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2020 SURP Student of the Week: Sarah Thiele



Name: Sarah Thiele

Hometown: Calgary, AB

Program: Just finished 3rd year at UBC, Combined Honours in Astronomy and Physics

What made you decide to participate in SURP?

During my degree my hope was to make connections with people in the astronomy community, and to gain work experience so that I can learn which areas of astronomy I’m most interested in. SURP offered an opportunity to interact with and learn from students, post-docs and professors coming from many different places, investigating a diverse array of subjects. One of my favourite aspects of the research world is getting to collaborate and share with others, to expand knowledge as well as get people excited about science exploration! SURP puts an emphasis on creating that community aspect, and this was a large reason I decided to participate.

What is your favourite thing about SURP?

All of the people I’ve gotten to meet. My supervisor, Dr. Katie Breivik, is patient, kind, and passionate about her research. When I have questions she is always willing to help me work through a problem. She is encouraging and open-minded, and has been amazing to have as a mentor. It has also been very enjoyable getting to know fellow students within SURP – people who share the same passion for science as I do. Being around like-minded people motivates me to work harder, and creates a feeling of inclusion. The environment SURP fosters makes it feel safe to speak up and give input without judgment, and helps us develop useful skills for life after our undergraduate degrees. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this program and learn from so many brilliant minds.

Can you tell us about your research project?

I am investigating the gravitational wave signals which are produced by binary systems of white dwarf stars. Specifically, we are looking at how changes in stellar metallicity will impact populations of these binaries and their gravitational waves.There is a space-based gravitational wave detector called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) funded by the European Space Agency which is set to launch in 2034. It will be detecting gravitational waves signals which will be dominated by double white dwarfs, and so we hope to predict the type of systems it will observe. I get to simulate theoretical binary star populations and look at their evolution patterns and resulting gravitational waves. It has been very interesting work thus far! Gravitational waves offer new insight into the Milky Way and beyond, since they don’t interact with matter so you don’t have to deal with the same issues that occur with light like scattering or contamination. This new addition to multi-messenger astronomy will be able to reveal previously invisible objects and events.

Can you explain how SURP has perhaps been different from your undergrad work?

SURP is very different from the work one does as an undergrad. Although in university we are still working independently and holding ourselves accountable, when doing research there isn’t a “right answer” against which you can check your
work. It’s a lot of trial and error and pushing yourself to understand topics which may initially seem too advanced. In this program there’s a lot of freedom to explore problems on our own, which is challenging and forces you to stay organized and sit in the discomfort that you may put in a lot of effort only to be incorrect. However this process is also very rewarding, especially because we are contributing to real-world research rather than homework assignments, and can look back to see how far we’ve come and the contributions we’ve made.

What are your plans for the future?

After my undergrad degree I would love to go to grad school; experiences like SURP will hopefully help narrow down the areas of research I’d like to pursue. I have a lot of different interests on top of astronomy, such as environmental science, science communication, or even space policy as we move into an era of commercialized space missions. I hope to head down a career path which can bring in aspects of these other passions.






2020 Student of the Week Archive

Jeff Shen