Student’s space research wins national award from astronomers

April 10, 2013

Alexandre FernandesAn undergraduate at UW-Whitewater has won national recognition for his research into the deep mysteries of the Milky Way galaxy.

Alexandre Fernandes, a junior math and physics major from Appleton, was honored for his project at the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif., in January.

"It was a great surprise to me.  It was my first project, my first time out there," Fernandes said. "There were some really good posters, really good work that was done."

Receiving the Chambliss Award honorable mention puts Fernandes' research poster in the top 10 of hundreds of undergraduate presentations at the main yearly meeting of North American astronomers, said Bob Benjamin, associate professor of physics at UW-Whitewater.

Another UW-Whitewater student, Martin Gostisha, a senior in physics, also presented his research, which is being turned into a proposal to use the Hubble Space Telescope.

For Fernandes, the award and his experiences at the conference helped confirm his choice of astrophysics as a career path. He plans to attend graduate school after earning his bachelor's degree.

"You can take laws of physics that have been well-understood since Newton and apply them to massive systems of objects, even the most abstract time scales and solar masses," he said. "You can come up with meaningful solutions.  I think that's amazing. I think I'm in the right field."

Alexandre FernandesHis poster presentation was titled "Constraints on the Orbit of High Velocity Cloud Complex A." He presented calculations of the movement of a long cloud of hydrogen gas that arcs across the Milky Way.

Fernandes calculates that the cloud passed upward through the outskirts of the Milky Way about 300 million years ago and is now plunging back down toward the edge of the galaxy.  When it crosses through again in 20 million years, it will probably trigger an intense burst of star formation where it hits.

"This answers a lot of questions,'' Fernandes said.  It also raises new questions that suggest pieces of the cloud are breaking off and suffering drag.

"We believe the eventual fate of this cloud is it will break apart so much in 600 million years it will become part of the Milky Way," he said. "But the question is how does it collide?  Is it a head-on collision or is it a slow shower?"

He was inspired to tackle these big questions in part by spending a week studying star fields in 2011 at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.  The trip was a reward for the top two physics majors in the two-semester calculus-based introductory physics course.

Benjamin, who won a NASA grant of $323,000 to study the accretion of intergalactic gas clouds onto the Milky Way, suggested and supervised Fernandes' research.  It was first presented at last fall's Undergraduate Research Day on campus, which Fernandes said helped him learn to explain his project to people of all backgrounds.

That was good preparation for the astronomers' meeting in California, where a Princeton scientist grilled him with questions about his research poster.

"It was very good practice to be able to gauge a person's background instead of assuming a certain knowledge,'' he said. "Even among the scientists, there is a wide range of knowledge."

Why I Teach: Bob Benjamin


Sara Kuhl

Jeff Angileri


Top: Alexandre Fernandes sets up a telescope outside the UW-Whitewater Observatory.

Bottom: Fernandes writes on a board in the "red room" classroom inside the observatory.  The light is red because it's easier to for the eye to adapt from the classroom, to going outside to view the night sky.