As a physics major with an interest in astronomy, Lesley Simanton, '09, reached for the stars at Albion College, but her view got even better shortly after walking across the commencement stage in front of Kresge Gymnasium last May.
Simanton, who is currently in the first year of the doctoral program in physics and astronomy at the University of Toledo, traveled to Cerro Pachon, Chile, last summer where some of the best telescopes in the world - like the Gemini South - have been placed in the Andes Mountains. At an altitude of more than 9,000 feet, celestial observers get a better view of distant galaxies by climbing above the clouds and getting away from city lights.
"I can remember being at Niles High School and learning that the best telescopes in the world have mirrors eight and 10 meters across," Simanton recalled. "The Gemini South has an eight meter-diameter mirror. You get close to it and it is enormous.
"You get (in the mountains) and it is a pretty sobering experience," she added. "You can look down on some clouds. You can see the Pacific Ocean if it is clear. At night, the Milky Way just glows. It is so bright."
Simanton worked with Toledo professor Rupali Chandar, who is investigating the life cycle of star clusters and the role they play in forming galaxies, during a summer research project before her senior year. Chandar asked if Simanton would be interested in traveling to South America once she was accepted into the graduate program.
"I could work at an observatory, a university, or a national lab (upon completing the doctoral degree)," Simanton said. "This was a really good opportunity to see how things work at an observatory because it is a place I might work at someday. I want to go into research."
During her time in Chile, Simanton learned how to process raw data from the telescopes and about the computer software the scientists use. She reports that she is beginning to work on analyzing the data in Toledo and she has until the end of the year to select a research advisor to assist her is developing a thesis subject.
"I like the project I'm working on with Dr. Chandar," Simanton said. "The spectra of clusters have been processed. The next step is to analyze and then compare to clusters from other galaxies."
While her research has led her to the mountains of South America, Simanton remembers how Albion laid a solid foundation on which she will build her academic career. Her physics classes were rigorous and as president of the college's astronomy club she would demonstrate Albion's Meades, Alvan Clark, and Celestron telescopes.
"I got to dive into detailed astronomical problems, and I got a great background in the basic science of studying stars," Simanton said. "I got to show others how to use telescopes and by sharing my knowledge I was able to re-learn the information being presented in class.
"I discovered the potential for doing research on the Celestron," she added. "You can still do work with small telescopes."