Physics professor Shashi Kanbur and SUNY Oswego students Selim Kalici, Michele Manno and Hugh Riley Randall spent much of this summer traveling overseas for research and presentations. 

The students conducted eight weeks of research at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) in Garching, Germany, where their collaborators included top experts in the field including SUNY Oswego alumnus Earl Bellinger, who is now a postdoctoral research fellow at this prestigious institution.

The projects and connections are the life work of Kanbur, who has earned international recognition for his research trying to determine the size and age of the universe through studying period-variable stars – such as Cepheids and RR Lyrae – whose pulsation allow an estimate of their distance from Earth.

For the students, this work culminated in July, as they presented well-received talks describing their summer research at MPA to several members of its Stellar Astrophysics group. Kalici presented “Estimating Stellar Parameters of RR Lyrae Using Machine Learning”; Manno presented “Interior Luminosity Curves for Cepheid Variables”; and Randall presented “Instability Strips for 3 Types of Classically Pulsating Variable Stars.”

“The students have been immersed in a very stimulating atmosphere for several weeks at MPA rubbing shoulders with some of the best astrophysicists in the world,” Kanbur noted. “They see astronomers discussing problems in astrophysics day-in, day-out and are learning stellar pulsation/evolution and modern research methods in a cutting-edge environment.” 

Kanbur had the opportunity to present on related research topics at the MPA as well as give invited talks in India for Cotton College University in Guwahati and the Indian Institute for Astrophysics in Bengaluru. 

Top research opportunities

“Of course, any opportunity to go abroad is very exciting, but the part that is so compelling is that the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics is one of, if not the top research institute for astrophysics in the world,” Randall said. “The opportunity to go abroad to do research at an institute where people are so knowledgeable and so committed to their field is one that you can't pass up.”

Randall’s research studies multiple types of pulsating stars that “pulsate radially, meaning they expand directly outward from their center and then they contract,” Randall explained. “The physics behind what drives this pulsation isn't known exactly, but we do have theories that can model this process. My project tests these theories.” 

This research involves running models through a computer program, MESA/RSP, which “tells us if the theoretical star we gave it is prone to pulsation,” Randall said. They go through a list of models with various conditions – including mass, temperature and composition – then add observational data to examine what conditions in theory lead to pulsation, to “plot this and compare it to which conditions lead to pulsation in the real world,” Randall said.

Because the list of potential models is long, the computations take a long time, so the main part of the project in Oswego involved computing and plotting theoretical results, while the data analysis began in earnest in Germany. Randall said this involved plotting data for “very insightful” results and developing better ways of visualizing results, validating data and making the process more efficient.

“This experience is very stimulating,” Randall said. “It is amazing to be surrounded by so many people who are passionate about astrophysics, and it is a great learning opportunity. … It has definitely benefited me greatly. My goal has always been to go to grad school and hopefully become a professor after that. Working with Dr. Kanbur and getting this opportunity has given me insight as to what that route entails.”

Seeing stars

Manno’s research in Germany is an extension of work started in Oswego, “running simulations of Classical Cepheids, which are stars with similar properties to our sun, that undergo ‘pulsations’ with periods measured in days,” Manno said. “These pulsations are simply regular changes in luminosity and radius. I also create and plot light curves of these stars, both at their surface and interiors.”

As a SUNY Oswego Possibility Scholar, Manno expressed appreciation for this scholarship paying for most of the trip. 

“One of the highlights during my stay is definitely the work environment,” Manno said. “I am able to focus more on my research and attend lectures of people much more knowledgeable than I am, really showing how much there is to learn in such a niche subject.”  

Seeing the sights and sounds of the university and the town it is in has been another highlight, with a nearby train station offering easy access, Manno said.

“Being able to work with Dr. Kanbur in such a place as this allowed me to receive extra help and a better understanding of my topic more than papers ever could,” Manno noted. “The physics faculty in Oswego, including Dr. Kanbur, were invaluable in helping me with my courses. In addition, their insight continues to engage me in physics in general, and has helped me determine what I want to do and do not want to do in my future. I thank all of them deeply for how far I've made it in my college career.” 

Manno also appreciated the opportunity to present to top experts, which he felt went well thanks to colleagues and practice.

“One thing I took from the experience was the fact that the audience gets more out of a great talk than a great presentation,” Manno said. “It was more important to project myself in a clear manner than to fill my slides with information. Slides are still important but without the talk, the audience will have trouble understanding the presented info as well as your intent.”

Amazing connections

Kalici’s research involves research with Kanbur on “inferring the properties of certain stars based on the change in their brightness over time,” Kalici explained. “We're able to accurately predict things such as the masses or temperatures of stars using machine learning right now.”

Highlights include “meeting the amazing people and attending the research seminars often hosted around the building, all dedicated to different branches of research,” said Kalici, who noted that the people there were all friends, very smart, and excited to discuss and teach their research. “Going around the city of Munich and several things like that has also been an amazing experience.”

Beginning work with Bellinger the previous summer and then joining him and the research staff at “one of the best astrophysics schools in the world” has provided “an amazing opportunity to meet people with similar lives to what I eventually want to do,” Kalici said.

“Working with Dr. Kanbur and everyone else I believe has really made a change in my understanding of how learning/research is done and given me invaluable experience for whatever I plan to do in the future,” Kalici said.

The international research opportunity culminates a journey that started with all three students expressing an interest in astrophysics to Kanbur while taking his courses or via referrals, then starting work on these projects in summer 2021.

“I think they have enjoyed their experience immensely and learned an enormous amount about what research life is like,” Kanbur said. “I think they have also enjoyed the opportunity of living in a different country and adapting to the varied lifestyle.”

Noting that “knowledge is constructed not received,” Kanbur said this process both expanded the students’ understanding while providing an ideal environment where students actively learned from MPA administrators and researchers, who respected and engaged with them and their work.

“Dr. Kanbur has always told us that this type of learning is much different than studying for a test,” Randall said. “You can often do well on exams by memorizing things, but memorization will get you nowhere when doing research. Instead you really need to develop an understanding, not only so that you know what questions to ask, but also so that you can effectively share what you have learned.”

The success of this summer collaboration provides both an excellent network for the participating students as well as making it easier for future students to take part in this international opportunity, Kanbur said.