The University of Arizona

Top NASA Fellowship Winners Head to the UA to Pursue Their Research

By University Relations - Communications, April 23, 2014
Wen-fai Fong at the Very Large Array radio telescope site near Socorro, New Mexico.
Wen-fai Fong at the Very Large Array radio telescope site near Socorro, New Mexico.

For the first time, the UA has attracted postdoctoral research fellows from each of NASA's top three fellowship programs.

Andrew Skemer obtained his doctorate from the UA Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory.
Andrew Skemer obtained his doctorate from the UA Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory.
Ian Crossfield will join the UA Department of Planetary Sciences from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, where he currently is a postdoctoral fellow.
Ian Crossfield will join the UA Department of Planetary Sciences from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, where he currently is a postdoctoral fellow.

The University of Arizona’s space sciences community is already a vast and accomplished one, but it’s about to get a whole lot brighter.

For the first time, the UA has attracted postdoctoral research fellows from each of NASA's top three fellowship programs.

Wen-fai Fong will soon join the Department of Astronomy through the Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship program, Andrew Skemer will join as an Edwin Hubble Postdoctoral fellow, and Ian Crossfield will work under the Carl Sagan Fellowship.

The programs are funded by NASA and provide outstanding young scientists with an opportunity to pursue top-notch research at an institution of their choice. All three fellows said they chose the UA because of its vibrant space science community and unmatched access to observatories with different telescopes and scientific instruments.

Fong is currently finishing her doctorate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. At the UA, she will study gamma ray bursts, which are the brightest and most luminous explosions in the universe. Her fellowship is given to recent Ph.D. graduates in astronomy, physics and related disciplines.

"I chose the UA because of the good access to a wide variety of optical telescopes ranging from small to very large telescopes, all within the state," she said. "I immediately felt at home in the department, and in conversations with the faculty here it became clear they really care about my success."

Fong likens her research to a type of forensics, studying the explosion patterns of gamma ray bursts and tracing their sources to figure out whether they originate from very old galaxies or young ones that are still forming stars.

"These explosions come from outside of our galaxy and last anywhere from a few milliseconds to minutes," Fong said. "For a long time, we didn't know what caused them, but now we think they come from merging pairs of neutron stars or single neutron stars colliding with a black hole."

"Gamma ray bursts are fleeting," she explained. "We can observe these things only for about a day or two, which is one of the reasons I find them so exciting. A burst can happen at any time, perhaps during my lunch break or in the middle of the night, and then we have to point the right telescope at the source. There is limited time."

Understanding the source of gamma ray bursts could help astronomers better understand where the heavy elements come from that we are familiar with here on Earth.

Skemer is no stranger to the UA. During his time as a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and at the Steward Observatory, he helped discover a brown dwarf orbiting a young, sunlike star.

His fellowship is awarded to outstanding postdoctoral scientists whose research is broadly related to NASA’s Cosmic Origins scientific goals, as addressed by its high-flying observatories, including the Herschel Space Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

"Arizona's telescopes and instrumentation programs are the best in the world for studying planets in other solar systems," said Skemer, who is currently leading a 100-night survey with the Large Binocular Telescope, or LBT, to search for gas-giant planets around other stars.

Combining the light from the LBT's two 8.4-meter primary mirrors, which were fabricated by the UA Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, "allows us to image extrasolar planets directly," he said. "By studying the colors of the planets in these pictures, it's possible to determine what they're made of, how they form, and even whether or not they have storms and weather."

Crossfield studies planets orbiting faraway stars. His fellowship is administered through the Exoplanet Exploration Program by NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at CalTech in Pasadena, California.

"I measure what makes up the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems to learn how the planets might have formed, and to lay the groundwork for eventually studying potentially habitable worlds," Crossfield said.

Crossfield chose the UA because it “offers one of the greatest concentrations of planetary scientists in the country, and world-class observatories to boot. Nothing seemed more natural than wanting to head to Tucson."

Buell Jannuzi, director of the UA Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, is excited to see what each of the fellows will bring.

“We are thrilled that outstanding scientists like Wen-fai, Andy and Ian continue to select to bring their fellowships to the UA to pursue their research," Jannuzi said. "We are proud that we have a working environment, colleagues and facilities that are internationally recognized as being a great place to undertake astrophysical research.”

Timothy Swindle, head of the UA Department of Planetary Sciences and the Lunar and Planetary Lab, said it’s not unusual to attract such talent to the UA.

"The UA's ability to attract outstanding post-docs like this is an indication of how strong we are in the space sciences, and reflects the fact that talented young researchers like these want to be involved in the things we're doing here."

Contacts

Daniel Stolte
stolte@email.arizona.edu
520-626-4402