FEST Grant Supports Massive Astronomical Possibilities

June 25, 2007 -- Kelsey Johnson, assistant professor of astronomy, has a habit of pushing past traditional boundaries.  Her innovative research combines traditionally disparate areas of astronomy, and as a junior faculty member she has already attracted notable recognition, including a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant in 2006 and more recently a Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology (FEST) Distinguished Young Investigator award.

The FEST Distinguished Young Investigator Grant program is administered through the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies and aims to reward faculty in their first three years at U.Va. with funding for their pioneering research proposals.

“Her [Johnson’s] abilities to think creatively and to put her research into a broad scientific context exemplify the skills required to be a leader in an age of increasingly detailed and complex astronomical observational capabilities,” says John F. Hawley, chair of the Department of Astronomy.

Johnson investigates the birth of globular star clusters—spherical collections of a million or more ancient stars—in order to better understand the conditions under which the universe developed.  Johnson and her colleagues were the first to detect adolescent globular clusters in our nearby universe.  Her unconventional idea to combine optical with radio and infrared telescope observations in her research of these clusters has had prolific results: Johnson discovered a new means of star formation that occurs in extreme physical conditions.

Johnson’s breakthroughs have pushed the limits of available technology, but her plans are even more ambitious.  She plans to leverage her $50,000 FEST funding to build expertise within U.Va.’s Department of Astronomy in submillimeter wavelength research.

Objects in the universe emit different levels of radiation—or light.  Specialized telescopes enable astronomers to detect objects with light frequencies that are longer or shorter than visible light.  The huge bulk of telescopes that exist today either measure optical or infrared wavelengths.  The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), based in Charlottesville, has positioned the U.S. in the forefront of radio astronomy internationally.  But Johnson explains that there is a significant gap between infrared and radio astronomy.  “A huge window of the electromagnetic spectrum is virtually unexplored," she says.

Emergent new instrumentation will change this soon.  The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)—a powerful group of radio telescopes currently being assembled in the Chilean desert—promises to become the most advanced observatory on the planet.  ALMA will be capable of detecting and imaging distant objects with extremely high resolution—giving Johnson’s research a significant boost.

NRAO is overseeing ALMA’s construction as the project’s North American partner and its facility located on the U.Va. Grounds will host the North American ALMA Science Center.   This places U.Va’s Department of Astronomy in a fortuitous position.  Johnson is already working to build relationships and “scientific synergy” between NRAO and U.Va.  She holds an adjunct position at NRAO and notes that the two institutions have historically built expertise in different areas so as not to duplicate efforts.  But Johnson believes that both institutions could greatly benefit from building relationships and expertise in submillimeter wavelength astronomy now in order to be in a strategic position when ALMA’s first light science becomes available.  Johnson will use her FEST grant in addition to support provided by NRAO and her CAREER award to fund a three-year postdoctoral appointment to assist with this goal.

“ALMA is the future of astronomy,” says Johnson.  She notes that the astronomy department has already had a steady increase in graduate applicants interested in U.Va. due to its eventual proximity to the new ALMA Science Center.  “Having the ALMA Science Center at U.Va. will allow us to build a strong submillimeter research graduate curriculum,” says Johnson.  “We could become a leading center for training.”

Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.