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Faculty-student research marks new era for UH Hilo Physics & Astronomy

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Date: Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

A new chapter in the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Physics & Astronomy Department is playing out on the pages of the prestigious Astronomy and Astrophysics Journal.

The scientific periodical recently accepted a paper on star dating entitled, “New rotation periods in the open cluster NGC 1039 (M 34), and a deviation of its gyrochronology age,” authored by Assistant Astronomy Professor Dr. David James and co-authored by sophomore astronomy major Briana Hurley. While faculty-student research is nothing new, this joint endeavor takes on special significance because it marks an important milestone in an effort to re-make the way Physics & Astronomy is taught at the University.

“Our goal is to transform the Physics & Astronomy Department from the traditional lecture-based community college model to a research-based, professional, modern academic teaching and research group,” explained James.“Think of it as vocational training in physics and astronomy.”

The research underpinning the journal paper was part of an Astronomy 432 senior thesis that employed data from the ESPaDOns spectrograph, installed on the 3.6m Canada-France-Hawaiʻi telescope to study a 200-million-year-old cluster of stars called Messier 34.

Their findings not only confirmed the age of the stars, but also found that stars comprising the entire cluster were aging at the same rate and therefore established a baseline for future star dating, just as fossils help geologists place a time-stamp on rock formations. For Hurley, the project was a dream-come-true and the kind of opportunity she envisioned five years ago while visiting UH Hilo as a Florida high school sophomore.

“This was a big opportunity to get some practical research experience,” Hurley said. “I’d eventually like to pursue a doctorate in astronomy and getting published is going to help me take that next step.”

James said Hurley’s genuine interest and academic background convinced him to take the unusual step of accepting an underclassman for a senior thesis. Although the results validated his instincts, her accomplishment remains a significant achievement for someone so early in their career.

“This is quite a coup for Briana to get her first scientific paper published,” James said. “And to do it as an undergraduate makes it even more special.”

But it is unlikely to be the last. The duo is already working on a follow-up paper entitled “Lithium Dispersion in the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.” Their research goal is to determine how the Lithium content found in stars like the Sun is destroyed, and at what rate, so that the ages of stars can be more accurately determined.

The new research-based teaching method is now poised to accelerate with the addition of the Physics & Astronomy Department’s new 36-inch Hōkū Ke`a telescope for which James serves as director. The instrument, recently installed atop Mauna Kea at the site of the retired UH 24-inch telescope, should be ready this fall for teaching and research-based astronomy courses.

“Hōkū Ke`a will not only be used to teach astronomy, but between 5-10 research interns per academic year will be able to employ the telescope to conduct publishable-quality research projects with me, and hopefully other faculty members,” James said. “Students will have an almost unique opportunity to obtain unrestricted access to a professional grade, research telescope located at arguably the world's premier observing site.”

Hurley said it is exciting to be one of the first students to take part in the new, emerging teaching model.

“I think the telescope and the opportunities it presents show how committed UH Hilo is to being at the forefront of student research in this field,” Hurley said. “This is a great example of how dedicated our professors are to their students.”

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