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Learning From the Cosmos

Three of the UW Department of Astronomy's newest and brightest stars on what's possible.

Story by
Alice Skipton
June 2021
UW Astronomy faculty Emily Levesque, Sarah Tuttle, Jessica Werk

From left: Astronomy faculty Emily Levesque, Sarah Tuttle, and Jessica Werk

How does a star transform from a pinprick in the night sky to a black hole? What shapes and fuels galaxies over billions of years? How do atoms that were once “out there” beyond the Milky Way end up “in here” within our own galaxy? These are just some of the mysteries that inspire UW professors Emily Levesque, Sarah Tuttle and Jessica Werk. All hired within the last six years, they represent the future of astronomy.

“All three are advancing some of the most critical fields in astrophysics,” says department chair Julianne Dalcanton. “They've all been remarkably prescient in identifying transformative lines of research. Emily is a young observer specializing in stars, now a ‘hot topic’ which had recently been underappreciated. Jessica’s research in the circumgalactic medium is an area of growing interest observationally and theoretically. Sarah’s work building instruments drives the capabilities of tomorrow.”

Levesque focuses on the largest stars in the universe. “If you look at the constellation Orion, the bright red star Betelgeuse on Orion’s shoulder is a red supergiant,” she says. “If you dropped a red supergiant where our Sun is, it would swallow up all the planets well past Mars, and perhaps even Jupiter.” Looking at the underlying physics and chemistry that dictates how massive stars die, she’s questing for explanations of phenomena that bend our understanding of physics. 

One of Werk’s current projects arose from a question asked by a skeptical colleague at a conference. What if the matter outside of our galaxy, long thought to be a spherical halo, instead forms a giant disk? Since she couldn’t disprove the idea, Werk engaged with it. She’ll soon be seeking her final answer with the Hubble Space Telescope by spending several years using quasars as background light sources for studying gas close to the plane of the Milky Way. “If it doesn't exist, I get to rule it out and tell my colleague that there is no big disk," she says. "If it does exist, it will be the largest structure in the night sky that we can’t actually see and it would be incredible for our understanding of gas motions in our galaxy.”

Tuttle is not just looking towards the heavens but is reaching for them. She has recently proposed a “CubeSat” to NASA, which would launch a small satellite roughly the size of a bread box to look at the diffuse light of gas lurking between and around galaxies. “Galaxies need a bunch of gas to create a reasonable number of stars to keep being galaxies,” she says. Working in collaboration with others in the department --- Werk, an observer; Matt McQuinn, a theorist; and Tom Quinn, who specializes in galaxy simulations --- Tuttle’s team aims to image the faint reservoir of gas that surrounds galaxies. This work would shed light on how galaxies are fueled over cosmic time and how the galaxies interact with their surroundings. 

 

Philosophical and Practical Applications

Some might see this “far out” research as irrelevant to daily life. Not surprisingly, these professors look at the matter a little differently. “Many kids go through a phase of wanting to be an astronomer or study dinosaurs. I don’t think this is an accident. As people we crave perspective on where we are in history and in relation to the universe,” says Tuttle.

Associate Professor of Astronomy, Emily Levesque

Associate Professor Emily Levesque Media credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

“Studying things hundreds or thousands of light years away, in time scales of millions or billions of years gives good perspective on climate change or in thinking about what drives people apart, and what it means to be human on a planet-sized scale,” says Levesque.

Those wanting to see practical applications need look no further than the classroom. “The way we do science is really changing,” says Werk. “It’s a large collaborative effort with huge amounts of data. That’s what’s really great about the UW astronomy major. It exposes students to these huge data sets analyzed in a way that is absolutely sound.” 

Teaching the 400 level Scientific Writing course, Levesque appreciates giving students the skills to write for a variety of specific audiences. The course emphasizes how to make scientific concepts as clear and readable as possible, regardless of whether students are working on a popular article, resume, or abstract.

Students taking Astrophysics in Society focus on applied science and technology. “If you decide to graduate in STEM, my goal is to teach science as a practice,” says Tuttle. Using primary sources, she shows that scientists are not born knowing how to read scientific papers and debunks the misconception of “singular genius scientists doing singular genius things.”

 

Rethinking Existing Structures and Classifications

Tuttle also has other ways she likes to upend standard approaches within the discipline. She asks her students to classify the galaxies, and each year they come up with new and exciting ways of disrupting established conventions. This exercise plays into what Tuttle sees as an ongoing tension in human thought. “The desire to organize intellectually is outrageously strong,” she says. Related to equity and inclusion, she wonders how to dismantle and disrupt structures and systems designed to sort people out. 

In her book, The Last Stargazers, Levesque celebrates today’s scientists unlocking the mysteries of the universe but acknowledges who is missing from classroom and field. "Women earned 40% of the astronomy PhDs awarded in 2017," she says, "but Hispanic women comprised only 4% of those degrees and African American women made up only 2%."

“Not everyone needs to be an astronomer, but if someone wants to, they should have that chance,” says Dalcanton.

Many students, however, might consider an astronomy degree nonviable. “If I’m working my way through college, worrying about how I’m going to make ends meet, astronomy is not going to come to mind as a career choice,” says Werk. “In reality, though, the skillset of astronomy students has incredible value in the workplace. Data science is one of the fastest growing fields and among the highest paid.”  

Welcoming people with different ideas, experiences, and perspectives, creates more possibilities and potential ways forward, just as the pandemic opened up new and different ways of approaching how we work and learn. For example, students in Tuttle’s pandemic-style observational astrophysics class got to choose their own adventure and then co-decide on their grade at the end of the quarter. 

 

I’m not interested in success or failure. In general in school, people get rewarded for playing it safe and not experimenting. Most students will not go on to do my job, but at all levels, I try to help students find the tools they need to navigate what the world will bring. That’s why you are in college -- not just to check a box.

 

“I’m not interested in success or failure,” says Tuttle. “In general in school, people get rewarded for playing it safe and not experimenting. Most students will not go on to do my job, but at all levels, I try to help students find the tools they need to navigate what the world will bring. That’s why you are in college -- not just to check a box.”

Assistant Professor Jessica Werk

Assistant Professor Jessica Werk teaches a class on Zoom

Similarly, Werk teaches Public Outreach for Astronomy, designed for students who loved Astronomy 101 but have gone on to another major. The class attracts students from every discipline. Usually, students give each other planetarium shows, but during the pandemic, Werk redesigned the course to allow students to craft presentations in any form, including podcasts, videos or songs. The class closely collaborated to make their presentations more engaging. 

“I love the perspectives students bring,” says Werk. “Sometimes astronomers and scientists forget where the public is. These students create amazing presentations. One is doing a mockumentary on how Pluto got canceled.”

 

Collaborative Potential

The collaboration and creativity brought by these faculty members do not exist within a vacuum. “The UW Department of Astronomy is delightful,” says Tuttle. “Even when things are challenging or we disagree, people bring their whole selves to respectfully work through problems.” 

“The people who make up the department are scientifically curious and driven to excellence,” says Dalcanton. “They also believe in the mission of the University in education, mentorship, and making the world a better place. They are naturally collaborative, placing a high value on working together. It’s a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

The department’s holistic, long-range planning has contributed to this atmosphere. Twenty years ago, they added the first program in the country in astrobiology. Fifteen years ago, they made strategic hires focused on big data and survey science, leading to international recognition and leadership roles in these fields. More recently, cohort hires like Tuttle, Levesque, and Werk continue to keep the department at the forefront of research excellence.

“Everyone works on something a little different, but I could grab anyone and find a common topic to do a paper on,” says Levesque. “Someone might study ultraviolet light from galaxies, and I’ll study infrared light. They are literally at opposite ends of the spectrum, but we find ways to make them overlap scientifically. It’s an excellent way to do science and build the scientific community.”

This collaborative culture forges deep connections and relationships worldwide, resulting in invitations to join forces in the most sought-after places. “With telescopes, access is everything,” says Levesque. “Our involvement with the Rubin Observatory in Chile will give us a decade long movie of the night sky. I can’t wait to discover what we’re not expecting.”

With targeted support, the department could do much more. “Compared to our resources, we overperform in terms of excellence and influence,” says Dalcanton. 

If the department could replace aging infrastructure, they could spearhead more research. Also, the department’s instrument-building skills, like Tuttle’s, add incredible value. “Every discovery we make on a telescope is because of an instrument hanging on the back of it,” says Dalcanton. “Having the creative talent of instrument builders, we can make the most of any facility.”

Assistant Professor Jessica Werk

Assistant Professor Jessica Werk

Support for student research offers another avenue for outsized impact. “The way we train students is unique at UW. I love working with undergrads,” says Werk. “At any given time, we have at least 50 of our majors clamoring to get involved in research. If we had a larger department budget to support student research, it would be amazing.”

“The more we help students harness skills while paying them for it, the more they thrive academically,” says Dalcanton. “Science pays better than being a barista and leads students to better opportunities. If we’re in a position to pay students to do research, work stops conflicting with academics.” 

With so much excitement for astronomy’s future, these exceptional, award-winning scientists understand that connections between creative scientists, exceptional facilities, and human potential fuel the innovation the world needs to thrive. As these faculty members continue to lead the way scientifically, they also intend to bring as many people along on the journey as possible.

“I’ve learned so much from working with my students,” says Werk. “With all these skills we’re giving them, they’re the future.”