Undergraduate math student contributes to research on a distant variable star

by Leah Shutes, Published August 22, 2012

YPSILANTI - When Clara Balmer came to EMU, she didn't quite know what she wanted to do. But she never anticipated taking a trip to Alaska, heading up Eastern's astronomy club or making lesson plans for the "astro lab." While she doesn't have immediate plans after graduating next April, wherever she ends up is likely to be somewhere she didn't see coming, either.

Clara Balmer

Balmer was a 2011 winner of the Undergraduate Research Stimulus Program, which includes a $2,000 research grant. She presented Photometry of Epsilon Aurigae Using Sherzer Observatory at the Undergraduate Symposium.

Her project was to contribute to the Citizen Sky research, which focuses on Epsilon Aurigae, a variable star, or a star whose light output isn't constant. It seems to twinkle, or get dimmer and brighter—every 27 years. She contributed to a large body of research that can be thought of as a graph showing Epsilon's luminosity.

She spent some cold nights on top of Sherzer Observatory measuring the light output with a photometer and compiling data over the course of two months.

"Scientists still don't know what's eclipsing the star. My favorite theory is that it's being eclipsed by a dwarf star with a huge ring of debris and dust, and some of the light shines through that debris," says Balmer. "Our goal was to get as much information as we could before the star was lost in the glare of the sun."

Balmer began at EMU as an art major, but later switched to physics before finally settling on mathematics. And while the information she learned in her physics classes might not, ironically, be applicable in everyday life, Balmer says the relationships and "cool things" she's gotten involved in at EMU are irreplaceable.

One of those cool things was her trip to Alaska with fellow student Naomi Watanabe and physics professor James Sheerin. The physics department sponsored the trip to the site of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Gakona, Ala.

"I was the undergraduate assistant, so my part was really to ask a lot of questions and meet a lot of cool scientists. I did do a small presentation on our work," says Balmer. Their research focused mainly on "shooting" radio waves into the ionosphere to create turbulence and measure its effect, which is applicable for GPS systems.

Balmer also is the president of the astronomy club at EMU and now teaches an astronomy lab. She says the class is more hands-on than the lecture part of the course.

"It's really fun to teach because it's not just reading from a book or listening to me talk. My students do hands-on science, like what you would be doing at your actual chemistry desk."

Balmer says she's not sure if she wants to make a career out of her major in mathematics, but if she did, that she's interested in truth. "Statistics can be used to manipulate people, and they often are," she says. "So if I did do something math-related, I might want to use statistics to tell the truth."

Geoff Larcom



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