Originally Posted: May 30, 2018
Invisible to the naked eye, the variable star ROTSE1 J000831.43+223154.8 flickers in the northern sky. It hides within an ancient star map formed, it was said, when the king of the gods transformed his most heroic steed into a constellation.
For Jasmine Liu ’18 – an SMU physics student and Hamilton Undergraduate Research Scholar – it represents a crowning achievement in her University career.
As a student living in Dallas, it was fitting that her work helped unveil a variable star in the Pegasus constellation. The city of Dallas long ago adopted the winged horse of Greek song and story as its own – not as a myth but as a symbol of striving, of inspiration, of looking ever upward.
It seems especially appropriate for Liu, who found her calling in the night sky after arriving in Dallas to study business.
Liu came to the Hilltop from Fuzhou No. 5 High School in Fuzhou, China to major in accounting and physics. With a degree from SMU’s Cox School of Business in hand, she planned to return home after graduation and pursue a career in the corporate world, as both her parents had.
But Liu, a math lover, soon discovered that she didn’t find the arithmetic of accounting quite challenging enough. And she was questioning the wisdom of trying to manage double majors in business and one of the natural sciences. “It just left me a little too busy,” she says.
By her second summer in Dallas, she’d made her next big discovery: the opportunity to work with SMU physicist Robert Kehoe in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences as a 2016 Hamilton Undergraduate Research Scholar. A long discussion with Dr. Kehoe about cosmology and astrophysics convinced her to take on work as his undergraduate research assistant.
“I really wanted to give it a shot,” she says. “I could have spent the summer doing nothing, but it seemed really meaningful to do this instead.”
A variable star is a star that changes its apparent brightness over time. A scientist rarely discovers a new variable star through luck, and Liu’s “eureka” moment involved plenty of careful data analysis. SMU astrophysicists search for variable stars by analyzing light-curve shape, a key identifier of star type. Liu’s job was to crunch the numbers – reams of archived light-curve data that the ROTSE-I (Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment) telescope at McDonald Observatory had accrued over multiple nights, many years before. READ MORE