Spring 2019 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the balmy Pacific Northwest, where we have somehow skipped straight from pollen season to high summer, to April showers, and back to high summer in the space of a few weeks. Although the unseasonably warm weather calls us outside, the work inside the Astronomy Department continues.

On campus, our undergraduates are actively preparing for the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium, where dozens of Astronomy students (from first years on up!) present their research to the entire campus. The students; talks and posters are a highlight of the year for all of us, and especially for the many faculty, postdocs, and graduate students who have mentored and supported our undergraduates throughout their time at UW. Our students always shine, and it is a real pleasure to see the breadth of research and the depth of excellence that our undergraduates display. In the coming year, we are hoping to partner with our donors to find ways to tangibly support our undergraduate researchers; so many of these students face financial difficulties that pull them away from research, as they seek jobs that can pay their expenses. We are hoping to develop a funding model that can pull those students back into research, where they can continue to thrive and grow.

Within the department, we are gearing up to celebrate and honor our students. With graduation next week we are excited to share in this monumental moment in their academic lives. Many of our students will be moving on to new universities across the nation. We cannot wait to see their impacts in the scientific field.

Looking forward, as Chair my current focus is on “what’s next?”. Every ten years, our department carries out a year-long process to figure out how we’ve changed over the past decade, and to set a course for the coming one. Starting this fall, we’ll be analyzing data on the growth of our program, on the successes and challenges we’ve faced as a department, and on the future of astronomy and our place in it. Strategic choices made during previous self-studies have led directly to our strength in fields like data-driven survey astronomy and astrobiology. The time has come to again to decide what we want our future to look like, and what our impact will be. With the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope operating, and the next generation of 20-30m telescopes coming online (dwarfing our plucky 3.5m at Apache Point Observatory), where do we want to be in 2029? How can we best serve our community of scientists and students? These are daunting, but exciting questions to consider, and I am sure the answers will lead to exciting times for all of us. As we dive into these questions we are excited to share our mission, and growth with you.

Best wishes,

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Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair

Kudos of the Quarter

Astronomy Kudo’s of the Quarter goes to Aleezah Ali! Currently Aleezah conducts research on the binary system called KH 15D. This system includes two young stars orbiting their common center of mass, surrounded by an inclined precessing circumbinary disk. She performs  on VRIJHK filter images from the 1.3m telescope operated by the Small Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System (SMARTS) at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). From this photometry, lightcurves can be created, and used to probe the composition of the disk, derive the magnitude of each star, and demonstrate the overall mechanics of the system.

Outside of school, Aleezah enjoys volunteering in outreach with Theodor Jacobsen Observatory (TJO) and the Mobile Planetarium Committee (MoPlaC), and inspiring young scientists in the greater Seattle area. She also loves spending time with her friends, family, and her pet bunny! Aleezah has contributed a lot of time and effort into the departments mission. We are sad that she is graduating this year, but we can’t wait to see what she will accomplish in the future.

“Aleezah is an outstanding astronomy student in ways that extend well beyond the classroom — academically driven, for certain, but also generous with her time and dedicated to supporting the whole UW astronomy community. She is the radiant, endlessly upbeat heart of the LOA, and we are lucky to have her leadership and spirit.” – Professor Chris Laws

Graduate Research: Focus on Tyler Gordon

This quarter’s research spotlight is on Tyler Gordon. Tyler’s research focuses on improving the detectability of exoplanetary transits. Transits occur when an exoplanet passes between us and its host star, causing a brief dip in the light of the star which indicates the presence of the planet. Unfortunately, the star itself complicates things by fluctuating in brightness even when no planets are present. Tyler works on developing models which can differentiate between these two effects by considering how different wavelengths of stellar light are affected differently by transits as opposed to the star’s own variability. With these models in hand, he hopes to be able to detect smaller planets and determine their properties with greater precision than is currently possible. Tyler also serves as astronomy’s Planetarium Coordinator. He can often be found giving a number of talks to students ranging from K-12, or fixing the planetarium computers. We are extremely grateful to Tyler for keeping the planetarium a viable tool for classroom learning and outreach.

“Tyler is a model departmental citizen, having served as a graduate representative for the astronomy grads, and running the planetarium. For his research, Tyler is helping in making new discoveries in planetary systems observed with the James Webb Space Telescope, such as planets hosting moons, should they exist.” – Professor Eric Agol

Outside of his research, and planetarium life Tyler enjoys taking full advantage of the clement Pacific Northwest summers to explore the region. When the weather is less agreeable, he spends his time reading and trying out new recipes. He finds purpose in caring for his many houseplants and hopes to someday have an outdoor garden as well. We are very happy to share his research with you.

“It’s always a pleasure to listen to a research talk given by Tyler. His talks are engaging, clear, and funny. If only we could have more of his plants in the department.” –Professor Julianne Dalcanton

Undergraduate Research Symposium

Spring brings many exciting events to the department. Between graduation, academic prizes, graduate admissions, and the symposium we barely have time to enjoy the blooming colors and sun.

The Undergraduate Research Symposium is a very important event, as our Chair Julianne said. This symposium gives us the opportunity to share all of the dedication, collaboration, and knowledge that the undergraduates demonstrate on a daily basis within the department. This hard work not only applies to their individual research, but also to the outreach events, teaching assistance, and community building that keeps astronomy thriving.

This year astronomy would like to let a few students share their experiences and research with you.

Olivia Petry

I work with Professor Jessica Werk and graduate student Matt Wilde, studying the gaseous components of galaxies. I and seven undergraduates make up the Werk SQuAD (Student Quasar Absorption Diagnosticians). We analyze high-resolution quasar (QSO) spectroscopy data and have completed the analysis of every z~1 QSO in the Hubble Spectroscopic Legacy Archive (HSLA). Our goal is to match strong absorption systems with galaxies near QSO sightlines. We are currently in the process of determining precise redshifts for > 3000 z~1 galaxies. Upon completion, we will match redshifts of galaxies with strong absorption systems found in our QSO spectra and begin building a map of the Circumgalactic Medium around z~1 galaxies.
Next year I plan to continue research with the Werk SQuAD and begin the process of applying for astronomy graduate programs.

Keyan Gootkin

In my research I study spectropolarimetry of P Cygni. P Cygni was the first discovered Luminous Blue Variable (LBV), a critically important transitional phase in the post main sequence lives of the universe’s most massive stars. LBVs are highly unstable, capable of achieving the highest mass-loss rates of any class of stars, but not much is known about mechanisms behind this mass loss. Using over 13 years of polarimetric observations from the at Pine Bluff Observatory we are able to make some inferences about the geometry of circumstellar material very near to P Cyg. Additionally, we found a strange wavelength dependent feature in the polarimetry at Hα, if anyone thinks they know what it is please tell me! Another fun highlight from my poster was about the month-long quest I was on to define the mathematical significance of a circle (many thanks to Gwendolyn Eadie for completing that quest for me).

This summer I am going to continue researching the mass-loss of Luminous Blue Variables as a part of the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Next year will be my third year at UW, I look forward to being active in the department as the League of Astronomer’s Outreach Coordinator. I will be giving planetarium shows, leading mobile planetarium groups, volunteering at TJO, organizing the Cookies with Colloquium Speaker seminar, and many many more things.  

Mercedes Thompson

My name is Mercedes Thompson and for almost a year I’ve worked with Dr. Lynne Jones and Professor Zeljko Ivezic constructing a pipeline to fit light curves to asteroid data pulled from the Zwicky Transient Factory (ZTF). ZTF is a new optical time-domain, extreme wide field survey aimed at covering the Northern hemisphere. Using ZTF’s alert stream of photometric and astrometric data, we fit candidate light curves to more than 20K objects with more than 50 observations using multi-band LombScargle techniques. The work being done for ZTF will also be an excellent base for further works done on similar telescopes such as LSST. In my next year of school, I hope to continue my research experiences branching into galactic spectroscopy and furthering my computing skills. I look forward to opportunities such as attending AAS next year with Jessica Werk, research scholarships, and taking on graduate applications. I’ll also be graduating at the end of next year and can’t wait to celebrate with family, friends, and my fellow peers!

The League of Astronomers Club


Spring quarter has been a busy time for our outreach efforts! Our mobile planetarium team worked hard to develop curriculum for an afterschool STEM program at Neighborhood House community centers in Seattle. We partnered with STUDIO; a group based out of the College of Education here at UW. The activities were conducted with a group of middle schoolers and a group of high schoolers. We focused on various perspectives of the night sky – cultural, geographic, and over time.
The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory (TJO) is still conducting its open houses through the summer. The next months will include speakers from ASTR 270, the UW’s astronomy outreach course. As the skies clear up, we are looking forward to getting the public excited about gazing at stars and planets. Tickets are free – all you have to do is send an email to tjores@uw.edu. Shows are on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of the month.

Dancing with the Stars

We are excited to have pulled off another “Dancing with the Stars”. This magical night featured planetarium talks from some of our members, a beautiful photo booth, and a live band! We were graced with the band Night Lunch, composed of four of our very own astronomy graduate students.

Thank you to all who came and jammed out with us, and a very special thank you to Night Lunch for performing for us! If you liked what you heard, you can check out the band’s brand new EP, titled Am I Falling, on most major streaming platforms. Don’t forget to check us out next year for our next Dancing with the Stars event!

The LoA itself holds general meetings every Wednesday at 4:30pm PAB B360 (AKA the Astrolab), and our Tea Time Colloquia with Astronomy’s weekly speaker are Thursdays at 1:30pm also in PAB B360.  You can keep up with our activities and meetings by checking out our Facebook page.