Students Look Toward the Stars in Summer Research Program

Justin Jerome ’22 identifies a region of the simulation that is going to form a single star.The stars have been of great interest lately—especially as billionaires turn to space travel—and improvements in technology help us understand the universe that surrounds us. Students at Saint Mary’s are contributing to knowledge through new research that goes beyond million-dollar space flights and unidentified aerial phenomena. Physics and Astronomy Professor Aaron Lee, who believes research is an extension of teaching, has incorporated students into Summer Research Program  studies that probe deeper into our understanding of star formation, offering students new ways to engage with Astronomy courses. Justin Jerome ’22 used the summer to expand on Lee’s previously completed simulations of stars while Thomas Weldele ’24 discovered new ways of engaging students with astronomy courses.  

Lee’s primary research focuses on computational astrophysics, using simulations and mathematical modeling to understand star formation. Through the School of Science’s Summer Research Program (SRP), he and Justin Jerome ’22 used original data sets from his simulations to understand the multimillion-year process of star formation, which is otherwise limited since telescopes can only capture snapshots of star evolution. Lee joked that he “would be fired immediately” if he requested that Jerome stick around for the next 10 million years to complete his project. Instead, Lee and Jerome utilized simulations in their research into star formation because they “allow for a more complete understanding of this process, which can then be used to help interpret observations astronomers obtain with a telescope.”

Lee also worked with Thomas Weldele ’24 this summer to develop learning-research-supported curriculum materials for SMC’s Physics 90: Introduction to Astronomy course. The class is incredibly popular among non-science majors at SMC as it fulfills broader education requirements. Lee stated that he had 55 students in spring 2021 and a huge waitlist—so it is likely that Physics 90 will be the last science class many students take in their academic careers. Because of this, Lee believes that the class has a unique responsibility to instill an appreciation and enthusiasm for how science is conducted, and that “increasing appreciation and overall scientific literacy requires that students are capable of seeing themselves ‘doing’ science and not viewing the subject as understandable only by a privileged few.” Thus, Weldele’s task was to develop activities that show students one does not have to be an expert to succeed in, let alone enjoy, a science course. 

Jerome, who came to SMC after completing four years in the Marine Corps, analyzed Lee’s previously completed simulations of star formation with a new question of whether the physical process of the formation of binary stars—stars that orbit each other as the Earth orbits the Sun—differs from the formation of other stars. The originality of Jerome’s work is a pillar of Lee’s attempts to teach students through research: Jerome and other students had ownership over the questions they pursued and created a unique set of results. Jerome shared that “prior to this summer, I’ve talked to Dr. Lee about his research regarding star formation, and this project has given me the ability to investigate the topic myself.” 

In his research into binary star systems, Jerome pursued questions about binary star formation that have previously gone unanswered. His research specifically used Lee’s simulations to investigate how the formation of these stars is affected by the global magnetic field of a star-forming region. “A binary star system is when two stars are gravitationally bound and orbit one another. About 50 percent of the stars in our galaxy are part of a binary star system, so understanding their properties is essential for many aspects of astrophysics,” Jerome shared. “It is believed that many of these systems took shape during the star-formation process, but the processes that determine a star’s binarity are still poorly understood.” Lee elaborated that Jerome is finding evidence of a difference between the magnetic fields of binary star systems and stars without a stellar companion, which they believe “will help inform on the processes that influence binary star formation.”

Teaching undergraduate students through engagement with original research lies at the core of Lee’s work this summer and beyond. “I came to a place like SMC, like most faculty, because we love teaching. Teaching is number one on our personal agendas. And I view research as an extension of that,” he shared. “I view research as an opportunity to show our Physics majors what research in the field looks like.” Whether they focus on discoveries using simulations or new ways to engage a classroom, Lee “loves doing research with undergraduates because it is an opportunity to show our students here at SMC what it is like and what it feels like to do these professional activities. And it’s fun, of course.” 

Though the research is fascinating, Jerome and other SRP students’ work goes beyond the research component of the program. Jerome was “pleasantly surprised to find out that we participate in weekly professional development meetings, which introduce us to a variety of different topics, including research ethics and effective science communication,” instead of only working with a professor and presenting their findings at the end of the summer. “These workshops have allowed me to improve my skills as a researcher and learn with the other students in the program. I also appreciate having the opportunity to learn about the research of the other students, as I don’t have much exposure to other scientific fields.” 

Ben S. Harte ’22, a student who has participated in other SRPs and is working with Professor Lee on a grant, echoed Jerome’s comments, stating that “being admitted for research is a difficult task for an undergraduate student, as we are not yet fully versed in the field. However, the SRP accommodates this with helpful instruction, education on research practices, and support from professors in developing in your field.”

For Weldele, the SRP is an open door into the world of teaching. His work with Lee to develop a learning-research-supported curriculum aimed to push students using real astronomical data to reach evidence-based conclusions. “Student-led inquiry activities, where students take responsibility for their own learning, have been shown to be effective at altering the perception that they are not able to succeed in science, especially when students can utilize real astronomical data and reflect on the results of their projects,” said Lee. 

Weldele, an aspiring physics teacher, prepared for this work by reading a considerable amount of literature on science education, which has led him to develop a lab that studies the electromagnetic spectrum. Lee and Weldele plan to try this new lab out in the fall. If successful, Lee intends to disseminate these labs to instructors around the world. 

Computational physics only requires a computer and stable wifi, but Lee and his students have been fortunate to be able to resume in-person work on these projects. “I had almost forgotten how nice it is and what a difference it makes to be in person,” Lee said. “I am always remarkably impressed at what undergraduates can achieve, I think it’s a testament to the SMC student body.”