Constellation of Whitties

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More than 2,000 scientists, journalists and educators crowded into the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle earlier this month, and over the course of four days heard talks on topics ranging from alien planets to relativistic astrophysics. Among them: a strong Whitman presence.

Assistant Professor of Astronomy Nathaniel Paust presented work outlining the different mass distributions of stars in enriched and unenriched populations in globular clusters. This work supports the idea that star formation takes long enough to occur that it is possible for star clusters to self-enrich.

Amid a number of Whitman students and alumni at the meeting were Emma Dahl ’15 and David Ball ’15, who gave poster presentations. We asked them to reflect on their time in Seattle.

WC: What was your experience at the meeting like? What was the most interesting thing you learned?

Emma Dahl '15Dahl: The AAS meeting was overwhelming, but in a good way. There was so much to do and see, and lots of networking. You always had to be ready to impress someone who might hire you, but you were usually spent from trying to do everything all day. But I learned so much and met so many great people!

I think the best part of what I took away from the AAS meeting was a really good perspective on how research is conducted within the field, and how astronomers collaborate to answer questions; just the process of coming with an idea, doing tests, figuring out errors—stuff like that.

Ball: My experience at the meeting was overwhelmingly positive. I met a lot of people, learned about exciting new research and had the opportunity to share my research with professors affiliated with graduate institutions that I had applied to (which is very advantageous to the graduate admissions process, something I'm currently in the midst of). Attending the meeting for eight to 10 hours a day for four days in a row, however, was incredibly exhausting.

It's hard for me to pinpoint one specific thing that I learned, but I saw a couple of talks that stood out. One of the most interesting talks I went to was on the current state of neutrino detection with the "Icecube" detector (which is really just a cubic kilometer of ice in the south pole rigged with optical equipment to turn it into the world's largest neutrino detector). I also learned a lot at a talk by a theoretical physicist from MIT on inflation and various types of multiverse theories.

WC: There were a lot of Whitties at the conference. Were you able to spend time with any alumni working on projects that you’re interested in?

Dahl: I got to chat with several alumni who were at graduate schools that I'm very interested in attending; I went to lunch with Diane Feuillet ’11, who goes to New Mexico State University, and we talked a lot about her experiences at that school. I also met Jessie Runnoe ’08 who just got her Ph.D. from the University of Wyoming, and she introduced me to a professor I'm interested in working with. Going places in astronomy is so much easier when you know a lot of people, so it's great that Whitman alumni are willing to help integrate us into the field.

David Ball '15Ball: I did get to spend time with many Whitman grads, some of whom I knew from my time here, others who came well before me. I talked at length with Danny Smith ’14 about some work he's doing for Northrup Grumman on building what's called a "star shade" for the James Webb Space Telescope, which was fascinating. I also talked a bit with my good friend Ethan Dederick ’14 about his graduate work at New Mexico State. He gets the opportunity to see his project through start to finish, beginning with him overseeing the building of the equipment in Nice, France, this summer, which is very cool!

WC: Can you give me us highlights of your poster in terms a non-astronomer could understand?

Dahl: My poster was about research that I did over the summer at a National Science Foundation-funded REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). I worked at the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, and basically spent the summer using a telescope to take images of open star clusters (young, not-so-dense groups of stars) in order to look for variable stars, which are stars whose brightness changes over time, usually in a periodic fashion. Their brightness changes for either external or internal reasons; i.e., two stars might be orbiting each other in a binary system (like in Star Wars), or a particular star might be pulsating periodically.

Finding variable stars is useful because the characteristics of the variability can tell us about both the star and the cluster it lives in. We ended up finding about 25 variable stars in four different open clusters, which are great results.

Ball: My research was entirely theoretical, meaning it had nothing to do with pointing telescopes at the sky and observing things. Instead, I essentially spent my summer in a computer lab, coding (there's a fairly large overlap between computational astrophysics work and computer science). I was working with results from simulations of the universe from a very early point in time and analyzing the evolution of a specific type of galaxy. More specifically, I was looking at how merging events (galaxies running into each other) affect the morphology and observational signatures of these objects.