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Northwestern University

Daniel Anglés-Alcázar
Summer 2016

Why did you choose CIERA as the place to do your post-doctorate work?
It was a combination of things. Here, you can develop your very own research program independently, where you work for yourself and have the freedom to decide what your research program is for the next three years. Itís really awesome compared to many post≠doc positions where you essentially have to join a research program and do whatever your boss wants you to do. Also, my specialty is simulations of galaxy formation, and by the time I arrived here Claude-Andrť Faucher-GiguŤre was here as an assistant professor. He started a group in galaxy formation theory, so I was super excited to join the group and collaborate on different projects.

How would you describe the experience of working at CIERA thus far?
Iíd say good, exciting, and challenging. There are always things going on here. CIERA has a very active group of people, doing many different activities. We receive lots of visitors, and have a lot of different seminars, talks, group meetings. There are many opportunities to meet people and discuss things with people.

What are some of your favorite projects or research that you are involved in?
I work on simulating the connection between supermassive black holes and galaxies. I am doing that by doing cosmological simulations that incorporate detailed models for black hole growth and feedback. I mainly use computer simulations. We found that the black holes in galaxies co-evolve, in the sense that bigger galaxies host at the center bigger black holes. From the different theories that weíve discussed, the explanation that we came up with is that both the galaxy is forming the stars from the gas reservoir but the black hole is also growing from the same reservoir. The reason why the central black hole is growing at the same rate of the galaxy is because thereís a common gas supply, regulated by gravitational torques. This is an important discovery because itís in contrast with models that people have developed that have dominated in the past few years.

What do you find most unique about your experience at CIERA?
The combination of opportunities that we have as postdocs here; again, the freedom to pursue research plus a very active place. The opportunity to work with the students as well is unique.

Tell us something about yourself.
Iím from Spain originally. I did my undergrad in Spain in physics, and I did a Masters in Puerto Rico in galactic star formation and observations. Then, I moved to the University of Arizona in Tucson, and started working on galaxy formation simulations. I then moved here as my first postdoc position, with the goal of continuing the research in galaxy formation.

Jessie Duncan & Leah Perri
Spring 2016

On February 11, 2016 the National Science Foundation and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced that their scientists successfully, for the first time, directly detected gravitational waves - or ripples in the fabric of spacetime - using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). CIERA faculty members Vicky Kalogera and Shane Larson were heavily involved in the discovery, as were their research groups.

Two undergraduate students were part of the discovery team. Jessie Duncan, a junior in WCAS studying physics and creating writing, and Leah Perri, a junior in WCAS studying physics and cognitive science. (Pictured: Jessie, right, and Leah, center, in a group meeting with Prof. Kalogera, left.)

How did you become interested in astrophysics?
Jessie: Iíve always been really into science fiction and really interested in space. I realized when I took physics in high school it was something I could do, and something I was good at. So I came to Northwestern knowing I wanted to do astrophysics. I got involved in LIGO during my sophomore year. I emailed a bunch of people, a lot of professors, and Vicky [Kalogera] got back to me. The project seemed the most straightforward and easy to start with, and they have a really good support network for undergrads.
Leah: Iíve just always been interested in astrophysics and the big questions - the universe, cosmology, philosophy related questions. This led me down a scientific path. Iím also a really logical person, I like math and science, which made me interested in physics. I was terrified of physics at first and tried to avoid it, and I thought I would fail AP physics but I did well.

What did you contribute to the LIGO project?
Jessie: Both Leah and I and the grad students have done test runs on the Northwestern supercomputing resources. We have been injecting fake signals into the system to see what it would look like if there was a gravitational wave. Then, we have been testing different statistical models to tell how big it is, whatís happening, how far away it is, and other information from the data. It involves sitting in a room, writing code, testing data, sending it to the supercomputer and presenting it to faculty. Iím studying neutron star mergers because theyíre smaller mass and therefore more computationally expensive, so Iím trying to find shortcuts we can use to make the time to analyze lower mass events shorter.
Leah: My project is determining if weíre given electromagnetic information and weíre told by people with telescopes that thereís a binary merger at this point in the sky, if we can determine things like mass and spin of the event.

How did you find out about the gravitational wave discovery, and how did you react?
Jessie: It was kind of a slow burn - there were rumors on the internet and everything on the internet for months before it was official. The last couple of weeks within the research group it was very tongue in cheek, because no one could confirm it. We were not selected to do runs on the event because we were working on other projects.

What has your life been like since the discovery?
Jessie: People are much more interested - like, my friends, the week of, were really interested. My mom said that I discovered gravitational waves, so Iím getting way too much credit. The pace of the research group has picked up significantly. Now itís a field thatís been established for real, itís not just theoretical at all, so there are more expectations.
Leah: They put a rush on our projects. Itís really cool to see how people may not understand the ďgravityĒ (no pun intended) about the situation but they understand that something really big is going on and how thatís changing science. Itís cool to see how this stuff trickles down into the public but now they understand itís important.

How does it feel, as young women in science, to be involved in the research group?
Jessie: Gender hasnít entered into my experience with CIERA at all. All the negative stuff has been interactions with students, and vague attitudes from people who arenít in the physics program being like ďreally, youíre majoring in that?Ē Thereís an air of surprise when I understand something in class. I canít tell if itís because Iím a girl or a girl who wears sorority letters to class or something like that.
Leah: I think itís fair to say that if you were a guy who wore letters you wouldn't receive that treatment. CIERA and the LIGO group here as a whole are great and non-discriminatory, but Iíve had experiences where Iíve felt discriminated against for being a woman in science.

How has being involved in this discovery impacted your career goals?
Leah: I want to get a PhD in physics and astronomy. Itís definitely made me want to do research for the rest of my life because seeing the progression from something where nothing is going on and becoming really involved and passionate and seeing the results of everyoneís hard work. People have dedicated decades before the discovery, but itís still cool to see all of the work pay off.
Jessie: Iím definitely not going to grad school directly following college - Iím definitely not certain but would consider it at some point. Physics is something Iíll always be interested in but I donít have to remain super involved in it to remain interested. I consider my degree to be a liberal arts degree, teaching me how to think on a high technical level.

Laura Fissel
Spring 2016

Why did you choose CIERA as the place to do your post-doctorate work? I chose CIERA because they play a really key role in BLAST (a balloon-borne telescope project that studies magnetic fields in star nurseries.) Giles (Novak) is basically the star formation expert and magnetic field expert in our group. The idea was I would come here with data that we had taken with BLAST when I was a PhD student, and work on the science with Giles.

How would you describe the experience of working at CIERA?
Itís been really really great. Everyoneís been super supportive, and Giles has been great to work with as well. Thereís a lot of really good mentorship here of postdocs. Thereís lots of opportunities to interact with other postdocs working in different areas with different expertise, which gives you a different perspective on the problems youíve been working on in your research and the things youíre trying to learn from your data.

What are some of your favorite projects or research that you are involved in?
For BLAST, I have two main jobs. One is for the instrument, where I build the control systems and the software. BLAST operates from a balloon the size of a football stadium, and then attached to that is a parachute, and attached to that is the telescope hanging from the bottom. I work on all the systems to actually get the telescope to operate. We want to be able to point it at the sky, so I worked on the motor control system that allows it to look at different points in the sky and the software that tells it where to point. The telescope has to act like a giant flying robot, because sometimes there arenít satellites we can use that are within range to communicate with it. Oftentimes you can have 6-12 hours where the telescope is just doing its own thing, and it needs to know where it should be pointing, know what should be firing at what time, recording the data and sending it down to the ground, keeping the detectors and camera from overheating, and recording that everythingís working alright. Thatís really important and I worked on that and thatís fun because itís like building giant space robots. In terms of the science, I looked into these star forming regions and determined which ones that are close to us so we can get a really clear view, and which ones are in the interesting stage where they are really really young and in the very earliest stages of star formation. Now, Iím actually getting to do science with the data. Weíre producing these incredibly detailed maps of magnetic fields. Weíre learning more information about the dust thatís emitting this polarized emission and getting some really cool results.

What will you miss the most about CIERA?
Iíll definitely miss our polarization research group here, theyíre really really great and very supportive though Iíll still be working with them by phone. Iíll still talk to them several times a week. It makes a difference having Giles [Novak] next door. CIERA has a lot of really great people coming through, really great talks here, lots of opportunities to go to talks in different areas (physics, geology, etc.) very active environment, a lot going on all the time. Iíll definitely miss that. Itís just a very supportive environment for postdocs and itís been a lot of fun being here. Itís been a really good three years.

Tell us something about you.
Iím originally from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, just north of Seattle. I did my undergraduate at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island; when I was an undergraduate I started doing research semesters at various institutions, including a telescope in Hawaii, and the Herzberg Institute in Canada. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I got my PhD at University of Toronto.

Fabio Antonini
Winter 2016

Why did you choose CIERA as the place to do your post-doctorate work?
I started a year ago. Itís a very diverse environment, where you can work on many different things. Many people here also have many research interests in common with mine. For me it was a natural place to work. Itís also not as established as other places like Princeton and Harvard but it will soon become one of those places, so itís more exciting to be in an environment that is progressing to become more established.

How would you describe the experience of working at CIERA thus far?
CIERA is this interactive group, and that interaction makes me want to go to work and spend more time here, itís more exciting. Before coming to CIERA I was in Toronto, and there each one of them was doing separate things, but here itís more exciting and interactive. I think compared to other places I feel more part of a group than by myself, researching on my own.

What are some of your favorite projects or research that you are involved in?
I work on stellar dynamics. Most of my research is at the galactic center, and I study how stars move around the center of the galaxy. At the center of the galaxy thereís a supermassive black hole which is 4 million times the mass of a regular black hole. It absorbs stars that are close to it. The stars interact with each other, gravitationally, and they also interact with the supermassive black hole. The goal is to use numerical models to understand the long term of the development and evolution of stars due to gravity in this environment. What Iím working on is modeling this region with numerical simulations. We are trying to understand how this very high-density concentration of stars, this nuclear cluster, formed. The stars are very young, but itís a problem because you cannot form stars near a black hole, it does not allow star formation to happen. Instead, we have explained how the stars can migrate to this region through numerical simulations. We use models to understand how they can orbit so close to the black hole too, the orbital distribution.

Tell us something about you.
Iím from Rome, where I did my masters. I did my PhD in Rochester, NY. This is my second postdoc. I love soccer and sports. I like to read.

Aaron Geller
Summer 2015

Why did you choose CIERA as the place to do your post-doctorate work?
I study how stars evolve with time, the environment that they live in, and planetary systems. I had met some faculty previously, and in terms of research, Northwestern is a good fit. Also, my wife Laura and I met in grad school. Weíre both from the Chicago area, so when we were applying for post-docs, we wanted to go to the same place rather than have a long distance relationship. This is a department that is sympathetic to two-body issues, and they offered both of us independent fellowships.

How would you describe the experience of working at CIERA thus far?
Itís been great. Iíve been able to see the transition of CIERA growing up a little. When I started here, I was part of the first cohort of post-docs. Iíve been able to do whatever research Iíve wanted, Iíve had independent fellowship opportunities, and access to as many resources as Iíve needed. The department is great, too.

What are some of your favorite projects or research that you are involved in?
My favorite project is about how planetary systems evolve in star clusters. Iím working with a bunch of people to develop a new piece of software, a modeling tool to study the dynamics when you have a group of hundreds to thousands stars together, and each has a solar system, what happens when those stars are moving around each other. Iím also very interested in the visualization side. Itís very challenging computationally and conceptually. When I was in undergrad, I minored in art. This is the way to bring art back into my work. Iím also co-directing our CIERA interdisciplinary NSF REU program. We have nine students this first year, with about half from Chicago and half from a national pool. There are lots of different research projects - a wide range of theory, observation, and instrumentation.

What do you find most unique about your experience at CIERA?
Having the freedom to pursue my own research direction, and having access to so many different computers and resources is something that is pretty unique. Not all places have access to resources like that. Tell us something about you. I grew up around Chicago. Outside of astronomy, Iím interested in art and music - I play piano, guitar, mandolin, and Hammond organ. When I was in grad school I was in a band with astronomers called The UltraViolet Catastrophe, and we still play every once in a while together.

Laura Trouille
Spring 2015

Why did you choose CIERA as the place to do your post-doctorate work?
I chose NU because it gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of what I could pursue. I do both astronomy research and education, and itís somewhat unusual in astronomy to have a postdoc in both those areas. [CIERA director] Vicky Kalogera is extremely supportive, and understands the impact and need in both those fields. Also, I grew up in Evanston. My family is nearby and my husbandís family is nearby. I love this area.

How would you describe the experience of working at CIERA thus far?
I am now jointly appointed between NU and the Adler Planetarium, which is my dream job. We serve this amazing audience through the Adler and Northwestern has incredible resources to offer. I get to use my skills and expertise to provide a bridge between the two. I love it.

What are some of your favorite projects or research that you are involved in?
The project that allows me to combine both research and outreach is Galaxy Zoo Quench. Post-quenched galaxies are galaxies that recently and abruptly stopped forming stars. There are lots of questions on what caused that star formation to stop. The project is looking at whether major galaxy collisions caused that star formation to stop. The way it brings in the education and outreach is that itís a citizen science project. hosts all these different citizen science projects, and one is called Galaxy Zoo. It was people going in and classifying if the galaxy are a spiral, elliptical, or a complete train wreck. Only 1% or so are these Quench galaxies. We took that subset of a few thousand Quench galaxies and gave them to the Zooniverse community, and asked them to answer specific questions about their morphology. The public didnít stop at classifying the galaxies, they actually did data analysis. About 250 people made plots and tried to understand what the data was saying, and 25 are part of the article writing process. This first experiment showed there is very much an appetite in the public to experience the whole scientific process.

What do you find most unique about your experience at CIERA?
CIERA is interdisciplinary, and pushing to make connections across disciplinary boundaries. For instance, about 3 years ago we started a Computational Thinking in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] project to bring computational literacy into the science and math classrooms. CIERA allowed this kind of opportunity because of our connections with computer scientists, computational biologists, engineers, and learning scientists.

Tell us something about you.
I grew up here in Evanston. My father is French, so I grew up bilingual and spent all my summers on my grandmotherís farm in France. In graduate school, I competed in womenís roller derby, under the name The Big Bang. I have a daughter who is almost 9 months old. Best experiment so far!