Are we alone? Students of astronomy have long struggled to answer this cosmic question. Doctoral student Samuel Factor chose to study at The University of Texas at Austin because the answer to this question — at least on a microcosmic scale — is no.
During Sam’s visit to the UT campus, the Wisconsin native found a welcoming environment at the College of Natural Sciences. “I could tell the astronomy grad student community was very friendly and supportive of each other,” he recalls. “There wasn’t any competitiveness.”
Financial support sweetened the deal for Sam. He’s the recipient of the Homer Lindsey Bruce Endowed Graduate Fellowship, and the Frank N. Edmonds, Jr. Memorial Fellowship, and has received additional funding from the John W. Cox Endowment for the Advanced Studies in Astronomy, the Board of Visitors Graduate Student Endowment Fund, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It has been amazing to be so supported,” says Sam. “Having scholarships means I can focus on my studies and research.
“My research focuses on the overlap between how the biggest planets form and how the smallest stars form,” Sam explains. “I take an image of a star and try and figure out whether it’s a single star or if it has a companion — another star or even a planet — and then do some statistics on a population of those objects to try to figure out how they formed.”
Having access to images from the James Webb Space Telescope will help Sam’s work. “Looking at the light from the first stars and the first galaxies to find out how our universe evolved — there’s lots to be done with this telescope. It’s a very exciting time to be in the field.”
Passing along his enthusiasm for astronomy drives Sam’s mission to talk about his research to anyone within his orbit. That’s why he participates in UT and McDonald Observatory public outreach events that connect astronomy students to the public in a low-key setting. “They allow people to be scientifically engaged and to hear about cutting-edge research projects without all the jargon,” says Sam, who often ponders another universal question: “If people don’t know what you’re doing, does your work really matter?”