Winter 2019 Newsletter

Salutations from the Astronomy Department!

Now that the department has recovered from “Snowmageddon 2019” we are really looking forward to spring. Spring quarter brings the opening of the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory (TJO), a fresh round of colloquium speakers, and graduation!

Spring gives our astronomers more time to observe the skies, and more opportunities to share their discoveries and knowledge with student and the public. As we head into spring we hope that you will take part in one of our many department events such as: Open house Wednesday nights at the Jacobsen Observatory, First Friday’s at the Planetarium, and off campus events for the Mobile Planetarium. As always, we are tremendously grateful for our alumni and friends, and their help and support. With much to look forward to, we wish you all the best for the coming spring.


Astronomy Highlights: Melissa Graham

Astronomy would like to introduce Dr. Melissa Graham. Dr. Graham has been with the department for 3 years working with the LSST Data Management team as a Project Science Analyst. This quarter her work is focusing on supernova science with the Zwicky Transient Facility, preparing for the future of time-domain astronomy with the stream of millions of “astronomical event alerts” that LSST will produce, and finishing up a paper on how best to estimate distances to galaxies with future large-area multi-wavelength surveys.

An exciting accomplishment for Dr. Graham this year has been the publication of a paper in which she was the lead, titled “Delayed Circumstellar Interaction for Type Ia SN 2015cp Revealed by an HST Ultraviolet Imaging Survey”. This paper was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. She presented this work at the American Astronomical Society meeting (AAS) here in Seattle in January, and the UW media office did a press release to coincide with her talk. You can find links to a few articles relating to Dr. Graham’s research below.

“Dr. Melissa Graham is an outstanding scientist whose work is at the forefront of research on exploding supernovae stars. She is also doing fantastic work as a member of thhe LSST team and helping us prepare for time-domain science with millions of alerts per night that LSST will soon start producing.” —Dr. Željko Ivezić

Outside of the university Dr. Graham finds time to tap dance! She is taking intermediate tap dancing classes with the All That Dance studio. She’s also taking beginner Spanish classes at Seattle City University. We are excited to see what she does next in and out of the University.

“One little dot can tell us a lot! This is our Hubble Space Telescope image of Type Ia supernova 2015cp, obtained with a near-ultraviolet filter, 686 days after the original explosion (cyan circle labeled “ultraviolet source”). That dot is light from the explosion of a white dwarf star hitting material within 0.1 light-years of the progenitor star system. The very existence of this material indicates that the exploding star had was in a binary system, and likely had either a sun-like or red giant star companion — not another white dwarf star.” —Dr. Graham

Read more about Dr. Graham’s work at UW News, Geek Wire, and DiRAC.


Kudos of the Quarter

This quarter we’d like to give kudos to Bayu Wilson. Bayu is a senior in the Astronomy department. He is currently studding the evolution of high-redshift intergalactic gas using the absorption `forests` in the spectrum of quasars with Professor Matthew McQuinn and Dr. Vid Iršič.

“In my work, I probe this gas using the quasar spectra at redshifts between 3.0 and 4.2 from the XQ-100 Legacy Survey taken with VLT/XSHOOTER. With 100 quasar spectra from this survey I make flux power spectrum measurements on the Lyman-alpha and Lyman-beta forest (Two electronic transitions of hydrogen gas). By measuring the same intergalactic gas in two different ways (Lyman-alpha & Lyman-beta), my work can improve constraints on cosmology measurements made with the Lyman-alpha forest alone. I test my analysis pipeline on synthetic data that match the quasar redshift distribution of the XQ-100 sample. I use high-resolution simulations of the intergalactic medium from the Sherwood simulation suite. The image below is a projection of gas density at z=2.8 with 40 comoving Mpc/h on each side from this simulation suite.” —Bayu Wilson

“Even though a senior undergraduate, he has successfully developed a code to measure the power spectrum of the absorption lines – a task suited more for a graduate level student: this includes understanding and coding of Fast Fourier Transforms, time evolution asymmetry, expansion of the Universe, and various systematic effects that has to take into account, or correct, using his code. Despite his own work on the project, Bayu has continuously shown interest and offering help with other areas of the project, making him invaluable to a group effort that will ultimately result in a peer-reviewed publication.” —Dr. Vid Iršič

One might wonder how Bayu has time to sleep or eat with such an extensive research and classroom load. However, Bayu has time to play soccer, dance salsa & tango, and run long-distance. This quarter he dances almost every single day! He loves to go dancing at Dance Underground in Capitol Hill and Salsa Con Todo in Fremont.
Bayu says, “Let me know if you ever want to come! It’s a bit chilly for soccer right now but next quarter I might try to form the Pulsar Kicks [an astronomy themed soccer team].” Lastly, Bayu plans to train for a marathon or half-marathon later this year. Please join us in cheering him on in and out of the department!


Graduate Research: Focus on Brett Morris

This winter we’d like to introduce you to Brett Morris. Brett Morris has dedicated much of his time to not only research, but also furthering the growth of the astronomy community in Seattle. Brett has played a major role in the Astronomy on Tap series. Astronomy on Tap is a free event that features accessible, engaging science presentations on topics ranging from planets to black holes to the beginning of the Universe. Most events have games and prizes to test and reward your new-found knowledge! Any and everyone is invited.

As for Brett’s research we only know as much about a planet as we know about its host star, which is why Brett’s dissertation work focuses on stellar magnetic activity and its effects on observations of transiting exoplanets. The first half of Brett’s graduate work focused on the starspots of a spotted star called HAT-P-11, in collaboration with Leslie Hebb, Suzanne Hawley, Jim Davenport and Eric Agol. Brett used transits of HAT-P-11’s hot-Neptune exoplanet to reveal a map of the stellar surface. The starspot map shows that spots on HAT-P-11 emerge in similar locations as sunspots on the Sun, though in far greater numbers.

“Brett is absolutely phenomenal in his research on solar and stellar magnetic activity and the effects on exoplanets!  He has 9 first author papers since Sept 2017, along with several research notes and meeting abstracts.  He has also given 6 invited talks at national and international conferences.  Brett won the inaugural Graduate Student Research Award in 2018.” —Dr. Suzanne Hawley

The second half of Brett’s dissertation has focused on the tiny star in the TRAPPIST-1 system, and whether brightness variations on the stellar surface influence measurements of the radii of its exoplanets. Brett found evidence for bright regions on the stellar surface which may affect future optical observations of the seven Earth-sized planets. In collaboration with Eric Agol and other members of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, Brett is preparing for James Webb Space Telescope observations of these tantelizing small worlds, which may allow us to constrain their atmospheric compositions and bulk densities.

“Brett discovered a novel form of stellar variability in the small, cool star, Trappist-1, which is famed for hosting a seven transiting planet system, which Brett has helped to characterize.  Beyond his own research achievements, he serves the astronomical community by providing Python code packages for others to use, such as astroplan.” —Dr. Eric Agol

When Brett is not working on astrophysics, he devotes time to astrobiology by collaborating with Jody Deming and Max Showalter in the Oceanography Department. Brett is developing an open source software package for digital holographic microscopy, which might enable us to answer the question: “is microbial motility an unambiguous biosignature?” The team is working on a microscope called SHAMU — the Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultra-resolution — and accompanying software which can be sent to Europa or Enceladus to search for swimming microbes in an effort to search for extant life. As Brett gets ready to graduate with his PhD we are excited to see where his research takes him.

The League of Astronomers Club

The League of Astronomers (LoA) had a huge presence at the January American Astronomical Society meeting! Several of our members attended, presented, and volunteered at the meeting. We brought our mobile planetarium to showcase some of our outreach efforts to the wider astronomical community, and the LoA even had a poster presented by the lovely Adriana Gomez-Buckley!

We also held a lunar eclipse viewing party in Red Square on January 20th. Many people attended, and were able to get a great view of the eclipse above Suzzallo Library.

Have no fear! The Mobile Planetarium Committee is here

The League of Astronomers has formed the Mobile Planetarium Committee (MoPlaC)! We created MoPlaC to do more impactful outreach with the mobile planetarium. Last quarter we crafted a mission statement: “The mission of the University of Washington Mobile Planetarium Committee (UW MoPlaC) is to increase diversity in the field of astronomy beginning with the next generation of astronomers (K-12 students). Specifically, we will give engaging mobile planetarium presentations to middle school students from underrepresented communities in the Seattle area to inspire students to consider a future in astronomy.”

In order to achieve our mission, we have been working with a group called STUDIO from the College of Education. In partnership with STUDIO, we are crafting a 6-week curriculum that is culturally responsive and engaging. In the spring, we plan to apply this curriculum to an already existing mentorship program at a middle school in West Seattle.

If you are interested in getting involved email You may also come to our weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 4:30pm in the PAB B360.

Upcoming Events

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory opens in the spring! Open house events take place on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, and consist of a 30-minute talk given by members of the UW astronomy community followed by hands-on activities and viewings of the dome telescope (courtesy of the Seattle Astronomical Society). The first open house is on April 2nd, and early reservations are open. Email to secure a spot!

Dancing with the Stars will return this spring! Last year the LoA hosted a ball featuring music from Night Lunch, free planetarium shows, and other activities. It was a blast, so we decided to make it a yearly event. The second annual Dancing with the Stars event will tentatively take place on May 3rd; stay tuned! Check in on our Facebook page closer to the date!

The LoA itself holds general meetings every Wednesday at 4:30pm PAB B360 (AKA the Astrolab), and our Tea Time Colloquia with Astronomy’s weekly speaker are Thursdays at 1:30pm also in PAB B360.

The remaining speakers for winter quarter colloquium are:

February 28th– Liang Dai from the Institute for Advanced Study Princeton, NJ.

March 7th– Dr. Jessica Werk from the University of Washington

March 14th– Dr. Kelle Cruz from Hunter College, New York, NY.

Colloquia are at 4:00PM in PAA A102, with refreshments at 3:45PM. We hope you join us in the fun!”

A list of all quarterly colloquium speakers can be found under the News & Events page on the Astronomy website.

Bolin, Bryce

Bryce is a Senior Researcher at the B612 Asteroid Institute and DIRAC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Washington. The main focus ofhis academic studies has been the dynamical processes that affect
small body populations in the solar system and their observable
consequences. He uses observational and numerical modeling approaches
on topics such as ancient asteroid families, Main Belt asteroids,
Near-Earth Objects, and comets.

Fall 2018 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Julianne DalcantonDear Friends,

Back in August, when I was lamenting the quiet of the summer months on campus, it was hard to imagine the current whirlwind of activity.  We have new students, new researchers, new visitors, and new projects, and every day seems to bring another interesting talk or scientific result to discuss.  When I first started here, our talk schedule centered on the weekly Department colloquium, Journal Club presentations by our graduate students, and an occasional visitor talk at lunch time.  These days, however, we also have weekly Astrobiology colloquia, weekly lunch talks from our many visitors, talks from visitors and members of the Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology (DIRAC) center, and weekly discussions of new papers on astro-ph over coffee (“CAphEINE”).  For as long as I’ve been an astronomer, the most exciting time seems to be RIGHT NOW, and the current department schedule certainly confirms that impression.

For me, one of the highlights of this past quarter was the Department’s “Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) Hack Day”, organized by Prof. Eric Bellm, DIRAC Associate Director Dr. Daniela Huppenkothen, and DIRAC postdoctoral researcher Zach Golkhou.  ZTF is an exciting time-domain survey of the northern sky that UW recently joined as one of a small number of partners.  This project is allowing UW scientists to make exciting scientific discovers while also developing critical expertise for the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).  The Department’s ZTF Hack Day was a supportive, collaborative, and extremely efficient way to jump start our ZTF-based research, by helping us rapidly climb the steep learning curve that any new project requires.  We celebrated the end of the day with our first monthly department social, hosted by Prof. Andy Connolly.

Looking forward, one of the biggest events on the calendar is the coming of the American Astronomical Society’s national winter meeting to Seattle.  Many of our wonderful collaborators and former students will be coming to town, and many of our faculty, postdocs, and students (grad and undergrad!) will be giving talks at the meeting itself.  We hope to catch up with you at the meeting or on campus before or after.  In particular, for those of you who have helped to support the Department’s Jacobsen, Hodge, or Wallerstein funds, please reach out so that I can thank you in person.

Best wishes for a relaxing and satisfying holiday season,

Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

Kudos of the Quarter

Aislynn WallachAislynn Wallach is an undergraduate senior majoring in Astronomy and Physics. All students in the Astronomy Department know that a good life includes a lot of giving. Accordingly, some of the undergraduate majors in the Astronomy Department regularly do fantastic volunteer outreach to the general public. Here we’d like to recognize Aislynn, who often volunteers their time to meet with the public at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory (“TJO”).

“Note that our wonderful volunteer donates their services in the evenings when they might otherwise be studying, socializing, or doing their laundry. The many Open House activities would be impossible without the undergraduate volunteers like Aislynn.” – Dr. Bruce Balick

Aislynn is currently working on two projects: the first with Dr. Jamie Lomax — former UW post-doc, now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis — using spectropolarimetry to analyze the geometry of the binary star system V367 Cyg. So far they have preliminary polarimetric light curves of the system, and are working on finalizing them and the code to write them before their poster presentation on the project at AAS this January. Closer to home, they also work with graduate student Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein attempting to find Wolf-Rayet stars in the h+chi Persei star cluster.

In their free time, Aislynn enjoys baking, especially when they get to bring their experiments in to feed their friends. They spend time with the UW Q Center community. Aislynn is also an officer in the League of Astronomers. The LOA plays a major role in undergraduate life in the Astronomy department. We are excited and proud to share Aislynn’s work with you.

Graduate Research: Focus on Margaret Lazzarini

Margaret LazzariniThis quarter’s spotlight is on graduate student Margaret Lazzarini. Her research focuses on studying populations of X-ray binaries in local galaxies. X-ray binaries are systems in which a compact object primary (black hole or neutron star) accretes matter from a stellar companion. She is particularly interested in how we can use the population demographics — the fraction of systems with a black hole/neutron star primaries and different types of companion stars — to better understand the formation and evolution of these systems.

“Margaret has been pushing to the forefront of multiwavelength X-ray/optical studies of nearby galaxies. She just completed her second internship at Goddard, published her first first author paper as well as a second author paper over the past few months. ” – Dr. Benjamin Williams

Margaret uses X-rays to study the compact object. Observations of high energy X-ray emission with NuSTAR can distinguish between black holes and neutron stars. Also observations at optical wavelengths allows for the companion star to be identified and its spectral type to be determined. Her recent work has included a multi-wavelength study of the high mass X-ray binary population in Andromeda using data from the NuSTAR X-ray telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Outside of research, Margaret is passionate about teaching and improving equity and inclusion within astronomy. This fall she is the instructor of the Pre-Majors in the Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP) seminar. Margaret has co-developed and taught a two week course in astronomy called Protostars for middle school girls. This is taught through UW’s educational outreach office in the summer of 2016 and 2018. Margaret has also spent many Friday mornings giving planetarium shows to local school groups as both a presenter and the planetarium’s coordinator. Prior to coming to UW she taught high school physics and astronomy for two years in Los Angeles while obtaining a Master’s Degree in education. She recently won the Graduate Student award for teaching.

“Margaret has consistently been one of the strongest TAs every quarter that she has taught. Her teaching experience prior to graduate school has paid large dividends for the students in the Astronomy 101, 102, and 150 classes. Margaret’s commitment to teaching is demonstrated in her preparation and execution in the classroom. Even in topics far outside her field of research, Margaret’s dedication to teaching has lead to an outstanding experience for the undergraduate students.” – Professor Toby Smith

Somehow Margaret has found time to experience life outside of the department. She spent two years of graduate school playing on the UW club water polo team, and these days she spends most of her free time hanging out with her adorable dog, Melba. Congratulations to Margaret and all of her accomplishments in the recent years.

Upcoming Events

The League of Astronomers Club

The League of Astronomers is a club at the University of Washington which seeks to expose as many people as possible to the joy of astronomy. Our fall meeting time is Tuesdays at 6pm in PAB B360, so join us for some fun trivia and tea time seminars! Please contact our group at if you have any questions about becoming a member, or if you have any general inquiries about our group.

Colloquium Tea Time Seminar

We are planning on holding Tea Time Seminars with the weekly colloquium speaker. This will include a brief summary by the speaker on who they are, what they’re researching followed by a Q&A session with our members. For the rest of this quarter, we will be holding it at 11:00am on Thursdays in the Astrolab (PAB B360). There will be tea and cookies!

A list of the quarterly colloquium speakers can be found under the News & Events page on the Astronomy website.

Movie Review: First Man

First Man

The League of Astronomers was invited to a pre-screening of the new movie First Man with Ryan Gosling! It received mixed reviews from our members, giving us a final Dehydrated Space Tomatoes rating of 60%. Overall, we liked the emotional focus of the movie, but thought it was too slow-paced at times. From the trailer, one would assume the movie would be a fast-paced action movie about the journey to the moon, but in reality it was about the emotional journey of one man. It also glossed over societal issues of the time that it could have delved into more deeply. However, its brutally honest representation of the human toll of the space race won over most of our members. While it wasn’t a bad movie, it’s certainly no Hidden Figures.

“It made me want to be an astronaut. The Moon landscapes were so beautiful and serene. It felt like I was really there, stepping in the regolith, soaking in the barren grandeur. And then a thought crossed my mind: Oh my god, Hollywood actually faked the Moon landing!” –Postdoc Michael Wong

“It was amazing to really see the struggles NASA had to go through. I did not realize there were so many political setbacks and deaths. It was inspiring to see what they had to overcome to get us to the moon.” – Undergraduate Courtney Klein

American Astronomical Society Meeting in Seattle!

The League of Astronomers has secured travel funds to send 5 undergraduate students to the 233rd AAS conference in January 2019. The AAS meeting is the most highly attended meeting in the Astronomical society every year in the US. Additionally, we have received an invitation to showcase the mobile planetarium at AAS from UW alum Philip Rosenfield, the project director for World Wide Telescope (WWT). Our goal is to teach AAS members how the mobile planetarium functions, showcase WWT software, and announce our future plans towards targeted outreach. We are planning to send 5 volunteers to carry out this goal, who will also be able to attend the meeting at no additional cost.