physics

Drury participates in national citizen science project to study eclipse

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., August 15, 2017 — Two Drury University physics professors and two of their students will take part in a national effort to observe and document the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

Drs. Greg Ojakangas and Bruce Callen have been tapped to be one of 68 teams to work with the National Solar Observatory’s Citzen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE) Experiment to document the sun’s inner corona during the eclipse. Along with Drury students Ryan Wedermyer and Katelyn Morrison, they will travel to Hermann, Missouri to be in the path of the eclipse totality and make their observations.

Professors Bruce Callen (left) and Greg Ojakangas

The Citizen CATE project aims to capture images of the eclipse using a network of telescopes operated by citizen scientists, high school groups, and universities. Volunteers are using 68 identical telescopes, software, and instrument packages spaced along the 2,500-mile path of totality. Each site will produce more than 1,000 images, and the resulting dataset will consist of an unprecedented 90 minutes of continuous, high-resolution images detailing the sun’s inner corona – a region of the solar atmosphere typically very challenging to image.

“I have been waiting for this for 38 years,” says Ojakangas, whose previous work with NASA provided a connection to the Citizen CATE project. “I get goosebumps almost every time I think of it!”

“An eclipse of this nature is a rare occurrence,” Callen says. “The chance just to witness it three hours from where I live and work is exciting enough, but the chance to contribute to a big national effort that will possibly advance our understanding of the sun is a great opportunity.”

The Citizen CATE project has been several years in the making. Teams will have no more than 2 minutes and 40 seconds – the time of the total eclipse as seen from the Earth’s surface – to capture their images. Ojakangas and Callen will be available for interviews during practice sessions on Wednesday and Friday morning outside of the Trustee Science Center on the Drury campus, starting at approximately 9 a.m.

ALSO: A Musical Angle

There’s also an artistic angle on this scientific story. Ojakangas’s daughter Celka is a 2015 Drury music graduate who is now studying music composition at the University of Southern California, one of the top graduate schools for music composition in the country. Inspired by her passion for both art and science, Celka and her brothers Kieran (a 2014 Drury alumnus) and Lian will perform a piece of her original music that is synchronized exactly to the timing of the eclipse, accompanied by a computer-generated background tone generated by Ojakangas.

“The tone drops 6 octaves as totality approaches, in precise relation to the rate that sunlight is diminishing, then rises again afterwards. Celka’s composition is a musical palindrome based on a Greek Orthodox chant celebrating the light of Christ,” explains Ojakangas.

Celka, Kieran and Lian Ojakangas will perform as an electric string trio at the site where the Drury team will conduct their CATE observation work. The site is located at Hermann Hill Village, 165 Missouri Hwy 100. More information on the location and festivities sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce are online at http://visithermann.com/2017-solar-eclipse/.

For more information about the musical composition, contact Celka Ojakangas via email at ojakanga@usc.edu.

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Media Contact: Mike Brothers, Director of Media Relations: (417) 873-7390 or mikebrothers@drury.edu.

Drury professor revels in discoveries, connections to Pluto mission

You can call it a planet, a dwarf planet, or even a ball of ice. But to Dr. Greg Ojakangas, there’s no doubt about what to call Pluto: “Amazingly beautiful.”

Ojakangas, an associate professor of physics at Drury, was one of millions around the world fascinated by the prospect of seeing Pluto up close as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently flew by the icy outpost at a distance of just 7,800 miles.

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

“This is a part of the universe no human has ever seen before,” he says. “It’s not often that you’re able to see, for first time, something no human eyes have ever seen.”

Ojakangas has a deep professional interest in New Horizons. His doctoral work examined the large moons of Jupiter, and the remarkable manner in which such worlds can have orbits that are synchronized with each other, providing power for volcanic eruptions and other fascinating dynamical phenomena.  In a similar manner, it was recently discovered that three of Pluto’s 5 moons are also synchronized.  “The staggering beauty of these phenomena is beyond words,”  Ojakangas says.  New Horizons is yielding incredible new information about Pluto’s five moons.

Greg Ojakangas

Greg Ojakangas

But Ojakangas also has a personal connection. The former finalist in NASA’s astronaut selection program knows many of the researchers working on the New Horizons team. He’s thrilled to see the work of colleagues pay off after the probe launched from Earth more than nine years ago. The results have been spectacular, he says.

“As is usually the case when we see a new planetary body, it’s surpassing our expectations in terms of discoveries,” he says.

Glaciers of nitrogen, mountains as high as those in the Sierra Nevada, a mysterious source of geologic heat and even a faint comet-like tail were some of the revelations beamed back to NASA from the spacecraft. For scientists like Ojakangas, the discoveries are not unlike going down the proverbial rabbit hole from “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The laws of physics are the same but the substances are all different, and it’s surprising everybody,” he says. “We love that kind of thing because we learn from it.”

And the lessons aren’t confined to the edge of the solar system.

“To understand our Earth better, we should do everything we can to understand other planets,” he says. “They’re ready-made laboratories for testing our understanding of how the materials of the universe behave.”

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury director of media relations. A version of this story originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.

Undergrads focus on science research during summer

It’s relatively rare for undergraduates majoring in the sciences to have the opportunity to do meaningful research. It’s rarer still for them to be able to get paid to do it.

A new program this year at Drury is allowing five undergraduates to do just that. It’s called the Research Experience in the Natural Sciences, or RENS. The program provides a stipend for students conducting self-directed research under the guidance of science faculty.

Summer is the perfect time for students to be able to focus intensely on in-depth research because they don’t have to devote time to classes, says Dr. Beth Harville, Assistant Professor of Biology at Drury. The stipend allows students to consider skipping a summer job in favor of conducting research that will help them in their future careers – especially those seeking to enter medical schools or Ph.D. programs.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Two of the students conducting RENS projects this summer are Breanna Tuhlei and Deborah Peana. Both are using high-powered computers to simulate the interactions between certain types of molecules and model the potential outcomes. Their research, conducted under the guidance of assistant professor of physics Dr. Christos Deligkaris, combines concepts from biology, chemistry and physics.

“It’s teaching me a lot about how to discipline myself; how to solve problems by myself independently,” says Tuhlei, who is studying how a molecule commonly found in fruits and vegetables could be used to prevent DNA damage caused by a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke. “And the stipend is definitely great because it’s helping with tuition expenses.”

Locating, reading and extrapolating relevant information from journal articles is one aspect that separates these projects from class work. There are no textbook assignments here.

“It forces me to take information I’ve learned in my classes, use it on my own and actually apply it, which is really rewarding – and fun,” says Peana, who is studying glycosaminoglycan-protein interactions. “It requires a lot of mental discipline to stay focused and work out problems on your own, but I think it’s definitely worth it.”

Both students feel that conducting this research as undergraduates will go a long way toward helping prepare them for graduate programs and medical schools, not to mention make them better candidates for acceptance to their programs of choice. Tuhlei is a sophomore double majoring in biology and chemistry, who hopes to be accepted into an MD-PhD program in order to become a neurosurgeon and conduct medical research. Peana is a senior double majoring in chemistry and physics, and is currently applying to MD-PhD programs.

But neither of these students has to wait until the next phase of the education to make a difference. The RENS stipend and always-accessible faculty at Drury have helped Peana truly dive into her research, which in turn has made her feel as though she’s already contributing to her field before ever leaving campus.

“I’m just starting out, but this kind of research makes me feel like a scientist and I feel like we really are practicing good research techniques,” she says.

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. 

Drury Professor Studies Junk….in Outer Space

Have you ever wondered what sorts of things are orbiting the earth? It’s easy to imagine satellites and space stations, but there are also small pieces of space junk that could do serious damage to the billions of dollars of equipment in orbit, or which could take the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts. Figuring out what those small pieces of junk are and where they’re headed is a part-time job for Drury physics professor and NASA consultant Dr. Greg Ojakangas.

Dr. Greg Ojakangas

Ojakangas points out that these small objects could collide with a satellite or spacecraft at over twenty times the speed of a bullet and with several hundred times the energy. Therefore, small pieces of space debris are potentially very dangerous.

The challenge says Ojakangas, is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris outside the earth’s atmosphere and they’re too small to resolve as shapes, even with strong telescopes. Ojakangas has spent parts of many summers at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston producing mathematical models of man-made space debris to help assess the hazards of collisions between these objects and spacecraft near the Earth. In September, Ojakangas was in Maui, presenting his research at a conference on space surveillance.

“The goal is to be able to look at a piece of orbiting debris, far too distant to resolve directly, and be able to tell its size, shape and probable composition just by the way it reflects light as it rotates. One day, humans will travel to Mars and getting astronauts and spacecraft safely beyond our own orbiting junkyard is a prerequisite.”

Ojakangas is a former full-time NASA scientist, and he has continued working with NASA for over 20 years creating mathematical models of man-made space debris. He has also been a finalist in the astronaut program.

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Drury physics major learns about “String Theory” during summer internship

Springfield, Mo., Oct. 17, 2011String Theory. For the lay-person, it’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It has nothing to do with flying kites, wrapping packages or classical instruments. It is actually a physics theory that could become a “theory of everything” accounting for all forces and matter that exists. For Drury student Anish Chakrabarti, working with and learning from one of the world’s top string theorists over the summer was something he describes as a dream come true.

Chakrabarti with string theorist Dr. James Gates

Chakrabarti spent the summer as a national intern for the Society of Physics Students in Washington D.C. where he worked with the Public Broadcasting Service show NOVA. Chakrabarti helped to promote a four-part NOVA documentary called the “Fabric of the Cosmos” based on a book by the same name written by scientist Brian Green.

Chakrabarti organized a “Cosmic Café” with Dr. James Gates in the D.C. area to encourage interest in the NOVA program. Gates is a professor of physics and the Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland at College Park, and he is an interview subject in the “Fabric of the Cosmos.” A “Cosmic Café” is an informal gathering with a scientist that allows people interested in the subject to speak with the scientist. “Typically, older people will watch PBS and learn about science. Schoolchildren learn about science in school. A “Cosmic Café” appeals to people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. It’s a discussion with the scientist, not a lecture,” Chakrabarti said.

Besides Gates, Chakrabarti met a couple of Nobel Prize winners, a Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation and watched Senate debate on science and energy funding during his internship; opportunities Chakrabarti says he wouldn’t have had in his native India. Chakrabarti is a graduate of Hem Sheela in Durgapur, India. Hem Sheela was founded in 1995 by Drury Professors Rabindra and Protima Roy. “This is what I wanted to do with the internship–get exposure,” Chakrabarti said.

After graduating from Drury in May, Chakrabarti plans to pursue an engineering degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

Drury senior earns fellowship to Washington University worth more than $20,000 per year

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., May 10, 2011 –Drury Senior Quinton Aiken has received a half-tuition Harold P. Brown Engineering Fellowship to Washington University in St. Louis to begin his dual-degree engineering studies next fall. Aiken’s fellowship is worth $20,475 per year.

While at Washington University, Aiken will pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Engineering. In two years, when Aiken graduates from Washington University, he’ll receive an engineering degree from Wash. U. and his bachelor’s in physics from Drury.

Aiken, a 2007 graduate of Glendale High School in Springfield, is the fourth Drury student to receive one of the prestigious Brown Fellowships in the last four years. These fellowships are merit awards available to students entering the dual-degree program from any of Washington University’s nearly 100 partner colleges and institutions. Victor Akunyili received the sole full-tuition fellowship offered in 2010, and Bye Li and Xiaaou Wang both received half tuition fellowships in 2008.

Quinton Aiken

Each year, Washington University awards one full-tuition Brown Fellowship and several additional half-tuition Brown Fellowships. Applicants are selected based on academic record, recommendations, essay writing, extracurricular involvement and professional achievement potential in engineering.

Contact:

Mark Miller, Assoc. Director of Marketing and Communication, Office: (417) 873-7390, E-mail: markmiller@drury.edu

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