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Mapping the universe through computer modeling

Elon senior Helen Meskhidze, a recent finalist for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, is using the university’s top prize for undergraduate research and creative achievement to help astrophysicists study galaxies that create stars at rates far greater than average.

Elon University senior Helen Meskhidze with her Lumen Prize mentor, Assistant Professor Chris Richardson

By Sarah Mulnick ‘17

Scattered throughout the universe are “starburst” galaxies that form stars faster than normal — and no two are alike.

As they disperse light, their appearances change. Some “grow” antennae, while others spiral into the nether regions of space. And the light they emit presents itself in ways that changes depending on various factors.

What makes one galaxy look a certain way, while another appears vastly different? That’s what Elon University senior Helen Meskhidze has been working to discover, and her work is the latest to be featured in a series of profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2016.

Meskhidze, a recent finalist for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, studies starburst galaxies with support from the Lumen Prize. The clusters of stars and supernovas millions of light years from Earth emit diverse wavelengths of light. Everything from temperature to the chemical composition of the star clouds affects those colors.

That’s where Meskhidze’s work comes in—not only in understanding, but also in making that information easily accessible to other researchers. “We want to recreate the conditions that created that appearance,” she said, “and we’re putting that into an atlas.”

An atlas of starburst galaxy emission lines will be a compilation of the Honors Fellow’s supercomputer simulations that have revealed the type of light astrophysicists should expect to see from galaxies that contain certain properties. Meskhidze, a physics and philosophy double major with a minor in French, intends to make the atlas available for researchers studying the causes of the galactic phenomena.

Doing so will give astrophysicists a nearly instant snapshot of what they observe through their own equipment.

An observational science, astrophysics differs from other sciences in that researchers study the results of experiments that have already happened. Though a researcher can study the light coming from distant galaxies, there’s a distinct lack of experimentation in the traditional sense. Instead of Bunsen burners and petri dishes, their tools include large-scale computer models and phenomena that were millions of years in the making.

The future atlas will offer immediate clues to the age, composition, and density of starburst galaxies, among other characteristics.

Meskhidze spent a summer researching computational astrophysics at NC State University after her freshman year, where she was first introduced to the idea of models being used to understand astronomy. Those models are vital to the study of space because of the vast scale of it—what looks like a short distance in the night sky can be millions of light years apart.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to model cosmic-scale things on computers,” she said. “You’re studying the universe with your computer.”

Renowned astrophysicists have also taken note. Gary Ferland, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Kentucky, said that while astronomers have to be clever about how they receive their information from light, Meskhidze has become an expert at using computer programs to do so.

He added that Meskhidze is “making excellent progress in a difficult field.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. Meskhidze has presented at conferences in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, and she interned last year at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Meskhidze used part of her Lumen Prize funding to pursue research that emanated from a methods course in philosophical inquiry. She shared work about queerness in nature at a conference of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy.

That paper, “Challenging Ontologies: Making Sense in Ethics, Science, Politics, and Art”, stems from colloquial use of the phrase “acts against nature.” Meskhidze offers a philosophic refutation of this phrase by highlighting the temporality of the queerness evident in nature. She argued that queerness does exist in nature but only as a temporary quality that is dependent on a paradigm.

For example, she said, though the electron acts queerly when analyzing it via the Bohr model of the atom, it no longer exhibits that queerness when adopting a framework of quantum mechanics. However, she said, a quantum mechanical framework does highlight other queer phenomena. 

“I’m so grateful for the Lumen prize’s commitment to support the scholar and not just a particular project,” she said.

Although she says many of her classes don’t overlap, Meskhidze has always seen a pull between physics and philosophy. “There’s really cool philosophical undertones with modeling such complex systems,” she said. “If you think about it in the sense of it being a virtual reality that you’re setting up, there’s lots of thought experiments there.”

Elon University Assistant Professor Chris Richardson, Meskhidze’s Lumen Prize mentor, said her work has been “charting uncharted territories.”  

“Working with Helen has been great,” Richardson said. “She always exceeds expectations. She has very strong leadership skills, and she’s evolved into a truly independent researcher. No matter what she does, she’s going to be successful.”

In addition to her Lumen research, Meskhidze was also involved with Amnesty International and the Society of Physics Students. She is currently part of a research team working on a Diversity Infusion Project to understand the gender gap in philosophy classes.

Meskhidze has received multiple awards from the university and other organizations, including departmental awards in physics and philosophy, and the Society of Physics Students National Outstanding Student Award. She is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society, Phi Kappa Phi, the Sigma Pi Sigma physics honor society, and the Pi Delta Phi French honor society.

Her commitment to service is also exemplary. Meskhidze has served as both president and secretary of Elon’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, and as part of Elon Volunteers!, she has contributed to raising awareness through Amnesty International campus events.

A resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, Meskhidze plans to attend graduate school for studies in the philosophy of science following her May graduation.

Eric Townsend,
12/7/2015 9:00 AM