October 2002
Popular Science: Writing About S&T for the Public

Making Faster Computer Chips

When Galaxies Collide

Understanding Life by Understanding Proteins

Summer at the Bench

The Roundabout Path

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Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

When Galaxies Collide
By Barbara Spector

Shobita Satyapal ’87

Shobita Satyapal ’87, an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., aims to answer fundamental questions about the universe. Her research focuses on unlocking the mysteries surrounding ultraluminous galaxies, whose infrared luminosities are several thousand times greater than the luminosity of our galaxy. These investigations might aid in understanding the evolution of galaxies in general and the formation of quasars.

"Ultraluminous galaxies are now being found at great distances, meaning that they existed in the early universe," Satyapal notes.

These galaxies, which a emit tremendous amount of energy, are extremely faint at visible wavelengths. Virtually nothing was known about them until 1983, when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite — the first space-based infrared telescope — was launched, Satyapal explains. When data from the satellite reached Earth, researchers realized there were more galaxies out there than they could have imagined.

"The whole sky lit up with galaxies," Satyapal says. Yet the discovery raised more questions. "Nobody really understood what these objects were — what their ultimate source of energy was," she says.

Ultraluminous Galaxies

Such questions could not begin to be answered until the 1990s, with the launch of the Infrared Space Observatory, a European Space Agency satellite observatory that recorded data from 1995 to 1998. Using data from the ISO mission, "we can study the physics of these objects by doing spectroscopy on them," Satyapal says.

Virtually all ultraluminous galaxies are colliding with other such galaxies. When galaxies collide, gravity causes large masses to be funneled into the central region of these galaxies. "That’s when interesting things happen, such as the formation of black holes and stars," Satyapal says. Questions she is investigating include "Are there super-massive black holes in the center of these galaxies, or is there simply a large collection of stars? If so, are the stars similar to those in our galaxy? How many stars are there? How old are they?"

Besides analyzing data from the ISO mission, Satyapal is conducting a ground-based study of nearby infrared luminous objects (approximately 100 million light years away) to serve as a basis of comparison in subsequent investigations of more distant objects. Her database encompasses observations in the near, middle, and far infrared ranges. Her work also involves the development of infrared spectrometers that will be used in future NASA missions.

Bright Minds

In 1998, Satyapal was one of 60 young researchers to receive the third annual Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. Presented by President Bill Clinton, the award represented the U.S. government’s highest honor for investigators at the start of their careers.

"I felt so fortunate — very grateful, and very excited by the work I was doing," Satyapal says.

Her experience at Bryn Mawr has helped her to develop fresh approaches to data analysis, Satyapal says. "People with a liberal arts background can offer so much. I feel strongly about having a broad perspective; I feel it makes you a better scientist. Bringing creativity and innovation to the way you look at science is a very important skill — and, I would say, not fully cultivated in most people."

Researchers whose education has been narrowly focused tend to gravitate toward doing what’s been done before, Satyapal believes. "It’s been spelled out to them exactly what the next step is." But often it’s beneficial to view the data with a different eye. Being a physicist is "almost like being an artist," she says. "Your tools are math and science. You’re confronted with data, but there’s no path telling you what that data means."

Faint Objects

From 1996 to 2001, Satyapal worked as a research associate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. While there, she helped design the equipment to be used on NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), which will replace the Hubble Space Telescope. NGST, scheduled for launch in 2010, will have an aperture of approximately 6.5 meters, whereas Hubble’s aperture is only about 2 meters, Satyapal explains. "The bigger the telescope, the fainter the objects that can be seen through it."

Satyapal’s work at Goddard involved investigating the optimal instruments for achieving the research goals of the mission and then designing the technology. Although this cutting-edge work was very rewarding, she says, she wanted to work more closely with students. It was also frustrating to work in an environment where there were few women. "In the entire infrared astrophysics branch, there is not a single female scientist on the permanent staff," she says.

The lack of female colleagues was nothing new to Satyapal; she had faced such a situation in graduate school at the University of Rochester in the early 1990s. "It was very male-dominated," she says — quite different from the atmosphere at Bryn Mawr.

Satyapal’s upbringing gave her the skills and determination to meet the challenges of underrepresentation and succeed. Her parents, who were born in India, both have doctoral degrees in the sciences, and both her sisters, who also attended Bryn Mawr (Sunita ’85 and Shanti ’88), are also pursuing scientific careers. "We were always surrounded by scientific discussions," Satyapal recalls. "I always loved mathematics. Even in kindergarten, I just loved numbers."

Creative Physics

Satyapal, who was born and raised in New York City, attended the United Nations International School and pursued a curriculum that culminated in the International Baccalaureate, earning credits that enabled her to finish Bryn Mawr in three years, graduating magna cum laude. "I liked the physics department, but I worked by myself," she says. "I woke up at 5 in the morning and solved physics problems from 5 to 7."

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Satyapal took a year off before entering graduate school. During this hiatus, she attended art school in France and then did research at a cancer center. "I had trouble getting so specialized initially," she says. "I questioned my decision to go into physics — but I didn’t realize how creative it could be. Once I started doing research, I was happy again." In her year off, Satyapal says, "I missed physics — the mathematical rigor, the exploration of fundamental questions, the process that goes on in your mind when you work on a physics problem."

Satyapal came to George Mason in 2001. The proximity of the university to Goddard has enabled her to collaborate with her former colleagues. Satyapal says she decided to enter academia because "I wanted to interact with students doing research." She is now mentoring five students. "You bring out the best in people when you provide an environment that supports them," she notes. Moreover, Satyapal now works in a demographically unique department; there are seven highly successful female physicists, including the department chair, among the 17 full-time faculty members. "This department is truly unique," she says. "One can focus fully on science and not feel conspicuous as the one ‘woman scientist.’"

Satyapal’s professional career has involved some personal sacrifices. Although she has been married to medical physicist Scott Borzillary since 1993, the couple has actually lived together for only two years. "He was at Columbia University for a number of years," Satyapal says. "We saw each other every other weekend. We tried to find positions in the same city, and he finally got a position at Johns Hopkins."

Satyapal says the stream of wondrous new discoveries in infrared astronomy has made her persistence and hard work worthwhile. "It’s an amazing and beautiful field," she says. "You have to go through a certain track, but it’s really worth it."

About the Author

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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