Mr. Farley Ferrante, a Southern Methodist University (SMU) professor and an advisor for the Astrophysics QuarkNet program, announced to the group that senior Allie Frymire’s star had been approved. The group celebrated, congratulating Allie on her achievement. She had just discovered a star.
“There is some level of separation since you feel so separated from the star itself, it is less like I discovered a star and more like I did a successful job analyzing data. I did a good job, and it ended up with a great result, less of landing on Hispaniola and more of getting an A+ on the paper,” Allie said.
This past summer, Allie worked as a paid astrophysics intern within SMU’s QuarkNet summer research program for six weeks. QuarkNet gives students the opportunity to explore physics through summer research projects with high school teachers and SMU scientists.
According to Allie and Mr. Ferrante, Allie’s internship focused on stellar research and specifically, identifying and discovering previously unknown variable stars and having them accepted into The International Variable Star Index (VSX).
“I’ve really always had a passion for the outer space aspect of physics, it’s what interested me the most and I’ve always kept up with news from NASA and SpaceX. I thought [this internship] would be a great opportunity to see what a career in astrophysics would be like,” Allie said.
According to Mr. Ferrante, Allie’s passion became evident through her work in the QuarkNet program.
“Allie was an excellent research student. You can call it an internship I suppose, but I didn’t really think of that way. She is highly intelligent, motivated, genuinely interested, curious, and inquisitive. She chose to focus on a class of variable stars that has been particularly difficult for us to analyze. She worked hard, appeared to enjoy what she was doing, asked good questions, and overall was one of the best and brightest students we’ve worked with over the past four years,” Mr. Ferrante said.
In order to discover a star, Allie used data from a telescope called the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) where she looked for light curves, which are the brightness patterns that are observed from Earth of different objects in the night sky. Afterwards, she used Linux, a primary operating system for scientific modeling and data analysis, to process the data from ROTSE and identify the stars with variable light curves. These curves give evidence of the stars Allie is looking for, that there are variable stars or stars whose brightness changes in the night sky.
According to Allie, discovering a star was a very “tedious” process that consisted of a lot of trial and error.
“If you find the curve in three days you can compile all your data and find a good overall curve. If that works out sometimes your graph will look crazy and not make any sense and the advisor will not be able to help you. You just have to find another one. So it was very cut throat if it didn’t work out, it was just like too bad you have to find another one,” she said.
After analyzing the data, Allie recorded the coordinates of the potentially variable stars and searched the International Variable Star Index (VSX) to see if the stars have been registered. Upon discovering that a star has not been logged, she continued to gather more information about the star before submitting the data to the VSX.
The approval of the star by VSX confirmed that Allie has discovered a star. In addition to her two confirmed stars, Allie also has a couple of other potential discoveries pending. SMU students are going to finish logging and submitting the data to see if her findings will be approved by VSX.
“[Astrophysics] is fun. It’s really interesting to think that in a field I am so interested in, I have contributed to it and I have improved the field and I did it,” said Allie. “It makes you feel so good inside, it’s like I did it I contributed to the field I love.”
According to Allie, her love of physics stems from her passion for math and quantitative fields.
“I’ve always been kind of a science-math person and really my strong suit is math and working with numbers. If you think of biology and chemistry, they are very separated from math in a way in that they are less quantitative,” she said. “Physics is the most mathematically pure science so it’s ideal for me.” Allie said.
This school year, Allie is doing a yearlong space tutorial through EDx, an online program that provides free courses on a variety of subjects through interactive videos and activities.
Allie is taking the “Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe”, a course taught through videos and quizzes by astronomers Brian Schmidt and Paul Francis from the Australian National University’s Mt. Stromlo Observatory. She is under the mentorship of Upper School Science teacher Nicholas Park.
In order to be eligible to take this tutorial, Allie took an Introduction to Physics honors course at John Hopkins University, so she could complete AP Physics C her junior year.
Allie said she is considering astrophysics as a possible profession after enjoying her work this summer.
Mr. Park said Allie has a special connection to her work that makes her stand out as a student.
“She is passionate about physics and about astronomy and really that’s what it comes down to,” said Mr. Park. “It is a pleasure working with her. It’s a joy to work with someone who is truly inspired by what they do.”
Photo by Sudeep Bhargava
Originally published in the November 2017 print issue