Senior explores passions with supernovae research

Derek Richardson

Nearly two years of supernovae research is coming to a close for Emily Engler, a Washburn student set to graduate this semester with a degree in physics.

Engler, also minoring in mathematics and leadership studies, has spent the better part of the last two years researching supernovae with professor of physics and astronomy Brian Thomas as her research advisor. She is trying to simulate what would happen if a star were to explode within a mere 326 light years from Earth. For comparison, the 250,000-mile-away moon is only about 1.3 light seconds away.

The research project, titled “What’s that Light in the Sky? Investigating the UV and visible light from a nearby supernova,” aims to understand whether or not an exploding star this close would affect life, the environment, and how.

“The last time [the planet] did experience this, no humans were on the earth,” Engler said. “What we’re trying to see is, are humans—or plants or any type of life—in danger from an event like this.”

Engler has been interested in physics and astronomy since she was a child.

“I was that little tiny stargazer that had her own little telescope that always hung out at night with her parents looking at the stars,” she said.

She was always strong in math and physics and pursued it all the way through high school and college.

“And here I am about to graduate with a physics degree,” Engler said.

With the simulation, Engler said she hopes to understand what type of supernova could penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and even reach the ground. Earth is protected by a magnetosphere, but a powerful enough supernova could damage the ozone layer and ionize the atmosphere, potentially changing its chemistry.

That said, however, Earth is not in any imminent threat of being near a supernova explosion.

“[Engler] took on the task of collecting and analyzing observational data that astronomers have collected about supernovae, which meant learning about the data and then developing methods to convert it into a form we could use,” Thomas said.

When she started, she said it took a long time to collect as much data as possible. That included going into a large database to find about six recorded observations of supernovae.

In particular she looked at the data recorded from a 2012 explosion that occurred 38 million light years away. That data, combined with geologic information from a supernova that hit earth 2.5 million years ago. The goal was to input the data into a computer and scale the effects to the set distance.

“We thought it would be just as simple to take that observational data and run it through our [Tropospheric Ultraviolet and Visible radiation] model,” Engler said. “It’s never that simple.”

The computer model they were using kept skewing all the data. It got to the point where the program would not even run.

“It would just spit out the same numbers over and over again,” Engler said. “We decided that there was too much noise and too much variation.”

She said they thought maybe the mathematical calculations and the code of the program weren’t understanding what they were trying to tell it.

“It was confused and we were confused,” Engler said.

To fix this problem, each observational data point was averaged in order to get a more realistic average number. She said it took a while to make sure all the units were right and everything was scaled correctly. What they thought would be accomplished in a couple of meeting times turned into months and months of work.

“We had to make sure we had all the right observational data possible,” Engler said. “From there we had to make sure all our parameters in the program were correct.”

Engler ran all the data and it came out with no errors. The next step is for her to determine how realistic they are.

Her research doubles as her senior thesis as well as her capstone project for the Honors Program. Additionally she will present her work April 29 at Washburn University Apeiron.

While she will graduate in May, she will continue her work through the end of the summer.

“Some people don’t understand that this type of research takes forever to do,” Engler said. “It was a lot of numbers and Excel spreadsheets, but nothing can beat that feeling when the program runs and it executes and there are no errors.”

She said the biggest thing this project did was teach her what research was really like and how much dedication someone has to have—not to mention an interest in the subject matter—in order to do this.

“I never would have learned anything like this in my standard physics courses,” Engler said. “There is not a supernova 101.”

When she started the project, the hardest part was the steep learning curve.

“I never had to work with this type of program, called Fortran,” Engler said. “I had not had that much experience with HiPACE. I had no experience with code. I didn’t understand the syntax, some of the terminology that [Thomas] was telling me. It took me an entire semester to get comfortable telling people what I was researching.”

According to Thomas, Emily is a bright and hardworking student. She successfully balances many other activities with her school work.

After graduation, and the completion of her research, she plans to pursue a degree in higher education administration. With her experience in helping students in leadership and the Washburn First Year Experience she discovered this was what she was passionate about and wanted to go back to that.

“Don’t be afraid to explore your interests and your passions,” Engler said. “I was a high school senior that thought the only thing that I could do well was physics or mathematics, and here I am a college senior wanting to do something completely different and completely opposite of that of physics.”

She said people have to ask themselves at the very end of the day about what they find meaningful in life.

“Will it give me energy at the end of the day rather than sucking me dry?” she said. “You have to ask yourself that very important question or else you won’t truly be happy in what you are doing.”