Fall 2020 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

Welcome to Fall 2020 with the UW Department of Astronomy! I would have said “at” the Department rather than “with”, but like many of you, our department now consists of dozens of remote outposts, as we find ways to carry on with our scientific and educational missions in the face of the pandemic. The spring was — as you too probably experienced — an incredibly disruptive and challenging time for the department. Faculty, students, and staff all had to radically adjust our work and personal lives, finding ways to carry out all their usual roles in the face of profound uncertainty and upheaval.

Since the very earliest moments of the pandemic, I have been so incredibly proud of how our Department responded in prioritizing the safety and well-being of our community. Everyone fully embraced the notion of community care in a thousand ways, large and small. People teaching classes found ways to extend as much grace and kindness to their students. Students started a mutual aid program, to offer material and personal support to anyone who needed it. Many members of the department collected and delivered masks to health care workers. Advisors reached out to find ways to identify and support their students’ needs. In many cases those needs were financial, and gifts from our donors have been essential in helping to keep our students on track during increasingly hard times. We also recommitted to the on-going work needed to make sure our department was a place where all members can thrive.

And even with all this, we continued to shine scientifically. Members of our department published over 200 journal articles over the last year, while working from homes all over the country (often with unstable internet, cramped quarters, and no childcare). Faculty and students presented research at virtual conferences, had proposals accepted to the NSF and NASA, and won awards (including the Goldwater Scholarship, multiple NSF Graduate Student Fellowships, the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology graduate student fellowship, the Cottrell Scholar award for faculty, the American Astronomical Society Pierce Prize for early career faculty, and the UW Faculty Lecturer Award). One of our faculty even published a wonderful popular book about the experience of using telescopes (The Last Stargazers, by Prof. Emily Levesque).

As we go through the coming year, we will continue to focus on walking this same tightwire of discovering new truths about the universe while working in new, challenging ways. I want to thank everyone for their help in making this possible for us.

Thoughtfully yours,

Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

P.S. If you would like to help support our students during this time, we would welcome any gifts to the Undergraduate or Graduate student funds. These funds are exclusively used to support student education in the Department of Astronomy, including activities associated with research, observing trips, equipment purchases, events, or publication and meeting expenses.

Introducing GCAP

Graduates of Color in Astronomy and Physics (GCAP) is a registered student organization at the UW that aims to build community and provide a more safe, productive, and supportive environment for graduate students of color in Astronomy and Physics to discuss their experiences. Along with other community events, we host a bi-weekly lunch, called Chill Lunch, to connect with and support one another. This year, we are starting a quarterly speaker series, where we invite speakers to give a variety of talks geared towards POC students. The topics range from mental health in academia to networking at conferences. As of Spring 2020, all of our events are virtual.

Graduate Research: Focus on Guadalupe Tovar Mendoza

Guadalupe Tovar Mendoza is a fourth year graduate student pursuing a dual-title PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology working with Dr. James Davenport. Her research interests lie at the intersection of stars and exoplanets. Using data from space telescopes like Kepler and TESS, Guadalupe is studying how stars vary over time and how these stellar variations influence our ability to detect and characterize planets that are in orbit around these stars. Various stellar phenomena that occur on the surfaces of stars can cloud out planetary signals and disrupt the environments of planets that may be in close orbit to the star. Therefore, Guadalupe is creating a model that characterizes the morphology of energetic explosions that happen on the surface of stars (flares) so that we can understand their underlying physics and disentangle these signals from planetary ones. The more we know about the parent stars the more we can say about the host planets and their environments.

“This work incorporates new powerful statistical techniques for removing systematics in the data – in short she’s doing the difficult things we SHOULD have done long ago, and building a flare model that will be used for many years to come! Working with Lupita over the past year and half has been incredibly engaging and enriching  for me. She has quickly become a key member of our research group, helping fellow students, asking insightful questions during group meetings, and constantly finding ways to help keep us all moving forward during these difficult times. Over this past summer, for example, she organized a weekly writing co-working session for our group, which has helped many of us (including me!) stay focused on research despite the stresses of working from home.” —Prof James Davenport

Outside of research, Guadalupe is invested in outreach and mentoring efforts. This year she is the academic advisor for the Pre-Majors in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP) and a pen pal writer for the Letters to a Pre Scientist program that strives to demystify what and who a scientist is for students in K-12 education. As a first generation woman of color in STEM, Guadalupe is passionate about creating spaces where BIPOC can build community and bring their full selves into. In the greater UW community, Guadalupe serves as an Outreaching Grad for the Graduate Opportunities & Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP) and sits on the first generation graduate student advisory board. In her free time she enjoys taking care of her plants, reading and spending time with loved ones.

“Lupita is also constantly working to make the University and our Department a more equitable and positive place to work and study. She is a founding member of the Graduates of Color in Astronomy and Physics (GCAP) group, and is now both an alum of and current academic mentor for the Pre-Major in Astronomy Program (PreMAP). I am continuously impressed and proud of her willingness to help push academia towards a more just future.” —Prof James Davenport

Welcoming a New Administrator!

The Astronomy Department is very excited to welcome a new Administrator. Robert Young is a Seattle native, growing up in the burbs of South Seattle/White Center. He was the first person in his family to attend college and finally earned a BA in Humanities from the UW after 8 tumultuous years of working full time and going to school.  He was on the fast track to becoming a grocery store manager with Safeway when he met his first wife who was working as a research scientist in a UW Pathology lab. He became enamored with the academic environment and after a 3 month sabbatical backpacking Europe he left the grocery business to start a new career at the UW.

Robert spent his first 12 years at the UW in the Division of Emergency Medicine where he worked managing their residency training program and undergraduate clerkship before being promoted to Division Administrator.  After that he had brief stops in Neurology and Dentistry before he finally made the jump across Pacific Street joining the Economics Department in 2017.  When the Astronomy Administrator position opened up in the early days of 2020 he jumped at the chance to work in a department where, for once, the subject matter taught really interested him.

When not crunching numbers and managing the resources of the department, Robert enjoys mountain biking in the summer and Nordic skiing in the winter. He lives in West Seattle with his partner Lisa and their blind cat Keller. His life goal is to one day own a dog.

“Robert joined the department in April while everyone was scrambling to adapt to COVID-19. He has been doing a wonderful job despite all of the obstacles of 2020. It’s very apparent that he cares about his work, and the people in the department. It’s amazing to see how much work he’s accomplished in such a short period of time, and from home!” – Tyneshia Valdez, Assistant to Chair

Kudos of the Quarter: Thomas Kennedy

Thomas is currently researching type Ia supernovae with Dr. Melissa Graham. Their current project is the analysis of the “nebular phase” spectra of 7 type Ia supernovae, taken more than 200 days after the explosions. When a supernova is brightest, the explosion is too dense to see what is happening at its center. In the nebular phase, however, the material has thinned enough to see into the core of the ejecta, which can tell you a lot about the physics of the explosion and possibly constrain what type of system produced the supernova. Thomas’s role has been focused on identifying potential “violent merger” progenitors (in which two white dwarfs collide head-on) and on analyzing SN 2017fzw, a rare “transitional” object with characteristics of both the subluminous and normal families of supernovae.

“Thomas shows initiative and fortitude in the face of challenging data analysis, as some of our objects were quite faint. I’m continually impressed by these efforts. He learns new techniques and then applies them to our data: most recently, using the Monte Carlo process with linear convolution to assess whether some spectral features are better fit by a single- or double-component Gaussian. His deep dive into Type Ia supernova 2017fzw has revealed that it is a truly interesting and unique object, a surprising result. He’s always coming up with interesting questions and perspectives on the data and our analysis. In summary, I’ve learned things from working with him and am so grateful that Thomas chose this project for his undergrad research.” —Dr. Melissa Graham, Research Scientist

Outside of his activities in the Astronomy Department, Thomas is an avid science fiction and fantasy fan, plays a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, and is picking up a minor in classical studies (for the clout). By bizarre happenstance, he also holds the current record for the dollar amount of tickets sold for the Seafair Log Boom.

The League of Astronomers Club

The League of Astronomers is an undergrad club at UW which seeks to expose as many people as possible to the joys of astronomy. Continuing from the summer, we will be holding virtual meetings every other Monday from 4:15-5:15 (starting on October 12th!). We welcome astro majors and non-majors alike–there’s something for everyone at LoA! Interested students can get in touch with us via email at leagueoa@uw.edu or through our HuskyLink page!


We continue to actively engage with our members; since the switch to virtual meetings, we’ve sent out postcards and stickers featuring art by LoA members, hosted undergraduate research presentations, revitalized our Slack channel, held an exoplanetary world-building event, and started a monthly journal club! Additionally, this quarter we’re bringing back the popular “Cookies with Colloquium,” an event in which LoA members meet virtually with the colloquium speaker before their talk to chat about their research and their path through the field of astronomy. Due to the virtual format this event is now BYOC (Bring Your Own Cookies), but we’ll provide the space on colloquium days at 12:30pm!

Finally, a new year brings new officers! Here are ours:
President – Rebecca Kyer
Event Coordinator – Tzvetelina Dimitrova
Outreach Coordinator – Apurva Goel
Secretary – Cayenne Matt
Treasurer – Thomas Kennedy