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October 2009  •  Volume 2 Number 3  •  Archive

Beth Willman—Enjoying New Challenges at LSST and in Philadelphia, PA

Haverford professor Beth Willman, co-chair of the Milky Way & Local Volume Structure Science Collaboration Team.

Just outside of Philadelphia, Beth Willman “runs her life in triage mode,” and does a fine job of it. Balancing a new baby, a new job at Haverford College, and ongoing, professionally demanding research collaborations as well as leading the efforts on the Milky Way and Local Volume Structure chapter of the LSST Science Book keep her life from ever getting boring.

This year she will offer a beginning astronomy course at Haverford, an academic base she chose somewhat unexpectedly. Beth had intended to pursue her career at a large research university, but during her second post-doc (at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)) she found that a lot of her professional satisfaction came from motivating students and project teams. The Haverford community seemed the ideal match for her skills, desires, and career trajectory.

Beth is a leading researcher in ultra-faint galaxies. She just received NSF funding to support her search for the least luminous galaxies, including hiring a post-doc. Her projects fall into three research areas. The first includes: the search for these galaxies in smaller datasets that go deeper than projects such as SDSS (such as the RCS2 dataset), developing new algorithms for finding the least luminous galaxies in datasets deeper than SDSS, and searching both public SDSS data and the upcoming Southern Sky Survey data in collaboration with the Stromlo Missing Satellites collaboration. Two students, Dylan Hatt (Haverford 2010) and Jen Campbell (Haverford 2011) are working with her on this research.

A second area of focus for Beth is studying the spectroscopic properties (both kinematics and abundances) of the least luminous satellites recently discovered around the Milky Way, trying to determine whether they are dark matter dominated dwarf galaxies (and if so, how much dark matter they contain) or star clusters. Alex Warres (Haverford 2010) is working with her on this research.

A final area of study concentrates on defining the photometric properties of the ultra-faint dwarf galaxies - their structures and star formation histories, in particular looking for evidence of tidal disturbance and for evidence of extended epochs of star formation. Gail Gutowski (Haverford 2010) is working on this with Beth.

Beth began her path to LSST (and other research pursuits) when a professor at Columbia sent her a letter wondering whether she had any interest in studying astronomy in college. She did. After graduating from Columbia University, she pursued a doctorate at the University of Washington and followed this as a James Arthur Fellow at New York University Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and then as a Clay Fellow at the CfA. Beth says her time at CfA re-energized her interest in astronomical research, working with students, and seeking leadership positions. While Beth is certainly the architect of her career, putting in immense time and effort, she is quick to acknowledge the positive impact that others have had. Her advice to students and young researchers: “Seek mentors, let yourself be mentored.”

Last year Beth’s first class at Haverford was Modern Galactic Astronomy. Combining her research interests and capitalizing on her affiliation with LSST, six of her eleven students worked on LSST projects, some of the highlights were:

  • Measuring the light curves of Cepheids with LSST;
  • Intragroup light in the Local Group using RR Lyrae stars observed by LSST; and
  • Finding unresolved globular clusters with LSST.

The research experience obtained in these projects provided half of the class with the foundation for successful research experiences in astronomy this past summer.

Beth spends her time searching for galaxies that are about one millionth the luminosity of the Milky Way. These objects are totally invisible and were unknown until the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but LSST is ideally well-suited to search for them. “Is the luminosity so low because of nature or nuture? We really don’t know. But they do have the highest dark matter ratio of observed galaxies. And so the search is important because they have great potential to reveal the properties of dark matter and the effects of environment and feedback on galaxy suppression,” Beth reflects, obviously captivated by both the questions and the search.

“The satisfaction of seeing astronomical objects that no one has ever seen before is incredible—both exciting and deeply moving. LSST should provide the opportunity for seeing a lot of ultra-faint galaxies for the very first time.”

Anna Spitz worked with Beth Willman on this article.


LSST is a public-private partnership. Funding for design and development activity comes from the National Science Foundation, private donations, grants to universities, and in-kind support at Department of Energy laboratories and other LSSTC Institutional Members:

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