The cool evening air creeps in as the pink, orange glow from the sun fades into a dark starry night sky. Feeling content and serene, assistant physics professor Elizabeth Jeffery watches over a group of students prepping a Meade Lx600 ACF telescope. Seconds later, the sound of gears loudly turning fills the air as the heavy dome roof of the Cal Poly Observatory slowly slides open revealing the twilight sky.  

Jeffery has been selected to lead the first year of research under the new Cal Poly College of Science and Mathematics Astronomy Research Fellowship. She will be taking spring quarter off teaching to research white dwarf stars and provide students with hands-on analysis.

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” Jeffery said. “I just feel so lucky.”

The fellowship was made possible by donations from the Marrujo Foundation, established by Cal Poly electrical engineering alum Daniel and Rosamaria Marrujo. 

The foundation works with educational institutions to further research in astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology with the goal of challenging our current understanding of space and creating new opportunities while positively impacting people’s lives in the process.

“Success is built on the people doing the work,” Daniel said. “We’re just an enabler promoting the exciting Learn-by-Doing experiences for faculty and students that help propel careers.”

Photo of Mr. and Mrs. Marrujo. Credit: Courtesy of Dan Marrujo

The research’s primary research will be white dwarf stars by estimating the ages of white dwarf stars, main sequence stars and the stars in the NGC 6253 star cluster.

White dwarf stars, which Jeffery refers to as the “fossil remnants of the galaxy” are some of the oldest stars and are crucial to understanding stellar evolution (how stars change over time) and the focus of her research.

“Understanding the age of stars is important for understanding the time scales that the universe works on,” Jeffery said. “If you’re trying to understand how the universe works or how the galaxy works, or even how our solar system works — you have to understand when things happen before you can understand how they happened.”

White dwarfs are stars at the end of their lifecycle that have burned all the hydrogen from their core that was once used to perform nuclear fusion. 

Nuclear fusion is the process where two small nuclei combine to form one single nucleus. The mass of the singular nucleus created is slightly less than the weight of the two original nuclei, and the leftover mass is then released as energy in the form of heat and light. 

Jeffery will also be recruiting a team of student researchers and through complex analysis and precise methodology— Jeffery and her team will estimate the ages of  1,100 white dwarf stars. 

Jeffery with three of her students at the recent national meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where they each presented their summer research projects. Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Jeffery

Jeffery and her selected group of students will use data from the Gaia satellite (a European satellite that aims to create a 3D map of our galaxy and the Milky Way) to examine the brightness and temperature of white dwarf stars. This data will allow them to predict the ages of the stars.

Jeffery has been working on the white dwarf star project for more than two years and plans on finishing the project through the fellowship. She aims to have her findings published in the Astrophysical Journal with her student researchers listed as co-authors. 

It’s a big project that will need to be accomplished in phases,” Jeffery said. “We’re thrilled to have the funding to be able to do this work.” 

According to Jeffery, the work load of Cal Poly’s faculty leaves little time for personal research during the school year.

“It’s hard to build up a lot of momentum for projects in the short window of summertime,” Jeffery said. “It can be done, but having this additional 10 weeks to build up momentum is going to make my summer even more productive than it normally would be.”

According to Jeffery, her focus on providing students with opportunities such as participation in her research, being published co-authors in scientific journals and having the opportunity to present their work at important conferences, such as the American Astronomical Society National Meeting, stems from the experiences she had as an undergraduate.

Her undergraduate research experiences were key factors in helping Jeffery discover her passions and decide the path she wanted to take career-wise. 

“I remember how I felt as a student when I had that spark lit in me when I realized I was doing real science,” Jeffery said. “I find it really thrilling being able to light the spark in students and watch them have the moment for themselves.”