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2024 Saints Spotlight with Ash Coleman ’24 and Lindsay Dawson ’24

Welcome back to another edition of Saint Spotlight. Today we are joined by Ash Coleman and Lindsay Dawson, both of whom have been doing great work here in Thomas More’s physics and astronomy departments. They are here today to talk about their experiences. Thank you both very much for joining us and for being here. 

David Klenk: First off, can you share what initially sparked your interest in pursuing astronomy as a field of study? 

Ash Coleman: Originally it was physics that I started in high school. I was kind of bored and wanted to take another science class. I ended up taking AP Physics and I got a C, then I took AP Physics II, and I also got a C. I was like, “You know what, this is really cool! I like physics. It’s challenging, it’s fun.” My mom said, “Why are you going into a field where you didn’t do so well?” I was like, it’s just really interesting to me, it’s really fun, and I like being challenged, so somehow I’m here still making it.

Linsdey Dawson: I, as a child, was always interested in how the world worked, especially with weather. I was really into weather and so I came here and said, “Okay, I’m going to do physics and then eventually I’ll go on to do atmospheric science.” Turns out, I did a research experience a couple of summers ago in Alabama and it was for atmospheric science. I did lightning research, and I was like, I don’t really like this. I much prefer astronomy because, at the time, I was already doing research here. So now, I’m pursuing astronomy and I like that much better than what I was doing.

DK: Can you tell us a little bit about what makes your work important to you?

AC: Originally I was doing astronomy and I really do love just exploring, like Lindsay said, how things work. Space is one of those big frontiers, unexplored frontiers. It’s really cool to be able to get other people involved, like what Dr. Ryle does with his public outreach. To explain to other people, there are things out there, that we can’t even reach yet; that are just so absolutely brilliant to see. I’m going into plasma, and a lot of people aren’t super aware of this, but over 90% of known matter in our universe, not on Earth, is actually made of plasma. So once we start to really understand that, we can also start to understand a lot more about astronomy too.

LD: So, I have done a few projects at this point, especially with Dr. Ryle and with NASA. My favorite research project has been working on gathering transits of exoplanets. That’s when they eclipse their host star and I gather information on that. That’s really important to me because I’m really excited to see if there is life on other planets and are those places that we could actually go one day. I feel like that just has a lot of applications now, especially since we’re at a state in our world where things are uncertain: climate change, resources, and all those different types of things. That’s really important to me too and then also there’s another side of it where I’m really interested in outreach and educating people, like Ash said. It’s really important to me to share how excited I am for science and all of the wonders that I’ve experienced as a physics student and an astronomy student. I’m really excited to share that with kids and maybe get them into what I do one day.

DK: You talk about inspiring the next generation, do you guys have something that was a core childhood memory that got you latched onto science?

AC: Mine was that I liked fossils a lot. So when I was a kid we would go to the Falls of the Ohio State Park which has the largest exposed Devonian fossil beds in the world, and we would just walk along the river and see all the really cool fossils. I was like, “You know, this is what I want to do!” Science is still there, but the fossil thing is more of a hobby at this point. (laughter) 

DK: And the fossils will still be there long after we’re gone as well.

LD: My dad is actually a biologist and I was always introduced to science and living things and how things worked, but my brain was always more science and math-oriented. As a kid I struggled with reading and I still do, I joke that I have the reading comprehension of a fifth grader which isn’t necessarily true but still it’s a funny thing to joke about. Like I said earlier, weather was a big thing for me. I always liked to watch the clouds, whenever we would have a severe weather day I was always super excited. So that part of me is still there and it’s still like my inner child, when I feel like I learned something new I’m really excited about it.

DK: Can you share what accomplishment you are most proud of?

LD: So, this is kind of an internship that I got into this past summer (2023) with the Cincinnati Observatory. For those of you who aren’t familiar, we have a historical observatory in Cincinnati, it’s the birthplace of American astronomy. During that internship, which is still ongoing, I was able to work with the education department and get experience with working with kids, because I haven’t worked with kids much at all and so a part of me was really nervous to do it. I’m really proud of doing work with them and helping serve underrepresented communities and going out and educating children in those communities. That’s really helped me grow into, not just a scientist, but someone who likes communicating science and that’s something I’m really proud of and something that I hope to take into my career.

AC: I guess I should have gone first because mine is a little more selfish (laughter). The internship that I did last summer, getting into it was a lot of networking and talking to people who were in the field. I was very scared to do that because I was like, ‘oh my gosh, there are all these really cool people in this field and I don’t know anything about this field because Kentucky doesn’t really have plasma physicists.’ I got into this internship in Alabama and, first of all, I drove the farthest I’ve ever driven in my life. Eight hours south and I was on that last hour stretch and I was like ‘You know it’s seven hours back or one hour there, I’ve got to keep going.’ I’m so glad I did, because I got to do not only one little research project that they had set out for me, but I got to help almost every grad student and every outside person who came in to work on their giant magnet – the set up and I got to watch them take data and just get this huge experience. I also got this huge outpouring of support from all these people and I was really like, ‘Wow, this is someplace that I feel like I belong’ and it solidified that I’m in the right place. Physics is where I’m meant to be and it’s not really an accomplishment, more so just a feeling of belonging that makes me proud to have continued on in physics even when it got hard.

DK: Both of you guys were a part of NASA programs, can you share more about that experience?

AC: I started that in 2021 and actually started doing a little bit of research back in 2019-2020, but COVID interrupted that. Alongside Dr. Ryle, he writes a research proposal and we write our statement of how this is going to be helpful for our future and for our current life as a student. We submit these research proposals to NASA Kentucky and my current project is eclipsing binary systems, which are super cool and super important for fundamental astrophysics because you can get a lot of their stellar parameters of high-mass stars, which is super under-researched. It’s been a really cool experience. It’s a lot of talks and presentations. At this point, I’ve done upwards of ten talks; I’m doing four this semester. It’s a lot – it’s not just getting experience in research, you also get experience in communicating and you get experience in writing papers and making presentations and a little bit of seeing how a proposal is written and that’s necessary for your future career. 

LD: My experience has been really interesting, the way I got started into NASA Kentucky kind of feels like happenstance, but maybe it wasn’t.  I was in Dr. Ryle’s physics 2 lab and he was like, ‘Hey, do you guys want to help out in the Observatory?’ I was like ‘That sounds great, why not?’ I was originally planning on working there, going up and maybe helping a senior take data or whatnot. Then over the summer Dr. Ryle said, ‘Hey, would you want to do research and maybe get a grant?’ I’m like, ‘Money sounds great!’ I didn’t even think about it, get the grant, and now we’ve had grants ongoing for the past three years. That in and of itself is awesome because we don’t have to work through school; we don’t have to go out and get a job at retail or something like that. We get to do what we enjoy doing and also get paid for it, and also be a student, which is a big part of it for me. I’ve been doing work with variable systems, so pulsating variables which are fundamental objects in astronomy, exoplanets (like I mentioned), and now cataclysmic variables, which are very hard to understand but they tell us more about massive stars and supernova explosions and things like that. Working with NASA Kentucky and Dr. Ryle especially has just been fantastic because not only do I have research experience and outreach experience, but then I also, like Ash mentioned previously, have a sense of belonging in the field. I feel like I’m an actual researcher, I’m a physicist which is great going into the future and going into a career.

DK: Lastly, what advice do you have for students who have been thinking about getting into astronomy? 

AC: A lot of it, is just do it. Talk to people, talk to people who are in the field, talk to other people who are thinking about going into the field. If you go to somebody’s talk, stay after, ask them a question, get those contacts. When I originally was going to come to Thomas More, I got recruited to play softball and I asked them, ‘Do you guys have an astrophysics program because that’s really what I want to do.’ She was like, ‘Well, we don’t have a astrophysics program, we have just a physics program, but we do have an astronomy professor who does research if you would want to talk to him’. So I talked to him and I was like wow! He’s really cool, I want to do what he’s doing. He did some cool research on supermassive black holes, we can’t do that here, unfortunately, but I talked to him and that’s why I’m here at Thomas More. Then at the conferences that we’ve been to, there are conferences for undergraduate women in physics, I’ve talked to people who are in those conferences. I’m like, ‘Oh hey, the research that you’re doing is really cool.’ Then we just kind of get talking and they’re like ‘Hey you know this is an internship that you might like, you should apply’ or ‘Here’s some research that I’ve done, if you want to read about it or if you want to look at the data that I’ve done and see if you can do something with it.’ Honestly my biggest advice is just just talk to people and find out their experience and maybe you’ll be presented with a really cool opportunity.

LD: Just to say something a little bit unrelated, Dr. Ryle is also the reason why I’m here. Just taking a minute to boast about Dr. Ryle – he’s the best, he really cares about his students, really cares about this physics program, and Thomas More in general. He’s the best. Going into the advice I would have for students going into astronomy or physics, my advice would be to try everything. Don’t just be like, ‘I want to get into astronomy, I want to do the math.’ Try everything, ask people questions, ask people about their research. Get into conferences, get involved with research, get involved with education. Just do anything that you can to expose yourself to everything. That way you can say ‘Maybe I like this’ or ‘Maybe I don’t.’ That way going into a career you have that freedom to say, I’ve tried this now let’s see what I want to go with.

DK: That is very well said. Much like a physics experiment, you just have to start by throwing something to the wall and see what sticks. I attribute a lot of what I’ve done here by simply just asking questions as well, so you guys are on the right path of getting to where you want to be. Thank you again, so much for sitting down with us and talking about your experiences, and thank you all back home for watching another edition of Saint Spotlight. Be sure to tune in for the next one!