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Aiming For The Stars

NASA grants to fund a number of student projects

With financial support from NASA, undergraduate researchers are spending their summer searching for new planets, exploring the next wave of technology, and unraveling the mysteries of black holes.

Three Bridgewater State University students received NASA Space Grant Summer Fellowships, which pay them $6,000 for 10 weeks of research. BSU has participated in the grant program since 2012 and to date has received $186,000 to support student research.

“This was extremely helpful to not have to worry about working through the summer,” said Antu Stettler, ’23. “I’m focusing on research instead of having to work a different job not related to the field I’m interested in.”

Antu and his two peers recently shared their summer experiences.

Searching for a Real-Life Tatooine

Growing up, Antu was engrossed in Star Wars and Star Trek and their depiction of planets like Tatooine in galaxies far, far away.

“It fascinates me that there are other worlds outside the solar system,” said Antu, a physics major with an astrophysics concentration and a math minor. “I want to help in the science of finding more exoplanets.”

NASA reports more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, and more than 8,000 possibilities awaiting confirmation from researchers like Antu.

Using the observatory atop the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center, Antu looks for a telltale dimming of a star’s light that signals a planet orbiting the star. The potential planets are too far away to be seen, even with a telescope. In collaboration with mentor and Observatory Manager Jamie Kern, Antu is searching in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.

He learned skills that will prepare him for graduate school and a career in astronomy. The field is exciting because of the frequency of discoveries and the potential for more groundbreaking research, he said.

“I want to learn about the universe and help discover things,” he said. “We’re in a golden age of exploration.”

Relevant Research

NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope is peering deep into the universe, producing awe-inspiring images of celestial objects never seen before. Back on Earth, Shannon Harding, ’24, is tackling a project that can help scientists interpret those types of images. 

Shannon, a physics and mathematics major from Foxboro, is developing computer coding based on a mathematical model related to how light rays bend as they interact with black holes, which are regions of space where gravity is so strong that not even light escapes. When her code is completed, Shannon will be able to display what a field of objects behind a black hole will look like to observers near Earth.

“I love math and fell in love with physics quickly,” said Shannon, who is working with mentor and physics Professor Thomas Kling. “I think it’s interesting to have something out in space that has so much mass and see how that works.”

Her summer research sharpened her math skills as she worked with difficult equations. She also became familiar with coding tools and appreciates the novel nature of the work.

“It’s not like in a class where we already know how the problem is supposed to be solved,” said Shannon, who hopes to go on to graduate school. “I love learning.”

Seeing the Light

Peyton brown works in a photonics lab.

Photonics has applications ranging from telecommunications to automobiles, and Peyton Brown, ’24, is using a NASA Space Grant to contribute to this budding field.

“We’re trying to see the small ways light interacts with certain materials and certain photonic devices to study what would work best,” said Peyton, a physics major with an astrophysics concentration from Rochester, Michigan.

Photonics uses tiny particles of light rather than electrons used in conventional technologies. Photonics devices offer advantages such as increased bandwidth, more energy efficiency and less excess heat.

Peyton is learning new software and working hands-on in the lab as part of a project with mentor Samuel Serna, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, Photonics and Optical Engineering. It’s also a preview for the type of work Peyton hopes to tackle after graduation.

“This looks great on your resume,” Peyton said. “It’s getting me the real experience that I will need before actually heading out into the field.”

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