UNCA astronomer Britt Lundgren wins $100K Cottrell Scholar award

Britt Lundgren

Press release from UNC Asheville:

UNC Asheville Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Britt Lundgren has been named a 2020 Cottrell Scholar, an honor that comes with a $100,000 prize from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) in support of her research on how galaxies evolve over cosmic timescales.

“We know that galaxies require supplies of cold gas to form new stars. Unfortunately, such gas is often not very luminous, making it difficult to detect in the outskirts of galaxies, particularly when those galaxies are at great distances from Earth. Backlighting experiments offer a solution to this problem,” says Lundgren. “By examining the spectra of more distant luminous objects, we can reveal the locations and compositions of gas and dust linked to intervening galaxies billions of light years away. In my work, I use quasars (extremely luminous regions in the centers of some distant galaxies, which are powered by actively accreting supermassive black holes) to backlight fainter, less-distant galaxies and reveal the composition and distribution of gas in their surrounding halos.”

Lundgren combines spectra from the ground-based Sloan Digital Sky Survey and imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope to match the properties of the detected gas to other measurable properties of galaxies hosting the gas, and test theoretical simulations that predict how stellar and gaseous properties of galaxies should co-evolve. The work has been a team effort involving past and current students, including Samantha Creech (Physics ’20), Darren Stroupe (Physics ’20), Nathan Kirse (Math/Computer Science ’18), Matthew Peek (Computer Science ’18), and Blake Hudson (Environmental Studies ’22), who have made major contributions to the research and are poised to publish results later this year.

Lundgren’s research group includes a number of other related projects, including Drew Griffith’s (Physics ’20) visual inspection of quasar spectra to produce better samples for studying magnetic fields in distant galaxies, and Athene Coby’s (Physics ’20) work analyzing computer simulations of galaxy halos. For her senior capstone project, Tiffany Shrives (Computer Science ’20) is helping to mine detections of intervening gas from hundreds of thousands of newly observed quasar spectra from the SDSS.

“UNCA has fantastic students who are capable of partnering in these projects, but generally they need some financial support to do so,” said Lundgren. “This award will be transformative to my ability to continue growing my research capacity at UNC Asheville. It will provide the resources I need to make progress on my existing projects and to competitively propose for the telescope observations required to further advance this work.”

According to Lundgren, the award sets equally high expectations for scholarly research and innovative educational programs, so she is also continuing to expand efforts to integrate data literacy and computer science into the physics and astronomy curriculum at UNC Asheville. In addition, through her role as co-chair of the Education and Public Outreach working group of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. She has partnered with scientists at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) and St. Andrews University (Scotland) to produce freely available computational astronomy curricula, which is hosted on the web and run in the cloud at SciServer.org, with a goal to lower the barriers for students to become involved in authentic astronomy research earlier in their college careers.

“Anyone who develops educational resources will tell you that the work is never really finished, and that constant development is required based on evaluation and feedback,” said Rita Tojeiro, reader in physics and astronomy at the University of St Andrews and co-chair of Education and Public Outreach working group of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. “I’m delighted and excited that Britt’s programme has been funded, which will give us a framework for evaluation and assessment of the materials, as well as develop new introductory level SciServer curricula. I’m certain that the outcomes of this programme will have a positive impact on the mindset and education of students across the globe!”

Lundgren has mentored undergraduate research since her years as a postdoc, and she sought out the high-quality liberal arts and sciences education at UNC Asheville in her faculty career.

“Having graduated from a liberal arts college myself, I strongly valued the academic priorities of UNC Asheville and most of all its commitment to providing a high quality liberal arts education that is actually affordable and broadly accessible. I knew that undergraduate research was also a key part of the UNCA mission, and that I wouldn’t be expected to leave my research at the door when I started teaching. These things, combined with the campus culture of valuing interdisciplinary and diversity-intensive course development, made it a perfect fit for my interests and values,” said Lundgren, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an A.B. from the University of Chicago. She joined the UNC Asheville faculty in 2016.

The 2020 Cottrell Scholar award provides support over a three-year period, and Lundgren’s award is the second Cottrell award in the past three years for a UNC Asheville faculty member. Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry Amanda Wolfe was named a Cottrell Scholar in 2017 for her work in developing new antibiotics. Now in the third year of the project, Wolfe has developed a research-based Drug Discovery Interdisciplinary Project Laboratory for junior and senior chemistry majors, which has been taught for three semesters to more than 70 students. The lab has isolated new antibiotics from mixed bacterial culture using a method they developed that makes antibiotic discovery accessible for scientists at all levels, and they have used synthetic chemistry to improve the antibiotic activity of those natural products to treat pathogenic bacterial infections.

Together with student co-authors, Wolfe has published three peer-reviewed papers and presented at the American Chemical Society National Conference. The Cottrell Scholar funding has supported 24 undergraduate researchers in Wolfe’s laboratory over the past three years, including 10 graduates, who are now in chemistry Ph.D. programs, master’s programs in public health, medical school and the biotechnology industry.

“Being a part of the Cottrell Scholars Program has also allowed me to be able to apply for and ultimately be awarded a Cottrell Collaborative Award in 2018 with five other Cottrell Scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy from across the country to develop the Faculty Empowerment Network. This is a national network of tenured and tenure-track faculty at research-intensive universities as well as primarily undergraduate institutions,” said Wolfe. “Overall, the Cottrell Scholars award has had a huge impact on my career, my students’ careers, the UNC Asheville Chemistry Department’s curriculum and status in the field of drug discovery, and the prestige of UNC Asheville in the chemistry and physics community nationally as a liberal arts public university with a high-quality research program. I believe that the awarding of a second Cottrell Scholars award to Britt Lundgren, who is an exemplary UNC Asheville faculty member, only further demonstrates this national recognition.”

For more information, visit https://www.unca.edu/person/amanda-wolfe-ph-d/ and https://astrophysics.wp.unca.edu/britt-lundgren/.

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