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Spring 2021 Newsletter

Cherry blossoms on the UW campus.

Letter from the Chair

Professor and Chair Julianne DalcantonDear Friends,

Here in the Department of Astronomy, we are surrounded by all the markers of spring in Seattle. The cherry blossoms have come and gone (though our allergies remain), the sun is shining again, and students and faculty alike are beginning to plan for the end of the 2020/2021 school year. I really enjoyed the Undergraduate Research Symposium, and its show casing of the amazing research our undergrads have worked so hard on. I look forward to celebrating our graduates next week during Astronomy’s virtual graduation on June 11th at 2pm! Furthermore, with the increasing availability of vaccines, all of us are starting to think and plan for a future that hopefully brings us back into classrooms and offices, allowing us to re-establish ourselves as more than a virtual community.

I am so sorry to have to pass along the sad news of Dr. George Wallerstein’s passing in late May. George was a legend of astronomy, and a staple in the department. All of our thoughts and sympathy go out to George’s wife Julie Lutz, who supported and cared for George through this difficult time. We will miss him immensely.

I am truly grateful to all of the dedication and innovation our faculty, staff, and students have brought to their work over the past year, and I allow myself to hope that many of the difficult lessons we’ve learned through necessity might be valuable to us moving forward.

With best wishes for a bright future,

Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

P.S. For those of you who may have a subscription or can visit a news stand, April’s edition of Sky & Telescope has a lovely article about Ana Larson’s work reviving the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory!

Remembering Emeritus Professor George Wallerstein

George Wallerstein in 2009.The University of Washington mourns the loss of emeritus professor and founding chair of the Department of Astronomy George Wallerstein. Through a nearly three-quarter century career Wallerstein made an indelible mark on the department, the University, the academy, and on the many colleagues and students he interacted with. He is remembered for his sense of humor and adventure, equally comfortable scaling mountains as he was studying the skies above them.

Read the full article from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Wallerstein scaling a mountain in the Alps near Turin, Italy
Wallerstein scaling a mountain in the Alps near Turin, Italy.

In lieu of flowers, Wallerstein’s family suggests making a contribution to the George Wallerstein Graduate Student Fund in the UW’s Department of Astronomy. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

GCAP

GCAP LogoThe 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. In this past year, we have been virtually hosting our bi-weekly lunch, Chill Lunch, to connect with and support one another. We have also partnered with the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to host a quarterly speaker series, with this year’s theme of focusing on mental health for POC graduate students. In the past two quarters, the invited experts have covered self-care, community care, and healing. We are looking forward to our Spring workshop with Dr. Charisse Williams from the UW Counseling Center. We also moderated the BIPOC Community Hour during the Astronomy Department Prospective Visit where prospective students of color had the opportunity to ask questions about current grad students’ experiences at the UW. Lastly, we wanted to give a shout out to Tyneshia Valdez, who has been looking out for us since GCAP has started. We could not have done any of the above without her help and support. If you would like to learn more about GCAP, please visit our website or email us at gradcap@uw.edu.

If you would like to help support our community, we would welcome any gifts to the GCAP support fund.

Research, Awards, Grants, and Publications

Despite a tremendously adverse year, the Astronomy Community at UW continues to shine. We would like to share a few achievements from this past year.

Professor Zeljko Ivezic was inducted into the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Dr. Siegfried Eggl contributed to a paper that was published on a Tatooine-like planet with twin suns. If you’re a big fan of Star Wars (like everyone in our department), you’ll want to read this paper for a new hope. You can find the article on the Cnet website.

Artist's depiction of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, with one being weighed against Earth on a scale and one being measured with calipers. Art by Robert Hurt (NASA/JPL)
Measuring the mass and diameter of a planet reveals its density, which can give scientists clues about its composition. Scientists now know the density of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with a higher precision than any other planets in the universe, other than those in our own solar system.

The TRAPPIST-1 system contains seven planets spanning the range of properties of the terrestrial planets in our Solar System. Astronomers at UW, led by Professor Eric Agol, have now measured the masses and radii of these planets to unprecedented precision, finding that they share similarities to one another, but as a group they differ from the terrestrial planets of our Solar System. Read the full press release from NASA.

Professor Jessica Werk won a NSF-CAREER Award! Professor Werk and her team will map the full extent of the warm, ionized gaseous atmosphere using new and archival observations of halo stars, distant quasi-stellar objects (QSOs), pulsars, and fast radio bursts (FRBs). The observations will be compared to simulations to further our understanding of how feedback from star formation determines the chemical composition and flow of gas in the halo. In addition, Professor Werk will expand a community college transfer program to include five additional colleges across Washington State. The transfer program provides mentorship for students as they successfully transition to a 4-year STEM program at The University of Washington through Pre-MAP and hands-on advising. In addition, the program provides full programmatic support to astronomy undergraduates with student-focused research opportunities and learning initiatives.

AUEG students with their Arduino electronic kits
AUEG students with their Arduino electronic kits

Teaching Assistant Professor Oliver Fraser continues to lead the AUEG. The AUEG is meeting regularly to build and experiment with Arduino electronics kits. Here members show off their latest creations. They look forward to passing the kits on to new members in the years ahead.

Associate Professor Emily Levesque published a popular science book, The Last Stargazers, which was released in August of 2020; it was an Amazon Best Book of 2020 and has been a finalist for a couple of big science writing awards (the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books and the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award). Emily also produced a filmed lecture series with The Great Courses, “Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy“, that was released in February of 2021. If that wasn’t enough Emily will be giving a plenary talk at the upcoming summer AAS as part of receiving their 2020 Newton Lacy Pierce prize.

Congratulations to all of our faculty, staff, and students on a tremendous year of accomplishments!

2021 Baer Prize Winners

Dr. Larson and students at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory
Dr. Larson and students at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Every Spring, the UW Astronomy department recognizes a few exceptional undergraduates for excellence in research, academics, and/or public outreach. These students are seniors who have contributed enormously to making this department the vibrant intellectual community it is. Each prize comes with a small scholarship. It turns out the UW Astronomy Department is oozing with excellence, having many qualified and deserving nominees. Every year, the Baer prize committee has an exceptionally difficult job to do. This year, we selected 3 students, Daniel Piacitelli, Tatiana Sandford, and Zachary Tu! These rising-seniors are approaching their last year at UW. Their achievements and commitment to Astronomy really stood out. Congratulations to Daniel, Tatiana, and Zachary! We are excited to see where your research takes you.

Postdoc Research Spotlight: Adrien Thob

Adrien ThobOriginally from France, Adrien joined Prof. Ben Williams, and his team in January 2020 to contribute to the preliminary science of the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. His research focuses on galaxy formation and computational cosmology, with interests in algorithmic optimization, data & signal processing, and high-performance computing. He has been particularly involved in the analysis of the suites of cosmological hydrodynamics simulations EAGLE and E-MOSAICS, investigating morphologies in relation to internal kinematics in galaxies. He notably discovered in EAGLE that the relation between a galaxy’s morphology and its internal kinematics is intrinsically connected to the shape of its inner dark matter halo.

“Adrien Thob has completed a python-based data and job handling pipeline code. This software package will allow users to easily track and control jobs, resulting analysis, and files across many compute nodes. This allows for easier management of the large imaging data sets that will be generated by Roman. Adrien is currently working on an update that allows the pipeline to be applied to complex model fitting problems. Though many in the department were not able to meet Adrien because he started just prior to the Covid shutdown, hopefully we’ll be back in person soon and will be able to congratulate him on the great work.” —Prof. Ben Williams

Rendering of a simulated galaxy and its surrounding halo
This composite image was assembled from visuals rendered from the highest resolution EAGLE simulation with the Python package Py-SPHviewer.

Adrien has been preparing for the launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Over the last year, he has contributed to the development of a pipeline software aiming at simulating and analyzing synthetic Roman images from a virtual catalogue of stars generated from simulations. Developing this pipeline is a first step to later reproduce the relations found in cosmological simulations “as seen in the eye of Roman”. Lately, he also started to investigate extragalactic self-obscured massive stars in order to better inform future James Webb observational surveys.

In parallel to his research, Adrien maintains his involvement in outreach activities via his work in simulation rendering and in motion design. Throughout his career, he has produced a number of videos where the watcher travels through the structures of simulated universes and the galaxies they contain. Some of his works may be viewed on his Vimeo channel, while others have been featured in a couple of planetarium shows. When not thinking about astronomy or cosmology, Adrien is a proud husband and cat daddy always down to go explore the world with his wife, especially if it involves some whale watching. He is also a fervent home cook, eager to improve his cooking game; an avid Guild Wars 2 gamer, restless explorer of the virtual world of Tyria; a fierce board game player, hungry for endless rounds of Twilight Imperium or other titles; and a multi-instrument musician, craving for any opportunity to take his trumpet outside and bring the funk to Seattle.

Update from the League of Astronomers Club

League of Astronomers logoThe League of Astronomers (LoA) is the club at the University of Washington that connects undergraduates who are excited about astronomy. This year the club adapted to a virtual environment along with the rest of the world, and is pleased to report their success in holding events online and bringing new students into the fold. The club has held meetings every other week since April 2020, sent students to AAS #237 in January, forged new connections for virtual astronomy outreach, and welcomed a new officer team.

Ways to get involved with LoA now and soon:

  • Do you have a passion for education and sharing the wonders of space with younger students? Join our outreach team for virtual outreach opportunities and, later, mobile planetarium trips!
  • Do you want to apply your skills to a short, student-led astronomy research project? Join us for our undergraduate Hack Day this summer! Date TBA.
  • Star parties are coming back this summer (socially distanced edition)! We bring the telescopes, you bring your mask. Get vaccinated so we can make this happen!

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!

Student Support

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.

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