The interdisciplinary studies course Big History is dubbed “big” for good reason: It starts with the Big Bang and traces history through the formation of galaxies and our solar system, moving on through human history up to the Industrial Revolution and ending by looking at the future of the universe. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and this week, students in the class were assisted by a virtual visit from alumna Aimee Schechter ’15, a PhD candidate in astrophysics at the University of Colorado Boulder.
History faculty member David Burzillo, who teaches the class, connected with Schechter after she attended a recent online meeting of the Rivers alumni book club. Schechter’s research on galaxy mergers seemed like a perfect fit for Big History, said Burzillo. “We’re just about to talk about star death,” he said. “We don’t get to humans until January.”
Schechter, Zooming in from Boulder, spoke briefly about the path that took her from Rivers to exploring the cosmos. At Rivers, she told the class, she was more involved with theater than with physics. She explained later, “I liked the night sky as a kid, but I don’t think I was really interested or saw a career in it until late in high school. I actually got into it through talking about gravity, orbits, and time travel in Mr. Pierson’s physics class, along with watching Cosmos and similar tv shows."
Her burgeoning interest in the stars led her to pursue her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas Austin, known for its astronomy department. There, Schechter pursued a double major in physics and astronomy. “Not many schools have two separate departments, but I liked UT because it did,” said Schechter.
Combining two challenging majors wasn’t easy, she said, but the opportunities that came her way made the difficulties worthwhile. “Two of the biggest things that happened were that I got to present my undergraduate research at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in 2019, and I learned to operate big telescopes at McDonald Observatory,” she told the class.
Today, Schechter is in the third year of a PhD program at Boulder. Her work focuses on galaxy mergers; as the name suggests, it’s the study of what happens when galaxies collide and combine. Describing how she chose that particular field, Schechter says, “Something about how big galaxies are and how far back in time we see them is really fascinating to me. I knew I wanted to study galaxy evolution, and my advisor was looking for a student for this project. So I kind of fell into this specific subfield but have really enjoyed it.”
Mergers aren’t easily observed in real life, even with powerful telescopes, so Schechter and her colleagues rely on the latest technology to create galaxy simulations, using machine learning to replicate the behavior of actual galaxies. “I take beautiful simulated galaxies and make them less beautiful, to train my network,” said Schechter with a smile during the Big History session.
Schechter also walked the students through an overview of the hottest topics in astrophysics: Exoplanets, gravitational waves, cosmology. The subjects are technical and a bit arcane, but the students, with two months of Big History under their belts, were engaged and curious, asking Schechter questions about her research, about how black holes are classified as active or inactive, and about what we can learn from gravitational waves.
One student questioned Schechter on her thoughts about a proposed 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea—a controversial project that pits scientists against the concerns of indigenous peoples. Schechter says that, although the conditions on Mauna Kea are ideal for viewing, she opposes the telescope. “The issue is that it is sacred to people who are native, and they have asked that we don’t build more telescopes there,” she said, adding that there are already a number of telescopes in the area.
But even beyond that, Schechter believes that access to viewing the stars should not be limited to the few. “I get to look through big telescopes, but that shouldn’t stop you from going someplace and just looking up and enjoying it,” she said. “The night sky is for everyone.”