CSUF News Service

Undergraduates Shine With Groundbreaking Research

It's been an out-of-this-world experience for Cal State Fullerton undergraduates to be part of the international scientific team that helped check, confirm and analyze the first detection of gravitational waves from a spectacular collision of two neutron stars.

The discovery was announced today (Oct. 16) by U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Europe-based Virgo detector, which made the detection. For the first time, scientists have directly detected gravitational waves — ripples in space and time — in addition to light from the neutron star merger. This marks the first time that a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and light.

The physics majors — who all plan to pursue doctorates in physics or astrophysics — have worked alongside CSUF astrophysicist Jocelyn Read and other faculty mentors at the Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC) on this groundbreaking, global research effort.

CSUF students Erick Leon and Isabella Molina are co-authors of the neutron star discovery paper. CSUF student Eric Flynn and Derek White, a physics major at Fullerton College who conducted research as part of CSUF's Project RAISE summer research program, are contributors of another journal paper in the works. This research focuses on analyzing LIGO and Virgo data for gravitational waves that might have been emitted from a remnant, such as a hypermassive neutron star that later collapses to a black hole, which formed from the colliding neutron stars.

"The students have been involved in follow-up analysis so we can better understand the implications of the detected gravitational-wave signal," added Read, assistant professor of physics and a leading binary neutron star expert.

Erick Leon

Graduation Date: May 2019

What's most exciting about this new discovery?

This new detection may reveal some new information about neutron stars. Although space and time are interesting when warped by matter, I find neutron stars fascinating in that they are largely composed of neutrons, and are some of the densest objects we have ever observed.

How is this research experience helping you?

I am a lot more experienced with coding and the Python programming language, which will help me do more research during graduate school and in my career. This experience has helped me work well with others and I also have learned a lot about Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, and the way we see gravitational waves and what we do with the data.

What are some of the benefits?

Dr. Read has helped a lot with my understanding of gravitational-wave physics involving neutron stars. She has done a great deal in presenting information about opportunities regarding graduate programs in physics, and being prepared for advanced studies. With her help, I am a lot more prepared to apply to doctoral programs and to do research involving any type of physics, but especially gravitational-wave physics. I’ve had a lot of fun working in the GWPAC and I am very excited to continue my research into the wonderful world of physics.

Isabella Molina

Graduation Date: May 2019

Why are you interested in gravitational-wave research?

I’ve always been fascinated with space, but I became really excited about gravitational-wave research with the first detection in September 2015 and announced in February 2016. I love that the universe is so vast and unknown. It means that I will never run out of things to explore and discover. Gravitational waves are so exciting because they allow us to observe space in another way.

What’s exciting about this latest discovery?

I’m thrilled because we can use this detection to make observations about neutron stars. There also is a lot we can learn from the neutron star merger that we couldn’t learn from binary black hole mergers. Neutron stars emit light and this allows us to make observations using telescopes, as well as with the gravitational-wave detectors.

Why is this research experience important?

This research experience is developing my critical-thinking and independent research skills. Not only does this help me in my classes, but also it gives me valuable experience in the research lab. I am planning to pursue a Ph.D. in physics so I can continue astrophysics research. This opportunity gets me acquainted with the tools and techniques I may be using in the future. It also gives me experience working with other researchers — something that is critical to scientific advancement.

Eric Flynn

Graduation Date: January 2018

Why study gravitational-wave research?

I was a freshman when I developed an interest in various problems in nuclear physics. It turns out that one way to study nuclear matter is to study neutron stars and their relationship to gravitational waves. I have learned so much about nuclear and gravitational-wave physics and I am still very interested in what can be learned about nuclear matter by studying gravitational waves from neutron star collisions.

What's your reaction to this new detection?

This discovery was a binary neutron star collision, which means nuclear matter played a role in the production of the observed gravitational waves. With this new data, we can begin to find out what kind of matter is at the center of a neutron star or how nuclear matter behaves inside it. For me, I see this as an exciting opportunity to learn how nuclear matter behaves in the extreme situation of a neutron star collision.

What do you find fascinating about this emerging field?

LIGO is essentially a new telescope observing gravitational radiation — a spectrum never observed before the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015. In this spectrum, we can directly detect black holes and neutron stars crashing into each other from millions of light years away! And from neutron star collisions specifically, we can test parts of nuclear theory in a way never tested before, which I think is quite fascinating. There’s also the fact that we might find something completely unexpected — and this is what really excites me.

Derek White

Fullerton College student and researcher in CSUF's Project RAISE program
plans to transfer to CSUF in spring 2018 and graduate in May 2020.

What do you enjoy about gravitational-wave research?

It is a cutting-edge discipline and exciting, since only two years ago, we actually detected the first gravitational waves. I have a passion for both physics and astronomy. I joined the GWPAC team as a community college student as part of CSUF's Project RAISE summer research program. The opportunity to be a part of an international research team in the field seems too good to be true.

What's intriguing about this latest discovery?

There's so much we don't know about neutron stars. This merger gives us unique and specific insight into the structure and behavior of neutron stars that has been elusive until now. With neutron stars, we get to see all sorts of exciting things — like seeing an entire star torn to pieces from the nearby gravity of another massive, dense object!

What is your goal in gravitational-wave astronomy?

My current dream is to one day have a job much like Dr. Read and become a physics professor who gets to focus on teaching, while conducting my own cutting-edge research. This research experience has given me an opportunity to experience what research on a professional, global scale looks like, and it has given me an 'in' into the community of astrophysicists. I have amazing professor mentors who are truly interested in my progress as a physicist and a student. The ability to work with Dr. Read, one of the few true experts on neutron stars, and learn from her, is invaluable.


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