the clouds and capture footage of the eclipse,” Patel said. “In case of a cloudy day, we think it would be very cool to capture the eclipse projecting onto the clouds. That’s unique kind of stuff you don’t really capture on a clear day.”

After the launch, the SEDS team (pictured here) located the balloon in Seneca Lake. The next step is to retrieve it and download the data. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

The launch itself was a public event. The SEDS students walked the inflated orb (about 5 feet in diameter) up the knoll to the top of the hill, dodging omnipresent goose droppings along the way. As they made their way up the hill, the 100 or so students watching from the bookstore parking lot followed them in a pilgrimage-like scene. When aerospace engineering graduate student Nick McNally released the balloon at the top of the hill, the faithful cheered as it ascended toward the clouds.

The experiment had just begun. The plan was to get the balloon and its Go-Pro as high as 80,000 feet in the air (it takes about 90 minutes to reach maximum height), trigger 360-degree photos and then retrieve the camera with its images using GPS. Once the camera was found, the SEDS students would download the images to a YouTube channel, providing the area and beyond with what could be the most outstanding, unobstructed and spectacular views of Western New York’s total eclipse. It could be SEDS’ signature moment. They could become the rock stars of Buffalo totality.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” McNally said, as the balloon with its Go-Pro platform became a speck in the sky. “We were rushing at the end of our launch, so we might not be as high as we wanted. This is only the second time we have ever launched it.”

The students knew the stakes. Rather than trying to find the balloon and camera in the darkness Monday night and fight eclipse traffic (estimated touchdown location then: “Canandaigua-ish”), they waited a day. Tuesday morning Patel, McNally and others from SEDS were in a car driving to the latest GPS-identified location. They were a Finger Lake off. Their GPS-driven data Tuesday morning indicated the balloon and camera were in Seneca Lake. “In the middle.”

“We were despondent,” Patel told UBNow from the car on the way to Seneca Lake. “But this morning the GPS showed it drifting to the shore.”

They had with them ropes, poles and a magnet to take on the lake. Once there, they planned to find a canoe.

Patel assured the university community the images would be posted on the group’s YouTube channel as soon as they can retrieve the camera and download the images.

More than 40 students and professors arrived from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. Senior Katie Sheriff, president of the Society of Physics Students at the small, liberal arts college, organized the bus trip last month. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

They came from near and far

Vying for Most Surprising Guests — as well as logging some healthy travel miles — were the 41 or so students and professors from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. Senior Katie Sheriff, president of the Society of Physics Students at the small, liberal arts college, organized an eclipse bus trip last month thinking the sign-up sheet would take weeks to fill. Within three hours, all seats were taken.

The group was among the first to arrive on the North Campus, setting up camp around noon at the university’s viewing spot in the grassy field along Lee Road near the University Bookstore.

“It would be really good if the clouds would go away,” said Sheriff, who boarded the bus at 8 a.m., left with the others at 8:30 and arrived at UB after a 3 1/2-hour trip. “Even if the clouds don’t go away, it will get dark. So it will be really fun, still.”

The Lycoming College contingent also got high marks for clever, original comments while waiting in anticipation of the show.

“We wanted to have a picnic,” said David G. Fisher, professor of astronomy and physics, when asked why he came on the trip. “We saw a sign on the way up here about an eclipse. Wow. Did you know that when you organized this thing?”

“I was thinking, ‘Where would be the coolest place to shoot the eclipse?’” said former UB health sciences photographer Dennis Atkinson. “I poked around downtown and saw some stuff — but I’ve taken a million pictures of the Hayes Hall clock tower. I thought it would be nice to have one more.” Portrait of Atkinson: Douglas Levere; Eclipse photo: Alan Friedman

Early in the day, before the South Campus got busy, Dennis Atkinson, who worked at UB as a health sciences communications medical photographer from 1972-84, set up his tripod. Atkinson had traveled from North Port, Florida, to get his once-in-a-lifetime eclipse shot on UB’s South Campus, visiting campus the day before to find the perfect spot to capture the moment.

“I was thinking, ‘Where would be the coolest place to shoot the eclipse?’” Atkinson said. “I poked around downtown and saw some stuff — but I’ve taken a million pictures of the Hayes Hall clock tower. I thought it would be nice to have one more.”

Elsewhere on the South Campus, Aiden Smith, a student from Buffalo State University, and Tamin Arroyo, a student from Hilbert College, were one of the first groups on campus to find a spot for the day. The two are dating and were there with family — and surrounded by an impressive spread of snacks and lawn games.

“I know there are a lot of great places to watch the eclipse, but we chose to come to UB South Campus because it was in safe walking distance and we enjoy the architecture,” Smith said. “It seemed like a cool place to hang out for the day.”

Faculty, staff, students and visitors set up on the South Campus to watch the spectacle. Photos: Douglas Levere

Family affair

Further back on the lawn by the Diefendorf parking lot sat two neighbors who are also UB professors — Heather Abraham, associate professor in the School of Law, and Katie McClain-Meeder, associate clinical professor in the School of Social Work. Abraham was there with her two young daughters, and McClain-Meeder with her husband, Jesse Meeder, a student in the Graduate School of Education.

Abraham’s daughters were particularly excited as the partial eclipse began shortly after 2 p.m. The older sister was happy to show off her favorite pants with space designs and a shirt highlighting the ocean.

“She plans to be a scientist when she grows up,” Abraham said.

“This is amazing,” the younger sister added. “It looks like a circle of cheese with a tiny bite taken out of it!”

For international student and second-year electrical engineering major Moumiza Hasan, the eclipse was extra special. Hasan’s parents traveled from Bangladesh to UB to celebrate Eid il Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.

“They were supposed to come to Buffalo on Monday, but I insisted that they should come before Monday, so that they don’t miss the eclipse,” said Hasan. “I wanted to witness this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with my family.”

Natalie Zhao and Tanmayee Yadav, both graduate students in the School of Architecture and Planning, came out for the show. “I am expecting a clear sky soon,” Yadav said, and shortly thereafter, the skies cleared a bit. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Total art and totality

UB architecture faculty members Christopher Romano, Randy Fernando and Michael Hoover arrived at the UB Anderson Gallery early on eclipse day to complete installation of “Looking Down,” part of the gallery’s special eclipse exhibitions. Six large sculptural pieces made of plywood and metal stands were set up in the parking lot. Mounted on rotating poles, the work was designed to cast patterns and shapes on the ground when the sun passed through.

Later in the morning, workers and volunteers set up tables with complimentary eclipse-viewing glasses, black-and-white cookies, bubbles to blow and bottles of water.

More and more people came — about 125 in all, neighbors and UB faculty and students. Along one side of the parking lot, the Stradley family — mom Alicia, dad Mark and kids Kavitha, Vignesh and Anjali — set up a lemonade stand and also sold homemade muffins.

As the time for totality approached, people donned their eclipse glasses and gazed up toward the sun. Patience was key, as clouds sometimes obliterated the view. A brighter sky prompted more people to gaze upward, followed by exclamations as the moon began to take a bite out of the visible sun.

These exclamations led to a flurry of folks donning their eclipse glasses and gazing upward — and more and more signs of wonder as the sun gradually began to disappear behind the moon.

As the sky darkened at 3:18 p.m., nearby streetlights, as well as lights illuminating the gallery’s parking lot, went on. The eclipse watchers’ collective amazement erupted into cheers of delight and, as the sun re-emerged after 4 minutes or so, one person said to everyone: “Good morning!” As the sky brightened, everyone watched in awe as the moon went along on its course.

Time for a party

The UB North Campus eclipse celebration was a medley of university life, recognizable guests, mass generosity from Student Life and Campus Dining and Shops, mysterious visitors and at least 800 boxes of free popcorn.

The changing clouds made each sun sighting a reason to cheer. And the side events, attractions and chill atmosphere contributed to a genuine campus happening.

Some players on the scene:

Teresa Sprow, associate director of university and presidential events, was one of the first to arrive. With her: at least 800 boxes of popcorn supplied by Campus Dining and Shops; “boxes and boxes” of special UB eclipse yellow-and-chocolate cookies, similar in presentation to the renown UB cookies; individual bags of Sunchips; packaged Oreos; and enough eclipse glasses to equip much of Tonawanda.

Behind the table of giveaways was Sprow’s JBL wireless speaker shaped like a purse with a handle. Spotify provided the constant accompaniment appropriate for eclipse-viewing. Typical songs: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Blinded by the Light,” “MoonDance.” But, unfortunately, no “Let the Sunshine in.”

Walking through the crowd was a quiet but still insistent Brynn Ibbotson, a freshman English major dressed in her wizard costume complete with a decorative staff and Heelys for easier maneuvering. “What better day to wear a wizard outfit than today?” she asked.

Among the notables in the crowd: President Satish K. Tripathi, wearing casual shoes, and accompanied by his wife, Kamlesh.

“This is a major astronomical phenomenon,” the president said. “We read about it in high school, and now you get to see it.”

Other faces in the crowd: Bill Regan, former director of university events whose 39-year tenure included hosting such notables as President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama; A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; and Ann Bisantz, dean of undergraduate education.

Quick darkness followed by equally sudden sunlight. Photo: Douglas Levere

Most emotional moment: Quick darkness followed by equally sudden sunlight.

And for many eclipse watchers, the day was one to spend with others.

Third-year student Kennidy Dyer-Decator was among those who didn’t want to watch the eclipse alone.

“I just wanted to be with a group to witness this,” she said.

So, with in-person classes cancelled, she and a group of about 10 friends decided to park in a lot next to Flint Village, where they tailgated with food, drinks and music before watching the eclipse together.

“We might as well make it a party,” said Trevor Laesser.

Up toward the front of the lawn near the Pharmacy Building, a group of pharmacy students ate pizza and set up Spikeball nets. Among them were Austin Grzechowiak and Michelle Maj, who helped facilitate and promote the gathering.

“We organized this event to bring together pharmacy students a little over a month ago,” Grzechowiak said. “It worked out well that our classes were cancelled today, so even more people can make it. The turnout is great so far. And then we have a Spikeball tournament right after.”

“I wasn’t expecting that much darkness,” Ghebson Thelappilly said. “At that moment, it was insane.” Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

The big moment

The cloud cover almost played spoiler, but the total solar eclipse that Buffalo had been awaiting for 100 years didn’t disappoint the thousands of bespectacled onlookers watching in awe on campus.

Those on the North Campus saw glimpses of the eclipse whenever the sun poked through the occasional break in the clouds.

“In the beginning I saw the partial eclipse around 2:40 p.m.,” said Sannidhi Baljepally, a master’s student in industrial engineering. “It was so exciting, but now it’s cloudy again. So, I’m partially happy — like the partial eclipse.”

Ghebson Thelappilly, a master’s student in finance who watched from the grassy hill overlooking Lake LaSalle, was thrilled to experience the celestial show with so many others from the UB community. The cloud cover was a little disappointing, he said, but totality was something he won’t soon forget.

“I wasn’t expecting that much darkness,” he said. “At that moment, it was insane.”

Physical therapy students James Plunkett and Jared Simpson watched the eclipse from the South Campus’ official viewing location outside of Harriman Hall.

“It was really cool. I like space, so this was really nice to see. Especially with the glasses and stuff,” Plunkett said. “It’s a cool experience knowing the next total solar eclipse won’t be for another 20 years, and this one happened right in Buffalo. Even though it was cloudy, we still got to see it.”

“UB provided some space and the equipment for the eclipse, and a place to view, which was helpful,” Simpson added. “And since it was kind of short, it was nice to watch what everybody else did, so we knew when to put on and take off our glasses.”

Clarice Fischer, Benjamin Kinem and Nick Potter — all students in the accelerated bachelor’s program in nursing — spent the morning in Abbott Library. They took a break from studying for an exam on Tuesday to come out and watch the eclipse together.

“To be honest, my expectations were low because I didn’t think we’d see anything with the clouds,” Kinem said. “But this was amazing — way better than I expected. Even for a cloudy day!”