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High Achiever

Senior uses NASA grant to look for exoplanets

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Maria Patrone, ’18, is among Bridgewater State University students on the hunt for new planets – all without leaving the comfort of campus.

“Space is cool,” said Maria, a Wilmington resident who graduated Saturday with a degree in physics and a concertation in astrophysics. “It looks pretty sometimes and it’s big. There’s always something new.”

Thanks in part to a $4,500 NASA Space Grant, Maria sought to find an exoplanet, which is a planet outside of our solar system. NASA, whose Kepler Spacecraft has identified potential exoplanets in need of confirmation, lists 3,725 confirmed exoplanets. 

Maria used equipment at BSU’s observatory atop the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center in her quest to determine whether a Kepler discovery in constellation Cygnus is an exoplanet. She used a telescope to see the telltale dimming of a star as an object orbits it and a spectrograph (which splits light into its wavelengths) to analyze starlight. She thinks the object is not, in fact, an exoplanet, but more work is needed to confirm that finding.

Maria, who hopes to obtain an astronomy-related job and eventually attend graduate school, has worked at the observatory throughout her time at BSU, including showing young children the wonders of space. She praised the university for helping her hone her research skills as she learned to analyze data, troubleshoot problems and have patience.

Maria showed dedication while excelling at interpreting graphs and thinking critically about what they show as she advanced efforts to study exoplanets begun by prior students, said Observatory Manager Jamie Kern.

“You were building a new type of research from scratch,” Ms. Kern told Maria during a recent interview at the observatory. “It always takes a while to set up something new.”

Exoplanet research teaches students about all facets of successful exploration. Students collect and analyze data and apply physics concepts to form conclusions, said Dr. Martina Arndt, a physics professor.

“It’s better to do the work than just read about someone doing the work,” she said.

The future is bright for astronomical discoveries at Bridgewater. Maria took part in the BSU Experimental Astrophysics Research (BEAR) Team, which is a group of students dedicated to astronomy research. And, John L’Heureux, ’19, is poised to pick up the exoplanet research from Maria. 

“I know we’re going to stand on Maria’s shoulders and go from there,” said Dr. Arndt.

Maria, who recently presented her work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, hopes BSU students will be able to identify whether or not something is an exoplanet relatively quickly. And, she’ll be able to look back fondly on her journey at Bridgewater and efforts to lay the foundation for future research.

“Overall, it’s just been a really nice time full of supportive people,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends who will definitely be with me a long time.” (Story by Brian Benson, University News)

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