Students Explore Scientific Boundaries at Annual American Astronomical Society Meeting

Courtesy of Jacob Buehler

Nine students in Physics 530 and two faculty members attended this year’s annual American Astronomical Society meting in Seattle, Washington to attend workshops and talks.

Nine students from the Astronomy Research class (Physics-530) and two faculty members attended the annual American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle, Washington last week from January 6 to 10. According to Caroline Odden, Instructor in Physics, the AAS meeting is the biggest meeting in the United States of professional astronomers every year, with around 3,000 professional astronomers, undergraduate students, and high school students in attendance.

Since 2012, Odden has brought small groups of students to the AAS meeting. Students can take part in various workshops, talks, and press conferences highlighting some of the recent findings in astronomy. According to Odden, a highlight of the trip was meeting Jocelyn Bell, an astrophysicist credited with the discovery of the neutron star.

“There are people talking about cutting-edge science that is being done and being reported on, basically live at this conference, and so it’s great for students to have a chance to listen to those talks and also to be aware that science that they’re learning about in their classrooms is happening right now,” said Odden.

Odden said she hoped the AAS meeting would be educational for students not only because it included presentations on groundbreaking science, but also because the meeting provided examples of the applications of science beyond the high school classroom context and insights into the lives of the attending researchers.

“[The meeting] gives students a sense of what the social life of a professional scientist is like. So scientists are attending this conference to go to talks, and to learn, but also to network with other scientists in the field… And for the students to have an opportunity to take part in that networking and to talk to people about what they’re doing is, I think is really valuable,” said Odden.

For Anjalie Kini ’19, a student on the trip, the press conferences were her favorite aspect of the meeting.

“My favorite part was going to the press conferences, specifically the one about black holes, because it’s something that I’m really interested in and because it was really cool to see, sort of the work that’s being released at the very frontier of the field on the day it’s being released and sort of exciting to see this webcast, traditional press conference with a bunch of reporters asking questions,” said Kini.

While at the meeting, Odden also met a fellow high school educator in the Exhibition Hall, a large room with various booths set up by astronomy-related companies. They spoke about their own schools and research programs, and she offered him advice and inspiration for enriching his own school’s research program.

“I had a nice conversation with another high school teacher who’s interested in getting started with having his students do astronomy research projects…and I have the distinct impression that he’s gonna go back to his own school and try to maybe start a research program that’s something like ours. So personally, that was really satisfying to be able to have that conversation,” said Odden.

Neil Thorley ’19, an attendee of the conference, said he enjoyed a talk on the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, an aptly-named space telescope designed to assist in the discovery of habitable exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars beyond our solar system.

“[The talk] was really going over…all of the science behind [the project], like what’s gone into making this telescope a reality, what will we be able to do that past projects like the NASA Kepler program haven’t been, and what it would mean in the future for these results and what they would mean for science and for humanity,” said Thorley.

Thorley said he believes that being exposed to professional scientists and researchers at this conference may help the Andover students with their in-class projects. According to Thorley, the class has been collaborating with Dr. Steve Howell of NASA on a study regarding the magnetic fields of white dwarf stars, as well as other related topics.

“We’ve been working as a class with him and in conjunction with the telescope in the Sierra Nevada to try and get as good data for this as possible, trying to map the possible locations of various elements on the surface of these stars that might indicate magnetic activity,” said Thorley.

Students in the course also have the opportunity to publish their findings professionally, according to Thorley.

“Other projects have been searching for exoplanets, or mapping the rotational periods of asteroids, finding new asteroids in the belt, and really there’s quite a wide range of projects being undertaken by the class. I think it’s a really great opportunity to be able to get some hands-on experience and become a published scientist in high school…it’s very rare that high school students have that kind of opportunity,” said Thorley.

Kini said that the meeting strengthened her general astronomy background and broadened her view of the field.

“I learned that within the field of astronomy and the types of projects you can work on, there’s a really broad range as far as different subfields which there are a lot more [of] and a lot more in-depth than I think I really imagined before going,” said Kini.