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exoplanet image

Astronomy students to talk 'oversized' planets with trustees

2 May 2024

Researchers from Penn State helped to identify a planet too big for its sun last year, leading to questions about the formation of planets within solar systems. The discovery, led by Suvrath Mahadevan, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, included work from students – like third-year graduate student researcher Megan Delamer and undergraduate student Abigail Minnich

Delamer analyzed data and was co-author of the paper, which ran in the journal Science last year. Minnich, who double majors in planetary science and film communications, helped to craft models and visuals that would explain the discovery to the public. Both students will speak to their research experiences in a Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, May 3. They each met with Penn State News for a Q&A ahead of the presentation.


Q: How did you get involved in this research project? 

Minnich: I'm connected with both the planetary science astronomy department and the Bellisario College of Communications, and what I want to do with both of those is take a harder concepts and explain it in a way that it can make sense for other people. Within the research side of it, we’re presenting an exoplanet, and not a lot of people know what an exoplanet is. A small graphic or an explanation and a video has helped people a lot. What I've done with the research group is, I recreated this really cool planet they found in a 3D model called Blender. That helps to show people what it would look like if we saw it, and just how big it is.

Delamer: I had taken one year of classes, and I was asked, ‘Do you want to look through this data?’ I started looking through it, and then I ended up being involved in the work on a paper. Based on my portion of the data, the very early stages of the work, we discovered an exoplanet, which is a planet that orbits any star that's not our sun. We found a really big planet – unexpectedly so. The star is one ninth the size of our sun, and the planet is 13 times the mass of the earth. We don't expect there to be that much material to form planets around these really small stars, and it opens up some new questions. How we think planets form works pretty well under a lot of circumstances, but it's pointing out that there are holes in our understanding. It's exciting to know that even when you're just learning, you can make really big, impactful discoveries.


Q: Why were you interested in working on this project?

Minnich: I've always wanted to do science communication. I actually had no idea that I was going to go down the graphics route, because I wanted to be like Carl Sagan or Bill Nye and educate people. I thought I was going to go through that row of education, doing stand-up videos rather than graphics. It's new to me, but it's so exciting.

Delamer: I actually majored in biology as an undergrad. I realized once I worked in the medical field, I didn't actually want to go to medical school. My favorite class as an undergrad was actually an astronomy and astrophysics course. I ended up getting a master's degree in astronomy. I worked on Circumstellar disks, which are what planets form out of, and I really enjoyed my research on that. Then, when I got here to Penn State, I could continue working on disks or I could try something a little bit new. Trying something new has worked out really well for me, and I like a lot.


Q: How is the environment at Penn State as a student researcher? What support are you getting as you pursue your interests?

Minnich: These opportunities that were given to me, I am very grateful for. I feel like if I went to any other university, I would not have had this experience. I'm a little biased, but I feel like I've learned so much, especially being at Penn State and planetary science. I've had so much freedom to combine these two majors. I have created my own path here at Penn State through doing communications and planetary science, and I feel like I wouldn't have been as interconnected or found these connections that I made.

Delamer: Our department head and our grad head in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics do incredible research, and they both make a point of having an open-door policy for graduate students to talk to them. I also really like working with Suvrath. He is concerned not just about our research, but also making sure that we are getting a chance to do things outside of research and helping us to build our resume to pursue the kinds of jobs that we want the future. He's not just saying, ‘Write this paper.’ He's saying, ‘Okay, so you've written this paper. Now you're going to help me organize an outreach project because what you want to do, you're going to need to know how to run projects.’ 


Q: What other opportunities has Penn State provided to help you develop new skills?

Minnich: I work at the equipment desk in the Bellisario Willard Equipment Room, so I'm really connected with both the planetary science astronomy department, as well as the communications college. And I created my own show here called ‘Asking Penn State.’ It brings to light professors and educators and scientists at Penn State, or undergrads or grads. That's always been a dream of mine, to spread knowledge and educate people.”

Delamer: A big part of our job is communicating our science to both other scientists and to people who have absolutely no idea what we're talking about. You have to figure out how to pitch your talks at different levels based on who is going to be present in the room when you're speaking. In the astronomy and astrophysics department, we have a weekly lunch talk series, and your first two years, you are required to give a talk. All of the people who come to those, if I say low mass star, they know what I mean, versus doing an interview, where I give an idea of how low mass the star is. How do you scale how you talk about things, and what different points do you emphasize when you're talking? That is a skill that you learn through things like lunch talks.”


Q: How has your time at Penn State informed your goals for the future?

Minnich: After graduation, I would love to continue science communication, either with NASA or with a company affiliated with NASA. Right now, my job prospects include working at a smaller company to highlight and hopefully share the amazing work that they're doing with satellites. It would be so cool to show that in a way that people can understand it.

Delamer: I really love the research that I do, and I can't imagine going somewhere where I wouldn't have time to do research. I'd have a really hard time giving it up. So I'm leaning more toward research scientist positions or permanent positions at places that would allow me to continue to pursue my own science, because there wouldn't be quite as much emphasis placed on service, or teaching hours that I would have to accommodate for. I'd have a really hard time giving this up. I really enjoy it. 

Megan Delamer.

Delamer talks more...

Delamer talks more about her Penn State research experience in this Instagram reel:

The research is further explained by Delamer and Mahadevan in this Facebook video: