Profiles of Astronomers: Vaishali Bhardwaj

Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Vaishali Bhardwaj and I’m a graduate student from California. After college at UC Berkeley, I took a year off before coming here and completed certification in Pastry School at the Cordon Bleu in London and Paris.
How did you become interested in Astronomy?
My dad always has had an interest in Astronomy and always told me facts about the Universe, but I remember distinctly the idea of “Time Dilation” in Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity was particularly mind-boggling. I could not fathom how time could possibly slow down and honestly, cannot quite fathom it to this day!
If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
I study cosmology, the study of the formation and evolution of the Universe. We know our universe consists of approximately 5% ordinary matter, 25% dark matter, and 70% dark energy. Although we don’t know what dark matter (or dark energy) is, astronomers attempt to map where the dark matter is, to better understand it. My research focuses on understanding the distribution of material (neutral hydrogen) in between galaxies. The majority of ordinary and dark matter in the Universe lies in galaxies, but there is a lot of material outside of the galaxies as well. I am studying how that material, the intergalactic medium, is distributed — whether its evenly permeated through the Universe, or clumps up in dense clouds. Studying this will give us a better map of how the Universe looks, and help us understand how it formed and evolved.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
The idea that the same rules, only a handful of physics laws, govern the evolution of the Universe. Whether it’s the formation of a planet or a galaxy, the same rules apply and our task is to fully understand how all those elements interact to create all the amazing objects in the Universe.
What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
The fact that somehow organic matter converted itself to a self-sustaining replicating being that ultimately became intelligent enough to wonder about how this transformation occurred!
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
I love cooking! As they say, “Baking is science for hungry people”. I find that cooking is a great way to create small projects for oneself in which the end result will ultimately nourish you. So, you’re able to enjoy the success of creating something while providing yourself with sustenance.
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Profiles of Astronomers: John Lurie

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Who are you and where are you from?
I’m John Lurie, a second-year astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington. I grew up and went to college in Atlanta, GA.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I was actually a public policy major in college until I took an introductory astronomy class. As part of the class, we had to venture out to the university observatory in the boondocks. It was my first time looking though a real telescope, and the first thing I saw was a beautiful globular cluster. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on astronomy.

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
My research so far has focused on characterizing the lowest mass stars (so-called red dwarfs), such as measuring their distances, masses, and magnetic activity. Recently, I’ve transitioned into studying how stars are distributed in the Milky Way, and am looking for sub-structures and populations of stars that give us clues about how our galaxy formed and evolved.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
Brown dwarfs, which coincidentally are literally rather cool by astronomical standards. They’re not quite stars, but not quite planets, either. As we learn more about them, we also learn more about how stellar and planetary systems form, and about the processes that underlie their behavior.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
Archeology. I’ll watch pretty much any documentary where someone is digging up something from an ancient civilization. It’s fascinating to see how similar the human experience has been throughout history, but also kind of distressing to see us repeating many of the mistakes that lead to the collapse of previous civilizations.
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
I studied a fair amount of Spanish in high school and college. I try to keep it fresh by reading, listening to, and watching things in Spanish, and by chatting with other Spanish speakers.

Profiles of Astronomers: Aomawa Shields

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Credit: Martin Cox

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Aomawa Shields, and I’m an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (I don’t actually commute back and forth every week, or even every month, but spend the academic years at UCLA and the summers at Harvard). I’m also a TED Fellow, and a proud UW grad Astronomy alum. I’m originally from Berkeley, CA, but I’ve lived all over, mainly on the East and West coasts.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

When I was 12 years old my 7th grade class was shown the movie Space Camp about a bunch of kids at Space Camp who get accidentally launched into space on the Space Shuttle. I decided that day that I wanted to be an astronaut and an astronomer.

If you’re an astronomer, what do you study?

I study the possible climates of potentially habitable planets in multiple-planet systems orbiting low-mass stars, using computer models and observational data.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The fact that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, means that there are a lot of planets out there. Like Jodie Foster said in the movie Contact, “If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” Knowing that it is likely that there is at least one other habitable planet out there that is actually inhabited by some form of life is just the coolest thing ever, and it’s one of the main things keeping me going in this field. I want to find that planet.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

I recently learned that astronomers discovered a supermassive black hole residing at the center of a very tiny, ultra compact dwarf galaxy. This is changing the way we think about how galaxies form and evolve. We thought the largest galaxies would have the largest black holes. But that may not be the case. Or large galaxies might undergo some pretty violent stripping of their stars by passing neighbors. It’s exciting to think about. Also, landing a spacecraft on a comet is just freakin’ awesome.

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Well, I left astronomy for a long time to train and work as an actor. Though I work in astronomy full-time now, I still love movies and talking about great actors. I also love writing, reading (for fun, not papers!), and traveling with my husband. We both love playing with our two cats and eating great food. I’ve also recently gotten into knitting, and find that very calming. And massages are my thing. I get at least one per month, and may step it up to 2x/month now that I can do that. They’re wonderful. Spas are heaven. They really are my “mothership” to use a Legally Blonde reference.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I used to have a subscription to the magazines Sky and Telescope and Glamour. That pretty much sums me up in a nutshell. I’m a glamorous astronomer (I hope!). Now I just get Glamour, because, well, it’s mostly all astronomy all the time, and a girl’s gotta have a little fashion in her life.

Also, I’m on a mission to encourage people not to settle in life. Do the thing that you most love to do, in spite of the negative voices that might tell you it’s too late or you’re not good enough. Don’t listen. It’s never too late. Like Nike says, “Just do it”. And make it your own. There’s no one way. Ever.

Shows Tonight!

Tonight! Planetarium shows! Our 7pm spot will be handled by guest star Katie Mack (@astrokatie)! She’s a cosmologist visiting for the AAS conference that took place this week. I’m sure she’ll have some interesting things to say. We still have space for the 8:30 spot, so if you’re not doing anything around then come on by!

Planetarium Shows and Happy 2015!

Back into the New Year! Happy 2015! We won’t be updating with a profile this or next week since all the astronomers are out and about at the American Astronomical Society’s 225th conference! However, we do have planetarium shows coming up on Friday (sorry for the short notice!). Here’s the links:

7pm show: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/uw-planetarium-open-nights-jan-2015-tickets-14949532454

8:30 pm show: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/uw-planetarium-open-nights-jan-2015-830-pm-show-tickets-14949593637

Hiatus

Hey all. Thanks to everyone that’s followed us and our series of astronomer profiles and planetarium events during the start of this year. This has been a big year of growth for us and we’re looking to make 2015 even better. We’ll be on hiatus for the rest of 2014, as this page is run by grad students and we too need a break sometime. See you all in the New Year!

Profiles of Astronomers: Phoebe Sanderbeck

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Phoebe, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, have now lived in Seattle for over 2 years!

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

I became interested in astronomy/astrophysics when I was an undergrad majoring in physics. I had known for years that I wanted to be a physicist, but I didn’t know what part of physics I wanted to study. I started doing research and finally came upon astrophysics and loved it. Studying the universe in its entirety is what I realized interested me most.

  • If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I’m a grad student studying theoretical cosmology. Specifically the physics of the intergalactic medium, the particle soup between galaxies. It can tell us about how the universe evolved!

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

Dark energy! We know so little about it, yet it’s causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion! Also shout-out to the cosmic microwave background, photons that have been streaming through the universe since the epoch of recombination.

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Within physics: quantum mechanics. The way stuff behaves is way stranger than I could have ever imagined. Outside of physics: biology and neuroscience. There is so much left to learn about life and ourselves.

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Playing music, hiking, paddle-boarding, surfing, running, fashion, too many to mention!

  • Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I went to performing arts high school. I always knew I would study science though. Don’t be afraid to pursue everything that interests you!

Profiles of Astronomers: Nell Byler

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Nell Byler, a 4th year graduate student at the University of Washington. I’m originally from Palo Alto, CA and I did my undergrad at Wellesley College.

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

My father works for Lockheed and I always enjoyed the take-your-daughter-to-work-day events the company hosted each year – they were these grandiose affairs with hundreds of children hopping between lectures and activities and we all got to go home with goodie bags full of swag (Spirit & Opportunity paper dolls, solar flare puzzles…etc). Despite my early introduction to space science, I began college at NYU with plans to study something art-related. I took an introductory astronomy course to fulfil a gen-ed requirement and was immediately smitten. I transferred to Wellesley College the following semester and majored in physics – thank goodness I had kept up with math!

  • If you’re an astronomer, what do you study?

I am generally interested in the origin and evolution of galaxies. I use the stars within a given galaxy to probe the properties (like stellar mass or star formation history) of the galaxy as a whole; akin to looking at rings in a stump to learn about the life of that tree.

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

Fluid dynamics! It has such widespread applications in astronomy: gas clouds in a galaxy, stellar interiors, shocks, accretion…

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Fluid dynamics! It has such widespread applications outside of astronomy: paint on a canvas, weather, car hydraulics…

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Electronics and the physics of sound – after reading a book on DIY sound projects (like modifying a portable radio into a synthesizer) I started making guitar effect pedals. I get to use my physics background for the circuitry and soldering, and my artistic background to design enclosures!