Physics Grad Student Wins NASA Grant

Posted: June 8, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Rachel Dudik
Rachel Dudik

Physics graduate student Rachel Dudik has won one of only two NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) grants at Goddard Space Flight Center this year.

“With more than 70 applicants and less than a handful of awards, the NASA GSRP award is a real mark of distinction,” says Shobita Satyapal, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “I think Rachel is well on her way to having a bright future in extragalactic astronomy.”

Dudik has been working in Satyapal’s research group for the past four years and will likely be the first graduate of the department’s new Physical Sciences PhD program.

Under her grant, Dudik will work at Goddard with scientist Eli Dwek.

Dudik’s research centers on understanding the nuclear regions of galaxies. It has recently been discovered that at the heart of virtually all galaxies, including our own, lie massive nuclear black holes with masses greater than one million times the mass of the sun.

In a small number of galaxies, these supermassive black holes exert a dramatic influence on the surrounding matter in the host galaxy, devouring it at large rates and emitting prodigious radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

These “active galactic nuclei” (AGN) were once thought to be rare and exotic objects, unrelated to the formation and evolution of typical galaxies such as our own. However, the recent discovery that nuclear supermassive black holes are ubiquitous strongly suggests that AGN and “normal galaxies” in our local universe are fundamentally connected.

Yet the nature of this connection and the detailed evolutionary history connecting these objects is completely unknown and is one of the most important questions in extragalactic astronomy today. Dudik is trying to understand the connection between AGN and normal galaxies such as our own – a project that is of central importance to NASA’s objectives on the origin and evolution of galaxies.

Her research utilizes observations from two great observatories: Chandra and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Based on her preliminary analysis, the study hints at the possibility that there is a fundamental connection between the growth of black holes and the formation of the surrounding stars in a sample of nearby AGN.

This result can have a significant impact on our understanding of the origin and evolution of galaxies. Archival observations from Spitzer, the Hubble Space Telescope and Dudik’s recent observations at the largest optical telescope in the world, the Keck telescope in Hawaii, are critical to confirm her initial results and expand understanding of this important result.

She has already given five presentations at national scientific conferences and has published five papers. Dudik also won a prestigious Sigma Xi grant for her research.

The NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program awards fellowships for graduate study leading to master’s or doctoral degrees in the fields of science, mathematics and engineering related to NASA research and development.

This article was adapted from an article published on the College of Science web site.

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