Summer 2018 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

It is another glorious summer here at UW Astronomy (or at least, it was until the wildfire smoke moved in).  While much of the country focuses on vacations and BBQ’s, many of us in the Department are engaged in that long academic tradition of “happily catching up on all the research you couldn’t keep up with during the school year.”  For many of us, that involves long uninterrupted stretches in the office with few meetings, allowing us to concentrate on solving existing problems, or exploring new ideas.  These fertile periods are often interspersed with trips to visit collaborators or to attend interesting conferences, which in turn spawn new projects and plans for future research.  As such, summers are the time when we recharge intellectually for the coming year.

But, the flip side is that summers in the Department can be quiet.  Our colleagues are often traveling the world, and we have fewer events that bring us together as a group.  Moreover, we miss our students, who normally bring a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy to the campus.  As much as I enjoy the focus on research during the summers, it’s always a thrill when the students return to campus in late September.

This year promises to be more exciting than usual, as we welcome a particularly large class of entering graduate students, who I know will add to the terrific intellectual community of their more senior graduate colleagues.  We also will welcome a new crop of undergraduates to our Pre-Major in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP; This long-running program is for entering students (both freshmen and transfers) who are interested in math and science and who are traditionally underrepresented in astronomy.  The Pre-MAP cohort engages in astronomy research in their very first quarter on campus, while also receiving one-on-one mentoring and support from their peers.  Pre-MAP is yet another program that was started and fostered by our graduate students, who continue to excel at bringing science to the larger world, at the same time as they discover new truths about the Universe.

And on that inspirational note, I’d like to end by thanking all of you for the many contributions you’ve made to the department through the years — through your time, your financial support, or your well-wishes.  Now that this note is written, I’m off to a BBQ!

Best Wishes,

Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

Kudos of the Quarter

This summer we’d like to give kudos to a senior undergraduate Courtney Klein. Courtney is currently double majoring in Astronomy and Physics. Over the summer she has been at Montana State University working with Prof. Dana Longcope on solar flare simulations.

“My project was to use simulations to recreate the observed results of a solar flare from 2017 so that we can build a better understanding of the physics driving the flare. I have been able to reproduce the temperature and emission measure of the observed flare using the simulation and so we are in the process of writing a paper that explains the physics behind the flare’s temperature distribution.”

When she gets back she will have only one quarter before she graduates with honors in both the Physics and Astronomy departments. Courtney was also the recipient of the Baer prize. This prize is awarded annually to the top performing undergraduates in the Astronomy department. Courtney is also a member of the League of Astronomers. This group his heavily involved in events at the Theodore Jacobsen Observatory, and giving presentations at the planetarium. She plays a huge role in the success of our departments outreach programs. For the past year she has been working on quasar spectra absorption analysis with Prof. Jessica Werk.

“Courtney has been a stand-out member of my undergraduate research group, Student Quasar Absorption Diagnosticians (Werk SQuAD), for the past year. Having Courtney on the SQuAD has been an absolute game-changer in terms of our overall productivity. She is the kind of student who quietly encourages other students to strive for excellence, leading by example. By bringing her A-game to our SQuAD meetings, Courtney motivates everyone to work harder and more effectively. We are so lucky to have a student like Courtney in our department!” – Prof. Jessica Werk

In her spare time she trains for triathlons with the UW Triathlon Club. She has competed in the Collegiate National Triathlon Championship race, and hopes to race an Ironman in the next couple of years. We are excited to continue to share in her research this fall, and we encourage you to attend one of our many outreach events, at which I’m sure you can find Courtney.

Graduate Research: Focus on Kathryn Neugent

Kathryn Neugent started UW in 2017 and has been working with Dr. Emily Levesque on massive star research, specifically Red Supergiants (RSGs) and their binary properties.
Previous observations of un-evolved massive stars suggest that the binary fraction of more evolved massive stars should be around 30%. However, there are very few binary RSGs known. So, do they just not exist or have we not yet discovered them? This is the question Kathryn is hoping to answer.

Evolutionary models predict that RSGs will be in a binary system with B stars and these combinations should be observable, not just spectroscopically but also photometrically. Kathryn has designed a set of photometric cutoffs that should allow astronomers to search for binary RSGs using just their colors. These cutoffs have been tested with observed RSG and B-star binaries from the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. She has since gone to the Apache Point Observatory to search for galactic RSG+B binaries and will look for more within M31 and M33 this fall with the MMT down in Tucson, Arizona.

In April Kathryn had a first-author AJ paper accepted for publication on the discovery of a unusual runaway yellow star, which received enthusiastic press coverage.  Kathryn did a fantastic podcast interview as part of this and is continuing to work on additional research focused on the nature of this star.

“This was actually just one project of hers, building on work that she did with a collaborator of ours while at Lowell Observatory. This all came together while she was also taking classes and doing research with me as an IGERT fellow here, computing a grid of synthetic spectra and photometry for binary red supergiants.” -Professor Emily Levesque

Kathryn’s first year at UW has been phenomenal. We are extremely happy to share her work, and see it spread through the Astronomy community. When she’s not deep in massive star research Kathryn can be found hiking (she misses Colorado and the Rocky Mountains), doing astrophotography, and playing with her cat and corgi. How she has the time to do all of this we’ll never know. Please join us in congratulating Kathryn for finishing her first year with such a flare.

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. We will be writing the upcoming events and outreach sections for the newsletter now, and in the future! With many people out of town for the summer, we focus our efforts on running Theodor Jacobsen Observatory events. Regular meetings will resume in the fall. Please contact our group at if you have any questions about becoming a member, or if you have any general inquiries about our group. Please contact if you have any questions about TJO events.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is Still Open!

Every summer, Theodor Jacobsen Observatory opens its doors to the public. Sadly, one of our main teachers and guides Prof. Ana Larsen retired. She was a great contributor, organizer, and speaker to the observatory. She is and will be sorely missed. With her departure Prof. Bruce Balick and our very own undergraduate Adriana Gomez-Buckley, event coordinator officer, has been working hard scheduling and organizing the twice-monthly events. The rest of League participates by giving talks, running science demos, and answering any and all questions about the universe we live in. Most recently, homeschool groups have been coming in for personal talks and tours. Even the Protostars, a UW Astronomy summer camp for young girls, made a special visit to learn about spectra, galaxies, telescopes, and what it’s like to be an astronomer. During our events participants are shown how to use our smaller telescopes, they get a tour of the observatory, and they get to test our knowledge of the universe. We look forward to meeting you!

Professor Ana Larsen and two League of Astronomers members at TJO.

The TJO hosts Evening Public Talks every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month from April to September. There are only two talks left in this year’s season:

September 5 –  8:00 pm: Tzvetelina Dimi, “The Moons of Our Solar System.”
 This talk will tour through the prominent moons of the Solar System, including those of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Special emphasis will be put on the Galilean moons and their scientific importance. It will also explore the chances of life beneath these surfaces and the mysteries the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

September 19 – 8:00 pm: Bayu Wilson, topic TBA.

Saturn, the Moon and Mars will be visible in the night sky.

Prof. Vikki Meadows Featured in The Atlantic

When Victoria Meadows needs to ponder life on distant planets, she surrounds herself with earthly vegetation.

“Being in nature kind of drops you into a different state of thinking,” said Meadows, who heads NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and has been awarded the 2018 Drake Award for her contributions to the search for extraterrestrial life.

Read the full article in The Atlantic.

DiRAC Open House and Research Highlights

We would like to thank all of you who attended the lecture by Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter to celebrate the opening of our DiRAC Institute.

It was a wonderful and inspiring evening that demonstrated how our understanding of the universe might change as a result of the data from a new generation of telescopes and satellites that will come on line over the next few years. We were very happy that you could join us and share this excitement and hope that, over the coming months, you will follow the work and discoveries that will come from the DiRAC Institute.

If you would like to hear about some of the research going on at DiRAC Institute you can watch our team describe some of their research highlights below or check the news on our site. We would also welcome your support of the students and researchers at the DiRAC Institute.

DiRAC Institute Introduction from Nikolina Horvat on Vimeo.

Spring 2018 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Seattle, where it seems that Spring may finally have decided to arrive. As we emerge from beneath our waterproof layers, those of us at UW Astronomy have much to celebrate.  Not only are we finally getting some much-needed vitamin D during the day, but at night we can enjoy the start of the new observing season at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Our wonderful team of undergraduate presenters, trained and shepherded by Prof. Ana Larson, help staff open houses on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of the spring and summer months, along with partners from the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Spring also finds us celebrating many notable achievements by our faculty. Prof. Jessica Werk (featured in our last newsletter) was awarded a Sloan Foundation Fellowship for early career faculty.  She joins Prof. Emily Levesque and Prof. Matt McQuinn in this honor, making it the third straight year that one of our assistant professors has won this prestigious award! Among the senior faculty, Prof. Andy Connolly was appointed to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars, I was awarded the Beatrice Tinsley Prize of the American Astronomical Society, and Prof. Victoria Meadows was just announced as the winner of the Drake Award from the SETI Institute for her work in astrobiology. It is a true pleasure to see our faculty being recognized for their scientific contributions, much of which came in partnership with UW students.

Within the department, we are gearing up to celebrate and honor our students.  For many years we have been fortunate to offer the Baer prizes for undergraduate excellence in research and in service, funded by a generous gift to the department.  This year, we are starting similar awards for graduate students, funded by the new Hodge and Wallerstein funds that so many of you contributed to over the past 2 years. As always, we are tremendously grateful for our alumni and friends, and their help in supporting our students!

With much to celebrate, and even more to look forward to, I wish you all the best for the coming summer.



Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

Astronomy Highlights

We would like to introduce you to Professor Mario Juric. Professor Juric has been a part of the Astronomy Department since 2014. He recently became a proud father of his now 3-month old daughter, Mila. Professor Juric has managed to be a devoted father, and dedicated member of the department. He is currently one of the hosts for Astronomy Colloquium, and he’s teaching Astronomy 497 this quarter.

This quarter his research has been focused on the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) science. ZTF began operations in late March and is producing hundreds of thousands of new time-variable object measurements every night. These measurements are flowing into UW as an “alert stream” and they’re setting up the software to capture, store, and analyze it. Having all the data in a local database here at UW will let them do early time-series science with ZTF, as well as some research in data management techniques. Professor Juric states that, “Right now I’m especially looking forward to applying this data set to learn more about asteroids and comets in the Solar System, but I’m always on the lookout for unexpected discoveries that arise with large and novel datasets such as this one. I’m very excited finding better ways to discover asteroids.”

Joachim Moeyens, a graduate student in his group, has been working on this problem. He has recently shown a proof-of-concept implementation of a novel algorithm that can discover asteroids with only a few observations spread across a few weeks (present techniques all require at least two observations each night). If they can show this technique is computationally feasible, and can handle various corner cases, it would increase how much the sky a large survey (such as LSST) could cover in a night by as much as a factor of two! The ZTF group is definitely a group to keep an eye on.

Simulated trajectories of asteroids to be linked with the novel multi-night linking technique.

Kudos of the Quarter

This quarter we are honored to give kudos to Locke Patton. Locke will be heading to Harvard Center for Astrophysics this fall, under a Pierce Fellowship. He has been studying supernova remnant environments with Professor Emily Levesque. They have been building metallicity, extinction, and star formation maps of supernovae-rich galaxies like the Fireworks Galaxy. In January he presented this research at the American Astronomical Society Winter Meeting under an AAS Travel grant in Washington DC. He is also in the process of publishing a paper for these results.

“As part of a future transientZoo public outreach project with Prof. Levesque, I have been sonifying supernovae light curves. Eventually, public volunteers will classify supernovae by listening to the dying wails of massive stars.”

It has been a great pleasure to see one of our students become a mentor, a leader, and an overall light in our department.  Locke has participated in many of our outreach programs including: Astronomy on Tap, giving public talks at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, participating in the League of Astronomers as a Science Officer, and volunteering for our Planetarium shows. He has also won two Mary Gates Research Scholarships, and a BAER prize.

Locke grew up on a dairy farm and nature preserve in Portland. He loves to get lost in old bookstores, and get involved in public outreach. Locke is even an undergraduate representative for the department and the UW graduation video. We are happy to share in his achievements, and we look forward to seeing what he will accomplish in the future.

“Locke always has a lot of energy and excitement for the research he does. By bringing that same energy and excitement to the table when we’re discussing projects he doesn’t work on in our group meetings, he’s incredibly supportive of the other research going on within the department. It’s been an absolute delight and pleasure to be in the massive star group with him and I can’t wait to see what he works on in graduate school.” – Dr. Jamie Lomax

Graduate Research: Focus on Andrew Lincowski

This quarter we’d like to share research conducted by Andrew Lincowski. Andrew’s research focuses on predicting observational discriminants of alien atmospheres that may exist on terrestrial-sized planets in and around the habitable zones of M dwarf stars, which may be observed in the near future by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To model the observational discriminants, Andrew continues development of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory’s new 1D line-by-line, multi-stream, multi-scattering radiative-convective climate model coupled to a photochemical-kinetics model. He uses this model to generate self-consistent temperature structures and mixing ratio profiles, which are used to simulate high-resolution spectra. These spectra can be used as inputs for instrument and noise models to assess the required capabilities and observing modes for future telescopes to discriminate between the modeled planetary states. A primary focus of this work is the recently discovered seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system, which is already scheduled to be observed by JWST.

Andrew has had a highly successful year of scientific productivity, and team and community support.  After winning a fiercely competitive NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, giving a talk at an international meeting on exoplanet habitability, and passing his research Qual last Autumn,  Andrew has gone on to submit the first first-author paper of his degree on modeling the environments and spectra of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanetary system. Andrew also supervises pre-MAP students, and helps undergraduate students with their scientific research. Outside of being a large contributor to the VPL team here at UW, Andrew finds time for running, hiking, and restoring his 1968 Ford Mustang. This makes us a little envious of him. We are excited to see where his research and Ford Mustang will take him.

“Andrew also broadened the impact of his expertise to the exoplanet and astrobiology communities at large, by supporting the writing of community white papers submitted to the National Academies Committees on Exoplanets and Astrobiology.  Andrew’s newly-developed planetary climate model enables simulation of a range of terrestrial planet environments and their spectra, and his research informs observing proposals for NASA’s JWST and the development of future large-aperture direct-imaging telescopes.” – Dr. Victoria Meadows

Upcoming Events

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is Open

The League of Astronomers has been involved with the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, the second-oldest building on campus, since the club was founded. The League participates by engaging the public through giving talks, science demos, and answering any and all questions about the universe we live in. This year, long-time director of the observatory, Dr. Ana Larson, is unfortunately retiring. However, the club is working hard to fill her role and keep TJO the fantastic place it has always been. We’re working hard to create new and interesting activities for the public to keep them engaged and interested in science and astronomy.

The TJO hosts Evening Public Talks every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month from April to September. Find out more about the observatory and its events.

League of Astronomer members volunteering at the opening night of TJO 2018.

May 15 – 9:00 pm: Tom Hemphill, “Life in the Solar System Beyond Earth: Past? Present? Future?”
 Tom is majoring in astronomy and physics. The UW Astronomy Department is a leader in a relatively new field called astrobiology. Tom’s talk will introduce us to part of what an astrobiologist is interest in: The possibility of microbial life in  the solar system. Where would we look for the best possibilities of finding it? How will we look? What planets or moons have evidence for favorable conditions for microbial life? Towards the very end of the evening, we might get a look at Jupiter’s moon, Europa, a prime candidate for harboring microbial life.

May 15 – 9:30 pm: Sam Reissmann, “The Lives and Deaths of Stars.”
 Sam is majoring in aeronautics and astronautics; fortunately, one of our introductory astronomy courses got him interested in stars. Sam plans on covering the life cycles of both low-mass and high-mass stars, starting with star forming regions and the beginning of fusion. He will explain the process of fusion and how a star’s initial mass relates to how much “fuel” it has and how long it will live.  Stars like our Sun will expel the outer parts of their atmospheres as they die.  However, high-mass stars fuse more massive elements that results in spectacular deaths.

June 6 – 9:00 pm: TBA Jupiter makes its Appearance in the Night Sky.

June 20 – 9:00 pm: TBA The Moon and Jupiter are Visible in the Southern Sky.

Viewing Mars Summer 2018

On July 31, 2018 Mars will be a mere 35.8 million miles from Earth. When the Earth moves between Mars and the sun, Mars will outshine Jupiter by 1.8 times. Because of this Mars will appear very bright. This will be the closest Mars has come to Earth since 2003 when the red planet was only 34.6 million miles away. Something interesting to note is that radio signals will take only about 3 minutes to reach Mars. Mars will not be this close to Earth again until 2035. Don’t forget to grab your telescope and head outdoors.

UW Undergraduate Tyler Valentine Named Goldwater Scholar

Three University of Washington undergraduates are among 211 students nationwide named as 2018 Goldwater Scholars. The Barry Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to students who have outstanding potential and plan to pursue research careers in mathematics, natural sciences or engineering. Tyler Valentine, who is from Washington, is majoring in Astronomy, Earth and space sciences. He plans to pursue a doctorate in space science and engineering focused on using the resources of near-Earth space.

Read the full story at UW News.

Graduate Student Kathryn Neugent Discovers Rare Runaway Star

UW graduate student Kathryn Neugent is lead author on a new paper describing the discovery of a yellow supergiant star in the Small Magellanic Cloud that is moving at a whopping 300,000 miles an hour. From the Lowell Observatory press release:

The runaway star (designated J01020100-7122208) is located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a close neighbor of the Milky Way Galaxy, and is believed to have once been a member of a binary star system. When the companion star exploded as a supernova, the tremendous release of energy flung J01020100-7122208 into space at its high speed. The star is the first runaway yellow supergiant star ever discovered, and only the second evolved runaway star to be found in another galaxy.

Read the full story at Newsweek or UW News.

Prof. Andy Connolly Appointed to JHU Society of Scholars

UW Astronomy Professor Andy Connolly has been appointed to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars. The Society of Scholars, established in 1967, inducts former postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral degree recipients, house staff, and junior or visiting faculty who have gained marked distinction in their respective fields.

Professor Connolly leads the development of simulations for the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and is the creator of Google Sky.

Prof. Jessica Werk Awarded Sloan Fellowship

Five faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, including Jessica Werk, assistant professor of astronomy.

Werk is a kind of galaxy historian, studying matter on atomic scales to help understand how galaxies — and the universe as a whole — evolve. By aiming giant telescopes at the night’s sky, she uses spectrographs to study atoms billions of light years away. Werk looks at the distinction between subatomic particles that exist both outside and inside galaxies. The outcome, she hopes, will help elucidate a better understanding of our own cosmic origins.

“When I look at the sky I see lots of different atomic transitions that I’m trying to piece together into a coherent picture,” said Werk.

Read the full article at UW News.