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College of Arts and Sciences

Students find wonder and fascination in astronomy research

Daria Vecherskaia always had an interest in astronomy, but she used to brush it aside.

“I always thought that it was really hard and not for me,” says the University of South Carolina sophomore. She came to college planning to study business or economics.

But that changed when she took an introductory astronomy course from Varsha Kulkarni, a researcher who uses images and spectra to learn about the evolution of gas and dust in and around galaxies throughout the universe. Kulkarni’s enthusiasm for research proved to be contagious.

“My second semester, I emailed her to ask if she had any opportunities for research for undergraduates, even though I didn't have any science background,” Vecherskaia says. 
Of course, Kulkarni said yes. After getting her first research assignment, Vecherskaia sat down and worked for six hours straight. She was hooked. She changed her major to physics and added a minor in astronomy.

"After taking a couple of classes, both astronomy and physics, I understood that this might be something I could do for a career,” Vecherskaia says. “Even though I thought I didn't have anything to offer, I found out that I can do something to benefit the team.” 

That's what makes research fascinating. ... There are a lot of unknown ideas to test out, and there are also a lot of data to test them! 

— Varsha Kulkarni 

A lot of students come to UofSC astronomy research programs that way ― regardless of their major, they are beckoned by a fascination with the universe. 

“It's a basic curiosity that human beings have,” Kulkarni says. “We want to understand nature and find out what exactly is going on in the rest of the universe.” 

Kyle Lackey is another example. He had a longstanding interest in physics, but he knew he’d found his niche when he started astronomy research with Kulkarni. 

He graduated from UofSC in 2015, but he returned to earn a Ph.D. “It’s very clear as an undergraduate in physics that you're really getting only the tip of the iceberg,” Lackey says. “There’s so much more in physics to be learned. There are constantly new things to learn, new frontiers to explore. It's like a sequence of problems with practical solutions.” 

Vercheskaia and Lackey are studying polar ring galaxies, rare galaxies that have large rings of stars and gas circling the galaxy in a polar direction. They use images to try to learn what interactions cause these galaxies to take on the unusual shape. 

In addition to the project focused on polar ring galaxies, some students are studying pairs of colliding galaxies. Others are looking at interstellar dust grains ― located in clouds of gas between stars ― to learn about what those clouds are made of and how the dust grains evolve with time.  

There are constantly new things to learn, new frontiers to explore. It's like a sequence of problems with practical solutions. 

— Kyle Lackey 

For their research, Kulkarni and her students use data from large telescopes located both on the ground (mountaintops in Chile, Hawaii, and New Mexico), as well as in space (such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope). In 2020, the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees the Hubble, accepted a research proposal from Kulkarni and used the telescope to record data for her research. Getting observation time on the Hubble is a highly competitive process, but UofSC had two researchers approved in 2020. In addition to Kulkarni, physics and astronomy professor Steve Rodney also had a proposal accepted.

Kulkarni’s group also has been awarded observation time on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in Fall 2021. The Webb telescope is expected to be more sensitive than the Hubble, so it will provide even more data for Kulkarni’s team.

Fatima Elkhatib, a senior on Kulkarni’s research team who is studying dust clouds to learn about how dust in distant galaxies compares to that in our own galaxy, says it’s daunting to realize how vast the universe is compared to human knowledge. “There's a lot that we don't know,” she says.

But that means there is a lot to learn. Elkhatib says that research has helped her to focus on learning, even when there isn’t a “right” answer.

And, sometimes, there isn’t an assigned question.

“In research, nobody gives you a problem to work on,” Kulkarni says. “It's totally up to you.”

That means there’s a whole universe of possibilities.

“That's what makes research fascinating,” Kulkarni adds. “Even beginning undergraduates can easily make a contribution in research, because there are a lot of unknown ideas to test out, and there are also a lot of data to test them!” 

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