MIfA Update Fall 2020

From the director: Looking back, looking forward

Evan Skillman

Dear friends of MIfA,

2020 has certainly been a remarkable year so far.

In this newsletter, I have a lot of good news to share from the past academic year. Hopefully you will find this news a welcome break from the topics that have dominated the national news over the last few months.

In the last year, Professor Larry Rudnick retired. Of course, for most of our faculty, retirement represents more of a change in status, as opposed to a termination of a career. Larry has changed offices, and we welcomed our newest faculty member, Michael Coughlin, who has moved into Larry's previous office. Larry presented us with a "last lecture" colloquium in the fall and Michael gave us an introductory colloquium this spring.

Another important transition is responsible for the production of this newsletter. Katie Sauer joined us as our institute administrator this April. Although starting a new job during a pandemic may not be viewed as ideal, by all measures, Katie is off to a great start (even though she hasn't met most members of MIfA in person yet!).

Last fall, we participated in the University's "Give to the Max Day" fundraising event. I chose to promote our Astronomy Fund, which provides support for a range of undergraduate and graduate student activities. Nine MIfA faculty provided a $5,000 pledge, which qualified us for extra College of Science and Engineering assistance in promotion, and this amount was more than matched with a total of $11,390 in contributions to the Astronomy Fund. The majority of the additional donations came from our graduate student alumni and a large fraction of these funds will be dedicated to support graduate student activities. Thanks to all who participated!

In May, Liliya Williams and Bob Gehrz gave virtual handshakes to our graduating undergraduate majors. Despite the online venue, it still represented an exciting graduation event.

We're very excited about our newest class of graduate students. Five new students are joining us this fall, including one new international graduate student who successfully navigated the visa process. Two of our graduate students defended their Ph.D. theses this summer. Matt Gomer (advised by Liliya Wiliams) is off to a postdoctoral researcher position in Belgium and Chris Nolting (advised by Tom Jones) is off to a position mixing research and teaching in South Carolina.

Looking forward, this coming year will be the first year of our National Science Foundation Graduate Research Training program titled "Data Science in Multi-Messenger Astrophysics." MIfA faculty members Vuk Mandic, Claudia Scarlata, Lucy Fortson, and Pat Kelly are all involved in this program that brought $3 million to the University of Minnesota. Students participating in this program receive a minor Ph.D. degree in Data Science in Astrophysics (in addition to their Ph.D. in Physics or Astrophysics) and have opportunities to participate in technical and professional training workshops and various outreach activities.

Best wishes and stay healthy!

Evan Skillman, Director
Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics
College of Science and Engineering
University of Minnesota

Exciting and groundbreaking research

College of Science and Engineering researcher Nathan Precup at the South Pole

Life at the South Pole for an entire year

CSE researcher Nathan Precup shares what life is like at the South Pole, where he is operating the newly installed BICEP Array telescope. Nathan Precup is a researcher in Professor Clem Pryke’s research group.

Artist conception of supermassive black hole and its surrounding disc of gas

First light detected from black hole merger

An international team of astronomers, including Dr. Michael Coughlin and his research group, have seen what might amount to the first light ever detected from a black hole merger. Where do black hole mergers come from?

Artist's depiction of a white dwarf and its companion star.

‘Underappreciated’ stars lay claim to our cosmic ancestry

Dr. Charles Woodward, his research group, and colleagues at Arizona State University and elsewhere have simulated, using advanced computer codes, several possible life cycles for a common type of white dwarf and compared their results with telescopic observations.

Graphic for NASA funding of Adler Planetarium's Zooniverse team

U of M partners with NASA and Adler Planetarium

In a new partnership, NASA has pledged support for Dr. Lucy Fortson’s Zooniverse team at the Adler Planetarium and the University of Minnesota. This funding will help Zooniverse develop and maintain its cutting-edge citizen science research platform.

Ph.D. student Chris Nolting at work

Research Spotlight: Ph.D. student Chris Nolting

In this video, Astrophysics Ph.D. student Chris Nolting shares his work on galaxy cluster environments and public outreach in the College of Science and Engineering's Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics.

Upcoming events

Screenshot of a Universe @ Home livestream, hosted by Alexander Criswell.

Universe@Home continues this fall

These virtual events introduce the study of space and our Universe in a fun and engaging way, while providing a “peek behind the curtain” at modern research in astrophysics. Join us online on Wednesdays through Dec. 16. Watch past events on YouTube.


MIfA Public Lecture: Aurora: Mysteries of the Northern Lights

Join us online for a virtual presentation by MIfA Professor Bob Lysak on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m. Central Time. Learn more about the shimmering glow of the northern lights that have amazed mankind for centuries.

Karlis Kaufmanis Lecture Series

Kaufmanis Lecture: Postponed to spring 2021

The Kaufmanis Lecture Series is presented in memory of beloved Professor of Astronomy Karlis Kaufmanis. Get notifications of upcoming lectures by joining our mailing list. Contact us at mifa@umn.edu or follow us on Twitter at @umnmifa.