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2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Program
Student of the Week

Name: Kelly Werker Smith

Hometown: Toronto

How did you first become interested in Astrophysics?

I think what drew me to astrophysics originally was a sense of wonder and awe. The history of humanity’s relationship with our universe is a humbling one, from us believing the Earth is the centre of all things, to discovering we are just one planet among thousands. Astrophysics is, at first glance, removed from humanity, yet it is still very engrained in our lives. After all, we are all made of stars!

I’ve also always read a lot of popular science books… and I’ve always been very immersed in the latest discoveries in science.

What are you enjoying most about SURP?

What appealed to me about SURP, and the balloon astrophysics group in particular, was the idea of figuring out how to take a very abstract concept and transfer it to an effect that can be measured and verified in the world around us. The mapping from theory to application is an intriguing challenge, that SuperBIT and SPIDER both tackle head on.

The balloon astrophysics group is very multidisciplinary, which is helpful because I’m still figuring out what I’m most interested in. On the more applied side, I’ve done lots – from modelling on Solid Works, to soldering, to learning how to crimp wires, to machining parts. At the same time, I get to learn about the science motivating the instruments, such as early universe cosmology for SPIDER. There is so much to learn!

Tell us about your research project(s) (*Kelly is working on both SuperBIT and SPIDER)

SuperBIT is a balloon borne, optical/UV telescope that will measure the distribution of dark matter around galaxy clusters using weak lensing. Weak gravitational lensing is the deflection of light due to the presence of mass. The lensing is “weak” since the deflections are very small, and thus the effect can only be seen if averaged over many galaxies. From the amount of distortion in the shape of the light sources, we can indirectly measure the amount of dark matter that is present in the cluster.

SPIDER is another balloon borne telescope. Unlike SuperBIT, SPIDER looks at millimeter wavelengths. It searches the cosmic microwave background for signs of inflation, the theorized exponential expansion of the early universe. This expansion would have produced gravitational waves, signs of which may be visible in the polarization the CMB.

What do you like most about working on SuperBIT?

SuperBIT has to be very precise. It maps dark matter, and uses weak lensing to do that. Because weak lensing is such a small effect, any shaking of the instrument could mess up your results. That need for precision is challenging and the prospect of achieving that precision is very exciting.

What do you like most about working with your research team?

What I’ve loved about this lab is how willing everyone is to teach you. Each person is extremely patient and really tries to make sure that you understand what it is that you’re doing. I feel like if I make a mistake, it’s okay, because I learn from it.

What’s your ideal job?

I don’t know what yet, but I definitely want to be doing something where I’m constantly learning new things, and continue to learn more about the world around me.