Discovering the stars, changing her future: Jasmine Liu ’18

Discovering the stars, changing her future: Jasmine Liu ’18

Jasmine Liu came to SMU with a plan and found her dream. Now she’s discovering stars as well as her future.

Story by Kathleen Tibbetts

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.

Many variable stars “have a really clear pattern of repeating their changes in brightness over time,” she says. “By collating that with data from outside sources like astrophysics surveys, we can prove the evidence and define what kind of variables they are.”

It’s hard work, she says, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting for her. “It gives me a lot of incentive to keep trying hard, to keep trying to understand more.”

When Liu’s work was accepted by the International Variable Star Index, she earned a listing as the discoverer of ROTSE1 J000831.43+223154.8. She has since discovered two more variable stars and assisted other students in several other discoveries. Along the way, she also discovered what she really wanted from her education.

“After that summer, I really came to a deeper understanding of what physics is about,” she says. “Even after school started, I wanted to keep working on my research after class. I just felt there was a lot for me to accomplish.”

By the time her junior year began, she was determined to have a career in science, she says. “It was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was a kid.” To help realize that goal, she changed her accounting major to mathematics, which helped to enhance and reinforce her physics studies.

(The accounting courses still came in handy: Liu had taken enough Cox credits to complete a minor in business administration.)

Re-energized, she kept proving her mettle as a physicist. Still a junior, she capped her first stint as a Hamilton Scholar by winning the department’s 2017 Wiley Scholarship Award and the Frank C. McDonald Memorial Award for Excellence in Physics. Her research also shared the Dean’s Award during SMU Research Day in 2017.

Even more, she reveled in her experience of life at McDonald Observatory – “a wonderful treat for my fall break,” she says. Liu traveled to the facility in Fort Davis, the heart of Texas’ wild and mountainous Big Bend region, as an SMU Engaged Learning Fellow in fall 2017. Owned and operated by the University of Texas at Austin, the observatory has a robust visitors’ program of educational tours, “star parties” and hands-on activities that belies the constant cycle of vital astronomical work going on behind the scenes.

“It was fascinating to see how research happens at McDonald,” Liu says. “That part of the operation is so different from the public face of the facility.”

Outside of class and the high-performance computer rooms, being a Mustang was a constant whirlwind. Helping to run the SMU Asian Council honed her leadership skills. Liu also embraced sorority life as a member of Sigma Phi Omega. “I was super-shy in high school, and I feel like being in a sorority is a good way to just let people know you. As an international student, you don’t really come in with connections to the people you meet in college, at least at first. Greek life pushed me harder to learn how to socialize.”

Last semester, as president of the SMU Society of Physics Students (SPS), she led the organization to an official Student Senate charter. It’s another achievement she considers to be a highlight of her SMU career.

“I would love to share this wonderful club so more students will know about it,” she says. “It’s an academic organization that is open to everyone who’s interested in physics, and we have done a lot of fun events.”

She also was a regular participant in the University’s Alternative Breaks program, taking advantage of spring break time to dive into service projects around the country. From a human-trafficking relief mission in Atlanta to a farming and handcrafting community for people with disabilities in Pennsylvania, each effort taught her more about the world around her, she says.

“Those trips were mind-blowing. As a student going to class every day, you may not feel a part of the social issues around you. I made so many friends during these experiences.”

“There are just too many things I can talk about – the social part, the campus, my department, my clubs. I know all my professors really well, and the class sizes are perfect. In general, I just really love SMU. I was really lucky to come here.”

“It’s so hard to describe what being a Mustang has been like,” she adds. “If you’d asked me at the beginning of my freshman year, I might have said how much I love the campus, and how beautiful it is, and how nice the people are. But now, there are just too many things I can talk about – the social part, the campus, my department, my clubs. I know all my professors really well, and the class sizes are perfect.

“In general, I just really love SMU. I was really lucky to come here.”

Liu sees graduate school in her future – maybe after a gap year that will allow her to continue her variable-star research. She’s still not sure if she’ll focus more on astrophysics or astronomy; there are several other fields that interest her, too. “I just hope to go to a school with a really big physics department, so I can see them all.”

Liu saves one of her biggest revelations for last: She kept her change of major from her dad for nearly a year. “He thought I was making a mistake,” she says. “He wanted me to be able to get a good job with a good company, and he thought maybe I wouldn’t be very employable if I did only science.”

But Mr. Liu realized that science could be a real and rewarding career for his daughter after the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Jasmine’s studies had equipped her with working knowledge of the research of new laureate (and 2018 SMU honorary degree recipient) Barry Barish.

“When I was able to explain to my father what cosmic gravitational waves were, he decided I must have learned something important in college.”

And wonderful things can happen when you embrace change as well as discovery. “The research is so interesting because you don’t really know where you’re going,” she says. “I may have an idea of what I’ll discover, but I have to find my own way to solve the problems.

“I’m trying to do something no one has done before. Just thinking about what I can find keeps driving me forward.”

By Kathleen Scott