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Home > Academics > Undergraduate Astronomy > Research Opportunities

Research Opportunities

Daniel Webster may have said that Dartmouth is a "small College'', but it is in reality a small University with a small graduate program. In the Department of Physics and Astronomy we try to offer the undergraduate student an experience which combines individual attention from faculty and access to real front-line research -- in other words, the best aspects of a small college and a large university. Because we have a graduate program, we can maintain a level of research vigor which would be difficult at a purely undergraduate institution, but at the same time we are strongly committed to undergraduate education.

Much of the astronomy research at Dartmouth centers around the MDM Observatory, near Tucson, Arizona. This observatory has two telescopes, a 1.3-meter telescope dating from the 1970s and a more modern 2.4-meter reflector. The telescopes are instrumented with modern CCD cameras, spectrographs, and an excellent infrared instrument. The Observatory is owned by Dartmouth, Columbia University, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan (the initials date from when it was owned by Michigan, Dartmouth, and MIT). Dartmouth has 1/3 of the time on both telescopes, or about 200 nights per year in total.

This colossal amount of telescope time makes it possible for interested students to do projects with real research-class telescopes. Astronomy 81 is an independent study course involving a trip to Arizona, typically for a week, to do research at MDM. Occasionally a student may work with another telescope elsewhere, but the MDM connection makes this the most likely choice. This opportunity to do a real project with a big telescope as an undergraduate is very unusual. There is a long lead time for this, since telescope time must be obtained from 3 to 9 months in advance. You should start working with a professor long in advance if you want to take advantage of this option.

Faculty with MDM research programs, and their areas of interest, are as follows:

  • Brian Chaboyer does research on star clusters, especially trying to determine their ages and compositions to trace the history of our Galaxy. Much of his research is on stellar models, but he does observational work as well.
  • Rob Fesen mostly studies supernovae and supernova remnants. Lately his MDM work has focused on infrared studies of supernovae. Much of his work involves tying together ground based work with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other space observatories.
  • John Thorstensen studies a class of close binary stars called cataclysmic variables. In these a normal star gradually spills matter over onto a white dwarf, leading to a host of interesting phenomena. Thorstensen mostly measures fundamental parameters of these systems, especially orbital periods.
  • Gary Wegner pursues a variety of projects in extragalactic astronomy. Some of these are aimed at studying the dynamics of the local universe. A recent project involves obtaining deep pictures in the infrared as part of a survey of distant galaxies.

Other students may wish to do theoretical research. There are many opportunities here, too:

  • Robert Caldwell is a theoretical cosmologist who studies the large-scale properties of the Universe; the cosmic microwave background, the origin and evolution of cosmic structure, the dark matter and dark energy. Recent work involves a hypothetical field called quintessence, which offers a possible explanation for why the expansion of the Universe is speeding up.
  • As noted earlier, Brian Chaboyer combines extensive theoretical modeling with his observational work.
  • Marcelo Gleiser is a physicist who works largely at the interface between cosmology and particle physics. His research focus includes theories of primordial inflation, cosmic phase transitions, and the origin of the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the Universe. He also works on nonlinear dynamics and emergent complex phenomena.