Pictured above: Annika Gustafsson presents her research on asteroids.
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From Black Markets to Black Holes

Undergraduate Symposium


When California native Annika Gustafsson was looking for a college to attend, she had two main criteria: the university had to have a strong physics program, and had to be equally good on the football field. Five years, including two national championship game appearances and two Rose Bowl wins by the football team later, Gustafsson is getting ready to graduate from the Clark Honors College with degrees in physics and math and a minor in business administration—and with the distinction of having possibly discovered just the third-known example of a special type of binary black hole system in the entire universe.

Marcus Mariota, with his degree in general science and stated career “Plan B” of working in the sports medicine industry, has a deserved reputation for being extremely smart, but even he isn’t Annika Gustafsson smart. The research she is completing as an undergraduate is on the same level of complexity that her advisor, astronomer and UO faculty member Scott Fisher, did as a graduate student. In addition to black holes, Gustafsson is also researching asteroids to better understand the formation of the solar system; and after getting her PhD in astrophysics or planetary science she is interested in becoming a project leader for missions conducted in outer space, or continuing to study either the formation of the solar system or the formation and evolution of galaxies.

(Oh, and she also leads both Mariota and Galileo Galilei one national championship to nil, having been a member of the UO’s 2012 title-winning acrobatics and tumbling team. In case you’re curious, she will be eligible to run for President of the United States in time for the 2030 election campaign, which she may as well do since she’s excelled at everything else thus far.)

Clearly Gustafsson is an academic rising star, but at the University of Oregon she isn’t an extreme outlier. On May 14, she joined 128 other students to present research at the UO’s Undergraduate Symposium, where undergraduates—all of whom are stars in their own fields—presented on topics including black markets in North Korea, treating deaf-blindness, cybersecurity, the works of rapper Ice Cube, and the importance of studying Shakespeare’s works in prison.

“It was really exciting,” said Gustafsson, who delivered an oral presentation on her black hole discovery and a poster on her work on asteroids. “Our session was really great; there were a lot of people in the audience who were really into STEM.”

Now in its fifth year at the UO, the Undergraduate Symposium was started by adjunct assistant history professor Kevin Hatfield, who wanted to give undergraduate students a forum at which to share their research and original ideas with the public.

“It’s grown considerably since the first year, when we had about 50 presenters, to this year when we had about 200,” Hatfield said. “The breadth of colleges and disciplines that have participated has grown. This year we had about 46-47 majors, all seven colleges, and lots of creative works and service learning presentations.”

Potential presenters submitted an abstract detailing their research, before a planning committee and a faculty panel reviewed the abstracts and selected those whose research is ready to be presented publicly. During the months leading up to the symposium, students worked on their presentations with the help of peer mentors, getting the oral presentations and poster displays ready.

The oral presentations were divided into nine sessions, which were held in the Erb Memorial Union’s Oak, Maple, and Gumwood rooms; while the poster presentations, 70 in all, were displayed in the EMU Ballroom later that day. One-third of the student presenters were also enrolled in the Clark Honors College, making the day-long symposium a quality representation of the astounding level and depth of undergraduate research taking place at the University of Oregon.

During her two years conducting research with Fisher, Gustafsson analyzed raw data provided by Rachel Mason, a staff scientist at the world’s fifth-largest telescope, Gemini North in Hilo, Hawaii. After first learning to write specialized astronomy-specific code on a computer to clean up—or reduce—the data, a process which took close to 18 months, Gustafsson began the process of studying the nucleus of galaxy NGC 4736, 16 million light years away.

“Annika is a trooper,” Fisher said. “This is the type of data that you have professional scientists working on.

“After this project, she’s walking away with highly developed data awareness and data analysis skills. She’s doing stuff as an undergrad that I did as a graduate student, basically, and quite independently too.”

Galaxy NGC 4736 was known to have a black hole in its center—or nucleus—but observations taken using X-ray light revealed a second source in the nucleus that was hypothesized as being a second black hole. Gustafsson studied data taken using optical light to learn more about the mysterious source.

“We thought that the source was a second black hole, and I can actually say now we do think the source is a second black hole, based on our conclusions which we’re just finishing up,” she said.

One of the major theories in astrophysics is that each galaxy has a black hole at the center of it, but researchers aren’t entirely sure what governs their behavior. Why are some dormant and others active? What makes them turn “on” and “off?” Astronomers also know that galaxies often merge together. Gustafsson notes, “When galaxies merge, there should be two [black holes] before one ends up eating the other, or maybe they’ll form a binary system. A lot of really complicated models and theories rely on the existence of these binary systems, but we’d only discovered two. Hopefully we’ve now discovered three of them—[this discovery is] very valuable.”

The problem, though, is that the only two known binary black holes are so far away that they can’t be studied in great detail.

“This is the closest binary black hole system to earth,” Gustafsson said. “There’s only two others that have been discovered so far, and they’re both over 100 million light years away. The confirmation of this new binary system is super advantageous for us, since we will be able to look at this system in close detail, to study and analyze it.”

By studying the system, astronomers can find answers to questions about the link between galaxy mergers and black hole activity levels, how supermassive black holes grow during a merger, and more.

The next step for Fisher and his students will be to study the same black holes in non-visible light, looking for the same black hole indicators. Once that is complete, possibly within the next year, the work will be written up and offered to scientific journals for publication.

While Gustafsson spends her time at the UO studying objects billions of light years away, the rest of her peers have research interests much closer to home—even when “home” is all the way on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Kyungla Chae’s presentation was the confluence of her two majors, economics and international studies. Chae, a senior from Seoul, South Korea, studied North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Region and the emerging black market industry in the DPRK, and predicted the underground markets could lead to an uprising in the largely closed-off country.

“The goods that are smuggled into North Korea from China and South Korea include a lot of DVDs of South Korean dramas, and that’s showing the North Koreans that South Korea has actually been doing very well, and that [North Koreans have] been hearing lies,” said Chae. “It’s showing what the outside world really looks like, and it’s creating a social unrest. There has not been a social uprising, but this might be the start.

“It was definitely not easy to look for research materials,” she added. “I had to do a lot of digging.”

Kimi Lerner
While students such as Annika Gustafsson and Kyungla Chae conducted their research by studying data provided by external sources, others rolled their sleeves up and got their hands dirty in the name of research. For her project, Madison Cheek and her classmates went to the Berggren Demonstration Farm outside Walterville on the Lower McKenzie River to explore whether or not a new irrigation system would help the farm become more efficient with its energy and water usage, seeking data that could be crucial for drought-affected areas nationwide.

“One thing that we’re looking at is not only economic costs but environmental costs, because you might save money on energy and water, but if you have all of this plastic drip tape lying on the ground that has to be replaced every three years, is that really saving you money?” Cheek said. “And, is it good for the environment that you’re throwing this stuff away?

“We’ve found that it’s a lot more complicated than you’d think. We’re thinking that it might not be more efficient at this point to do drip irrigation on [the owner’s] particular farm, but we’re looking into ways that she could continue with that or find other ways to cut back on resource usage.”

While Cheek was out enjoying fresh air on a farm, Kimi Lerner was in the Westerfield Laboratory studying how Usher syndrome, the leading cause of deaf-blindness in humans, manifests itself in zebrafish. Lerner's work provided preliminary data that established a zebrafish model for USH2A retinal defects, data that will form the basis of light wavelength experiments that will be conducted in the laboratory this summer.

“What could come out of that is were trying to look at ways to filter that light, different films or coatings, to make things like different types of sunglasses that would reduce the effect on someone’s retina,” said Lerner, who won't be at the UO for the wavelength experiments as she graduated this spring. “If we could figure out exactly what type of wavelength is harmful, then we could provide an immediate treatment option for USH2A patients.”

Hatfield will start planning the 2016 Undergraduate Symposium later this year, and is already intending to not only expand its footprint within the EMU once construction is complete there, but also take the symposium around the state, showing Ducks in Salem, Portland, and Bend the incredible work that current students are doing in the arts and sciences.

This year’s group is exploring treatments for blindness, looking at ways to prevent drought, finding potential indicators of social upheaval, and literally making history on a universal scale.

What will next year’s researchers have to offer?