Written in the Stars

Young (far right) with her Purdue colleaguesCONWAY, Ark. (Dec. 2, 2009) – Mallory Young, a senior physics major, spent the past three years dreaming of studying the stars. But in an unexpected shift, she has found herself captivated by a subject that was, comparatively speaking, right under her nose: the earth.

As recently as July, Young was certain she wanted to be an astrophysicist. She worked for the summer at Purdue University through the prestigious Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program established by the National Science Foundation. The program allowed her to assist in the development of the world’s largest telescope, but not in the way she anticipated.

“I thought I was going to be doing astrophysics, so that’s why I picked that project,” Young explained. “When I got there and they told me I was going to be doing atmospheric sciences, I was really let down. Like, ‘Now I’m working on the stupid sky and clouds, and I really don’t care about clouds – I want to work with stars!’ So I was all upset. But it turns out I really fell in love with atmospheric sciences.”

Young’s work will be instrumental in the software design of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) that is to be built in Chile. The 8.4-meter telescope will contain the world’s largest digital camera, which will scan the southern sky nightly for ten years. The amassed images will create an enormously detailed color movie of the stars.

Young’s role is to make sure that the movie is clear. Before each star’s light reaches the lens of the telescope, it will have bounced off of the gas particles in the earth’s atmosphere and become distorted. In order to correct that distortion, Young needed to create a time-sensitive, three-dimensional model of the atmosphere above the telescope.

“I want to know the wind speed at every altitude; I want to know the wind direction at every altitude; I want to know the seeing; I want to know outer scale – things like that, at every altitude, at each month of the year,” Young explained. “If we can define all those things at every time, then we can tell the computer how to adjust for them, so it can turn the blurry image into a clear one. I was actually doing a lot more atmospheric science than astronomy.”

The REU project, which officially wrapped up in August, earned Young a Hendrix course credit, as well as an Odyssey credit in Undergraduate Research. It also gave her the opportunity to reassess her interests and career goals. In her free time outside the lab, she began to read about earth sciences like meteorology and geology. She discovered a particular passion for seismology, which quickly eclipsed her love of astrophysics.

“I could not say that there have been three months more valuable to me than the summer at Purdue,” Young said. “I knew I didn’t want to work in academia, but I didn’t know anything else. Seismology is a real-world application of physics, where by using physics I can help society. I really don’t think I would have come up with it if I hadn’t gone to Purdue.”

When she returned to Arkansas, she continued to collaborate with Dr. John Peterson, her REU advisor at Purdue, and Dr. Garrett Jernigan, a meteorologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Using Skype and e-mail to communicate with them, she finished her model of the atmosphere.

Young’s summer work was funded by the National Science Foundation, but her research this fall was underwritten by the Hendrix Odyssey program. The program offers Hendrix students funding and credit for the experiential learning projects they conduct at home or abroad.

Young applied for the Odyssey grant last April, before she had even met the professors she would be working with at Purdue.

“I only have one class this semester, and so I knew I’d have time to do it,” Young said. “I was hoping that the Purdue people would like me and let me continue to work. I mean I guess they could have said, ‘Sorry we don’t want your help anymore.’ But they were more than happy. I research pretty much full-time.”

Now that she has finished her atmospheric studies, Young has received a new assignment – one that gives her one last hurrah with astronomy. The work will allow the LSST to perceive cosmic muon rays, which most telescopes cannot distinguish.

“This work with the LSST is real research, and it will have a real impact,” Young said. “Of course there are people above me who check my work, but I almost can’t believe they are letting an undergraduate do this.”

After she graduates from Hendrix in December, Young will begin her PhD in seismology at the Australian National University in Canberra, to which she has already been accepted. She eventually plans to work for the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, where she will work to increase early warning times.

"Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning” is a major component of the Hendrix curriculum. The philosophy is, “You learn more when you do more.” Each student is required to complete three Odyssey experiences selected from six categories: artistic creativity, global awareness, professional and leadership development, service to the world, undergraduate research, and special projects. Young’s fall project will earn her credit for Professional Leadership and Development.

Hendrix, founded in 1876, is an undergraduate liberal arts college emphasizing experiential learning in a demanding yet supportive environment. The college is profiled in Loren Pope’s book Colleges That Change Lives. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.

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