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Emory Undergraduates Reach for the Stars

Each year there are many undergraduate research opportunities with astronomy faculty and staff in the Physics Department at Emory. Engaging in astronomy research can be an excellent way to enhance a student’s critical thinking skills and qualifications for graduate school in physics and astronomy (or any related field).

Many students elect to enroll in research for academic credit, signing up for PHYS 499 or 495, but Emory undergraduates also get to participate in their fair share of astronomy research via our upper level physics and astrophysics lab courses (PHYS 444 , PHYS 311-2 and 312-2). Undergraduate astronomy research projects in the department are varied in both topic and techniques. Here’s a quick look at some research endeavors currently underway in the department:

Observing Stars and Exoplanets

Under the guidance of Emory Observatory Director Horace Dale, students have spent their evenings (and early mornings!) observing exoplanet transits with Emory’s 24-inch telescope, carefully taking data and analyzing it to narrow down the properties of known exoplanets and make new discoveries. Students have also spent nights on the telescope probing the skies for variable stars, frequently submitting their data to well-known public archives.

Target image (left) of the exoplanet host star XO-2 taken by undergraduate students using Emory’s 24 inch telescope and the transit curve (right) showing the dimming of the system over time as the unseen exoplanet XO-2b crosses in front of its star.

Black Holes and Galaxy Structure

Professor Erin Bonning focuses on some of the highest energy phenomenon and most mysterious astrophysical objects in the universe: supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies. Dr. Bonning is currently working with honors student Sophie Chun using advanced software to model accretion onto rotating black holes:

“My minor in Computer Science led me to become interested in computational astrophysics, and I realized simulations are widely used in exploring many phenomena. I studied black holes and jets because they are unfamiliar but fascinating objects, and handling magnetohydrodynamics codes to simulate them is an absorbing and exciting experience” says Sophie.

Associate scientist Merida Batiste also focuses on supermassive black holes, examining the relationship between these supermassive black holes and the evolution of their host galaxies. Besides using observational data from sources like the Gemini observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope to help constrain the mass of a galaxy’s central black hole, students have worked with Dr. Batiste in utilizing advanced galaxy modeling software to help discover underlying structures in galaxies that might affect measured black hole properties.

Solar System Formation and Stellar Variability

Faculty member Alissa Bans studies young planet forming systems. Students working with Dr. Bans use programs to model the observational signatures of these young systems in order to better understand the physical processes that shape solar system formation. Dr. Bans also frequently works with students on research related to Disk Detective, a NASA-lead citizen science project that aims to find young star systems across the sky. Currently junior Kristin Wadsworth is analyzing TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) data to search for variability among the young stellar systems detected via Disk Detective:

“Part of what I enjoy most about this research is that each stellar target we look at is, individual. Studying each target becomes like getting to know a specific person, their quirks, and what makes them unique” says Kristen.

For more information about undergraduate research experiences in the department, or if you’re an Emory undergrad interested in attending the department’s Astronomy Journal Club meetings for Spring 2021, please contact Dr. Bans (abans @

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