Physics and astronomy chair receives Blinn Award

Dr. John Laird, chair of physics and astronomy, has been named the 2007 recipient of the Elliott L. Blinn Award for Faculty-Undergraduate Student Innovative Basic Research/Creative Work.

Dr. John Laird

Laird, who has involved students in measuring the composition of stars, was presented the award at the annual Faculty Recognition Dinner on Oct. 30. The award is given in memory of the late Dr. Elliott Blinn, a chemistry professor who devoted his career to sharing with undergraduate students the excitement of the discovery process.

Laird received a $1,000 cash award and his department received $4,000 for use in supporting further undergraduate research. The award particularly recognizes his work with an undergraduate student in the Academic Investment in Math and Science (AIMS) program, which seeks to encourage more women and minorities to pursue careers in mathematics and the sciences.

Their research was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

A number of years ago, Laird developed a method for measuring the abundance of chemical elements in stars using very low-quality spectra. While achieving about the same precision as conventional detailed analysis of high-quality spectra, the method dramatically reduces observation time, making it possible to analyze large samples of stars. 

One of the main limitations to the method is that it measures only the average abundance of a variety of chemical elements, rather than measuring each element individually. While generally acceptable, there is a group of elements, known as “alpha” elements, which vary differently, making them especially important to measure separately from the rest.

As a freshman in the AIMS program, Tarrah Graham began working on an independent research project to see whether the alpha elements could be measured separately from low-quality spectra by modifying Laird’s original technique. The project was a dramatic success. Her work showed that the new method produced remarkably good alpha measurements comparable to—or even better than in some cases—published work.

Graham then took the project a step further. She applied the results to stars belonging to different groups within the galaxy. The undergraduate combined her alpha element results with previous measurements of the stars’ motions to classify the stars according to their population group and time of origin.

She was able to identify a small number of stars with unusually high or low alpha abundances, which suggests they formed in some unusual environment.  A key reason to measure alpha elements is to identify such stars, of which only a few were previously known.

Graham presented a poster about her research at the Ohio Science and Engineering Conference in Columbus in August 2006, and presented her findings at two AIMS seminars. In addition, Laird reported her work in a research proposal submitted to the NSF.

“Dr. Laird was a positive influence and offered his help if there were ever any questions,” Graham says of her research mentor. “The work load was somewhat intense, being it was my first time doing anything of that nature, but he constantly showed support and encouragement.”

“I believe my work with her was invested very well,” Laird noted in writing about Graham. “It was eye-opening for her, I think, to realize how even the relatively simple mathematics she had learned before could be applied to achieve such significant results. More importantly, Tarrah matured as a young scientist herself. As the project progressed, she developed and began to rely on her own judgment in evaluating the literature data as well as her own.”

“Research collaboration provides the most rewarding teaching experience I have had, and benefits my research as well by focusing the attention of both me and the student,” Laird wrote.

Ten undergraduates have worked on research projects with Laird over the years. The funds his department received from the Blinn Award will be invested in specialized equipment and travel for future student researchers.

November 5, 2007