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Norwich, VT native and Dartmouth senior receives 2002 National Science Foundation Fellowship

Posted 04/23/02

Emily Schaller of Norwich, Vt., a Dartmouth senior, has been awarded a 2002 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to study planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology. Schaller, a physics and earth sciences double major, also recently published a paper in the February 2002 issue of The Astronomical Journal on the movements of certain knot-like formations within the Crab Nebula.

For the highly competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Schaller was among 900 top students chosen from a field of more than 5500 applicants to receive funding for three years of graduate study in the sciences. The fellowships are designed "to insure the vitality of the human resource base of science, mathematics, and engineering in the United States and to reinforce its diversity." Although the fellowships are usually awarded to students already in graduate school, Schaller received the high honor of having been selected while still an undergraduate.

"It's thrilling to be given the opportunity to pursue what I really love," said Schaller. "I'll be doing exactly what I want to be doing at Cal Tech, combining physics, geology and astronomy to study other planets to discover if they could support life. There's a real opportunity to participate in planning space missions because of the close relationship with NASA."

Schaller's published paper, co-authored with Robert Fesen, Dartmouth Professor of Physics and Astronomy, explores the movement of a string of bright knot-like structures within the Crab Nebula, an expanding, glowing cloud of gas and dust about 7,000 light-years from Earth. Debate within the astronomical community over whether these knots were expanding with the rest of the nebula led Schaller and Fesen to study images from the Hubble Space Telescope. By examining the speed and direction of the knots' movement they determined that the knots were indeed expanding with the nebula, results contrary to the findings of previous researchers.

This summer, before starting at Cal Tech, Schaller will work at NASA's prestigious Ames Astrobiology Academy at Stanford University helping to direct a competitive program for 13 college and first year graduate students with an interest in space. Last summer Schaller attended the Academy as a participant, working with the twelve other research associates on a problem involving the potential for the growth of bacteria on Mars. Meanwhile, Schaller conducted her own experiments analyzing Leonid meteor trails to detect organic compounds. Her work led to an opportunity for her to serve as an instrument operator aboard NASA's Leonid Meteor Storm Observation flight, observing meteor trails through an optical spectrometer while flying at 40,000 feet.

At Dartmouth, Schaller has had no shortage of opportunity to work alongside eminent scholars in the fields of physics, astronomy and earth sciences. In addition to Fesen, Schaller has worked closely with Leslie Sonder (right), Associate Professor and Chair of Earth Sciences. With Sonder she applied for and was awarded a Presidential Scholar Research Assistantship to develop a computer program that models magnetic field reversals in chaotic systems--a simplified model for magnetic field reversals that have occurred on Earth.

"Some of the most rewarding courses I've taken at Dartmouth have been those in which I applied my knowledge of physics to explain phenomena on the earth," said Schaller.

Sonder currently serves as Schaller's senior thesis advisor along with Mukul Sharma, Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences. Sonder said Schaller has impressed her with her ability to approach complex problems with clarity.

"Emily has the important ability to come to me saying, 'this is what I've done, this is where I'm going, and this is where I need help," said Sonder. "In science it's important to not only know what you know, but also to know what you don't know."

Sonder said Schaller's interest in planetary sciences has expanded her own research horizons.

"Advising Emily has led me down paths in research which I might not have explored on my own. The story goes that at some point the student becomes the teacher, and in this case it was really true," Sonder said.

In addition to her work with Sonder, Schaller interned with the Women in Science Project (WISP) under Dr. Susan Taylor, a Scientist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL) conducting research on micrometeorites from Antarctica with a Scanning Electron Microscope. In 2001 she was one of two students awarded the Earle S. Lenker Prize by the Department of Earth Sciences.

Schaller is also an athletic standout, the winner of multiple collegiate national figure skating medals during her four years at Dartmouth. Co-captain of the Dartmouth team, Schaller is the all-time leading points scorer with 32 trips to the medal podium at the senior level--the top level for figure skating. Her finishes this year helped secure the Dartmouth team's third place finish at the Collegiate Nationals in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The mix of physical aptitude and scholarly prowess sets Schaller in good stead to pursue her ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

"Since I was young I felt the lure of space, space travel and NASA," said Schaller. "I read all I could on the Apollo programs, the different interplanetary missions, the origin of life on earth, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I have my sights set on graduate school and these childhood dreams are still with me."

Schaller is the daughter of Margaret and David Schaller of Daytona Beach, FL, formerly of Norwich, Vt.

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