Go directly to main content

Seniors study star instability in research project

March 22, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  There aren’t very many applications for medical school — or for teaching high school science — that include research in astrophysics.

Indiana University Kokomo seniors Nimra Afreen and Alexandra Bailey will have that unique attribute on their résumés when they graduate, after a semester running computer simulations of instability in stars with Patrick Motl, associate professor of physics.

Afreen, a native of Pakistan who now lives in Westfield, said medical school admissions staff are looking for candidates who are well-rounded and willing to be challenged.

“Doing research in a field you have little to no previous experience with shows you are willing to try new things and learn new information constantly,” Afreen said. “Medical schools are looking to see if you stepped out of your comfort zone and tried new things as an undergraduate.”

Bailey wants to be a high school science teacher, enjoys getting to try a field that’s a little out of the ordinary, while earning credit.

“This has been my favorite class this semester, and probably my whole four years here,” she said. “It feels like you are doing something important, something that has meaning. It’s more meaningful than reading a chapter and taking a test.”

The two biological and physical sciences majors are studying the dynamic instability of stars to see what happens if an instability arises, and how the star adjusts its radius.

Motl said the research is difficult to explain to people outside the field, but compared it to a pencil, which is difficult to balance on its point and would not stay that way indefinitely, but would fall to lay flat.

Afreen and Bailey have developed mathematical models for older stars that have a core and surrounding envelope, where pressure and the weight of the star balance each other throughout the star. They will run those models on BigRed2, IU’s supercomputer.

If the model is stable, the star will look the same at a later point in time. If the model is unstable, and the instability is rapid, the star’s radius will change.

Motl said the project is part of a larger astrophysics project, seeing what happens at the ends of the lives of stars.

Neither of the seniors had any background in astrophysics, but enjoyed a physics class during the fall semester, which led them to ask about research opportunities.

“We had a steep learning curve,” Afreen said, adding that the math classes she took previously helped her. “It was a little difficult recalling some information, but if you have a good foundation, it’s easier to pick things up later.”

They’ve learned it’s OK not to get the right answer the first time, and to keep trying.

“It’s OK to fail,” said Bailey. “It’s trial and error. Every time we test a new set of numbers, we realize what we did wrong and we don’t make that mistake again. We’re learning to be resilient and to double check our numbers.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 03/22/2019