Astrophysicist Kelly Holley-Bockelmann Works with Black Holes to Understand the Universe

When Kelly Holley-Bockelmann was a kid, she would lay in her backyard at night to watch the stars and try to feel the earth move.

Today, Kelly is an astrophysicist and an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and an adjunct professor at Fisk University. Her work focuses around theorizing about supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies.

“I’ve loved astrophysics before I even knew what the word meant,” she said. “I feel so lucky that I’m capable of doing everything I wanted to and to get paid to do it too is crazy. I’m so happy.”


As a kid, she thought being an astrophysicist would mean being isolated at a mountaintop writing equation and looking at the night sky. She said it’s a lot different than that but she loves working with all of her students.

“They’re making great discoveries, and I’m there right along with them. It’s so cool,” she said.

Kelly said people sometimes have an impression that a faculty member’s life consists of wearing tweed, smoking a pipe, and reading. She said many people tend to think it’s a leisurely life, but that’s not the case. She said there is a lot of administrative work involved too.

“My calendar is packed with meetings, and I go to conferences all the time,” she said. “I work well over 60 hours a week and more during crunch times. I wish I had tweed.”


On September 14, 2015, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made the discovery of gravitational waves.

“LIGO is a huge detector separated by a great distance in the United States and was designed to measure the shaking of spacetime from a gravitational wave,” she said. “Forty years ago, scientist built this detector that measures movements smaller than a proton. It’s been the most sensitive experiment that humanity has ever done.

The discovery of gravitational waves concluded a century old prediction from Albert Einstein.

“We heard and detected the sound of spacetime reacting to two black holes merging a billion years go,” she said. “Sometimes when I look at the detection and the waveform and I think about what made it I get excited. It’s so incredibly awesome.”

Kelly said because of the discovery, black holes are more massive than scientist initially thought. As a theorist, her job is to think what could make the black holes more massive and how does that change what was previously thought.

She said those aren’t the types of black holes she works on normally, but it is still really fascinating stuff.

“Stellar mass black holes are formed when a massive star explodes and its remaining core can’t support itself, so it crunches into a black hole. Then they’re supermassive black holes, which I love, and they are sitting at the center of almost every galaxy. At its center, our Milky Way has a black hole that’s about 4 million times the mass of our sun.”

One of the things she predicts with her work is that there is a third type called an intermediate-mass black hole.

“Discovering gravitational waves, in general, will help us look at things that don’t shine very well in light,” she said. “We can peer back to the very beginning of the universe and watch the black holes forming. We’ll finally be able to answer that question of how the supermassive black holes came to be.”

Kelly and her students build computer models hypothesizing the relationship between black hole, galaxies, and how they formed. They run their computer simulation to today and see if it matches reality.

“The way I understand the universe is through commutation, and we get to understand a lot more because of technology.”

She said she is so fortunate to be a scientist with so much technology at her disposable.

With a smile, Kelly said she always worries about the zombie apocalypse and how no one, including herself, is prepared to live without GPS, iPhones, and other forms of technology.

“Everyday it seems like we rely a bit too much on technology, but yet it makes our lives so much better. It’s weird. I’d love if we didn’t lose too much knowledge of how to do things without technology,” she said.

Before coming to Nashville, Kelly graduated from the University of Michigan with her Ph.D., then did a residency program at Penn State at the Center for Gravitational Waves Physics.

Growing up her family moved around a lot, but Kelly lived in Montana for a long time and said she feels the most attachment there.


Kelly thinks of a community in terms of people.

“We have a great astronomy community at Vanderbilt and Fisk. We help each other out. We support each other. We talk a lot, and we decide on future things together,” she said. “In my mind, a community just means people are working together for a common goal and trusting one another that that goal is valuable.”

She said the sense of community in science is priceless and being able to bounce ideas off others make the full experience a lot richer.

“One person just can’t do it alone. The problems are too hard now, and you have to be able to work together.”

Now a Nashvillian, Kelly is married with two adopted children.

“We’ve been here for eight years, and the first house we bought in Nashville was in the 12th South neighborhood,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how much has changed. When I walk kids to Waverly-Belmont Elementary, which is two blocks away, we walk past a house being torn down once a week and a big building going up right next to the school.”

Kelly said with places like Nashville growing so quickly, the sense of community could be lost.

“I used to walk passed folks, and we used to talk. Now their house is gone,” she said. “It’s more challenging to get to know people when the landscape is changing so quickly.”

Kelly also said she hopes the city can take appropriate actions to look at the infrastructure to handle the influx of people moving in.


“I have to confess. I’ve never seen a TED Talk before,” she said laughing. “Apparently someone nominated me because they said they were looking for a kick-ass lady scientist.”

Kelly said she’s given talks and lectures before where people came to see her for that reason but said with TedxNashville there are people who may or may not be interested.

Kelly spoke on day two of the conference and said it was challenging to relate how cool the world of science is right now as it relates to black holes.

“This discovery is pivotal and changes our opinion of the world,” she said.

Throughout her talk Kelly used words, phrases, and concepts that people to relate and understand more about black holes. She even helped the audience move themselves with a short dance on gravitational waves.

“Gravitational waves are made by every mass that moves, including people,” she said. “All the moves that you make, all the choices you make are embedded in spacetime and there’s a gravitational wave from our lives traveling out at the speed of light. It will never go away. Even after you’re gone, the imprint of your life is part of the universe now.” 

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