KOKOMO, Ind. — Sharing astrophysics research with experts in your field could be a nerve-wracking experience — especially when you are a college senior.
But with guidance from his faculty mentor, Indiana University Kokomo student Elliot Barnett gave a 10-minute presentation of their findings about contact binary systems at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, hosted virtually in January 2021.
“It was a big opportunity, but also extremely daunting,” he said. “While it might be fun to haphazardly talk about physics with people who maybe don’t know a lot about it, when you talk science with physicists, you have to know your stuff. You have to come prepared.”
Barnett most definitely knows his stuff, according to Patrick Motl, professor of physics, who has been his mentor for the last two years — noting that he will be one of the first two graduates with the campus’s physics minor.
“It’s a high hurdle to get to the point as an undergraduate to present a research paper in front of a room full of astronomers,” Motl said. “He’s gotten to the point over this last academic year that we can sit at a chalkboard and outline a question we want to answer, and without too much guidance, he’s able to go off and work on it pretty much independently. That’s a rare attribute for an undergraduate. I think he will do well in graduate school.”
Their academic partnership began after Barnett took two classes with Motl, where he gained respect for the professor’s teaching method. Motl often gave quizzes at the end of a class, which were not designed for students to get the answer right. As someone who cares about his grades, this was jarring for Barnett at first.
“He was playing mind games,” Barnett said. “He knew if you got it wrong, it would natter at you, and you’d keep thinking about it, and do some research on your own to find the answer. I thought that was the coolest method, to get you to go home and mull things over.”
His role with research began with reading, and then he gradually took on more responsibilities in their work with contact binary systems, which he explained as two stars so close together, they are sharing mass.
Motl’s goal was for Barnett to start picking up basic skills, and learn to do enough scientific computer programming to review and analyze large data sets.
“He was pretty happy to learn how to do scientific computing, and how to do his own programming,” Motl said, adding that it will be a valuable skill in graduate school, especially on the astronomy side, which involves analyzing a large amount of data.
“No matter what the subject was, Elliot is always trying to get a conceptual understanding, so he can explain what he’s learned to others,” Motl said. “That’s a good skill to have.”
Their work also gave Barnett the answer to the questions he has about his career. He originally planned to go to medical school, but changed his mind after a job shadowing experience with a physician. As he started to consider other options, he kept thinking about the research he was doing with Motl.
“I thought, ‘Why am I not doing this?’” he said. “I love physics. I love doing the experiments, and doing the research. It was clear to me this was what I wanted to do.”
Barnett will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in biological and physical sciences, with minors in physics, mathematics, and biology. He then wants to earn a master’s degree in physics at IU Bloomington, before pursuing a Ph.D. in physics.
Many of his classmates in the School of Sciences choose research in chemistry or biochemistry, but Barnett prefers physics for its practicality.
“You can do a physics experiment in about two minutes,” he said. “You can get a stopwatch and drop something, and calculate everything about that free fall, and that’s an experiment. You don’t need all kind of equipment and financing to get going. There’s all kinds of natural phenomena that can be studied.”
Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.