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A Stellar Grant

Written by Nicole Vukonich, '11
November 8, 2010

Joanne Hughes-Clark is setting her sights on the stars with a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award, which comes from NSF’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions program, will allow the associate professor of physics and two research assistants the opportunity to examine the current model of how galaxies form. 

Hughes-Clark’s grant continues an impressive run for the Physics Department, where three NSF research grants are being worked on. The others are grants to Mary Alberg, professor of physics, for nuclear theory and to Paul Fontana, associate professor of physics, for fluid turbulence experiments. This is quite an accomplishment as only 10 to 20 percent of all submitted applications receive funding.  

For “Stellar Populations in Nearby Dwarf Galaxies” as Hughes-Clark’s project is officially known, she and her student assistants will research the current Lambda Cold Dark Matter Model (ΛCDM). The model puts forth the idea that the large spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way, are formed from the gravitational collapse of dark matter and gas comprised of hydrogen and helium, with “lots of little galaxies around them.” (To learn more about this model, Hughes-Clark recommends the Wikipedia article.)  

The Milky Way, she explains, could have formed with more than just a few dwarf galaxies—perhaps a hundred or more. “Essentially we are looking for these very faint, recently discovered dwarf galaxies, and will try to find their chemical composition, how old they are, and for how long they were forming stars,” she says. 

Hughes-Clark and her assistants will collect data using the Apache Point Observatory 3.5m telescope in New Mexico and the CTIO 4-m telescope in Chile. The Apache Point telescope has the capability to be run from anywhere in the world via remote access on the Internet.

From these observations, Hughes-Clark and her team will be able to test if these dwarf galaxies and their dark matter halos could have been the building blocks of the Milky Way. “All science is about finding new models to explain how the universe behaves and testing them to their breaking point so that we can improve them,” she says.

Planning and preparations for this research project began about a year ago when Hughes-Clark submitted an application for the grant. Some time went by and Hughes-Clark still had not heard any news. “A few people had asked about how it was going,” said Hughes-Clark. “I logged into the website now and again and saw that it was still being processed.  Then, suddenly, I got an email that said, ‘you’re on the shortlist’ and then I got an email that said, ‘you’ve got the grant.’  It was wonderful.”  

Hughes-Clark and the whole Physics Department are “really keen on making research a part of the undergraduate experience.” The grant’s provisions will give two students (one in each year of the grant) the opportunity to conduct and work on research for the next two years, travel to conferences, present their research and to have scientific journal articles published. “I’m glad that we’re able to get our undergraduates to do real research, that is for publication. Independent, fresh research so that they get a taste of what being a scientist is really like.” 

Who knew that dark matter and dark energy could bring such bright news to the Physics Department?