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UW Department of Physics and Astronomy Grad Student Wins NASA Fellowship

May 25, 2018
woman outdoors
UW graduate student Jessica Sutter is one of eight astrophysics students across the country to receive a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship. (Jessica Sutter Photo)

Jessica Sutter, a third-year graduate student in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is one of eight astrophysics students, out of 177 applicants, to receive a $45,000 NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF).

Sutter’s faculty adviser, Professor Daniel Dale, will serve as the principal investigator of their project, “Determining the Nature of [CII] 158 Micron Emission: An Improved Star Formation Rate Indicator.”

Sutter’s research focuses on the rate at which galaxies form new stars, and that information, ultimately, will help astronomers replay the events that created our own Milky Way galaxy.

“To do this research, I use data from the Herschel Space Telescope to measure how bright nearby galaxies are in a specific wavelength or ‘color’ of light,” explains Sutter, who is from Portland, Ore. “By determining what portion of the light I observe is produced by very young stars, which also are the brightest and hottest stars, I can estimate how many new stars a galaxy is forming -- or the star formation rate of the galaxy.”

Essentially, astronomers measure two types of galaxies in the universe. Spiral galaxies comprise a flat, rotating disk with several young stars, while elliptical galaxies are football-shaped and have very few young stars. Among the issues Sutter aims to address is why elliptical galaxies form fewer stars than do spiral galaxies.

Using tools including Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a radio telescope that is tuned to higher-frequency radio waves (nearly as high as infrared light), Sutter will be able to detect light from galaxies up to 30 billion light years away.

“Light takes time to travel from these very distant galaxies, so looking at far-away sources is similar to looking back in time to what galaxies were like near the beginning of universal history,” Sutter says.

“Sutter’s work should break new ground in applying what we learn from nearby galaxies to the most distant reaches of the universe,” Dale says.

These NESSF “training grants” go to universities and educational institutions to ensure continued preparation of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines that are needed to achieve NASA’s scientific goals.

Depending on successful academic performance, research progress, the faculty adviser’s recommendation and availability of funding, NESSF grants may be renewed for no more than two additional years.

Of the $45,000 award, $35,000 is designated as a student stipend; $5,000 is allowed for student expenses, including travel that supports the research; and $5,000 goes to university expenses. Sutter will use a portion of the grant money to attend conferences and meet with fellow astronomers who also study star formation.

“Prestigious graduate fellowships, like these, allow talented students to focus on their research,” Dale says. “Graduate fellows do not need to expend additional energies seeking support for their graduate schooling, which, in turn, results in higher-quality work and a shorter time to finish their degree.”

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