When the pandemic limited access to research labs last year, some high school students lost opportunities for internships that might have yielded material for science projects. That was no problem for Hastings senior Adam Oppenheimer, however. Working virtually to study galaxies far, far away is standard operating procedure in the field of astrophysics, Oppenheimer’s particular passion.
The 17-year-old earned accolades at the Jan. 30 Westchester-Rockland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), a regional science fair where he presented his original astrophysics research conducted online by accessing the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which is in orbit around the Earth.
His project, “An Investigation of Blazar Jet Variability through an Analysis of Ton 599,” placed second in the virtual physical sciences “room” at the regional fair — an event traditionally held at local schools such as Blind Brook High School in Rye, where the competitors are divided into rooms by areas of study.
“Most years there are people who make posters or PowerPoint presentations” Oppenheimer explained. “This year, everyone did a PowerPoint virtually. You have 12 minutes to present at a set time on Zoom, with 5 minutes for questioning.” Although his judges, who were all chemists, didn’t appear to Oppenheimer to have a deep knowledge of his particular subject, he said they were “looking to see that you have some ownership and agency in your presentation.”
Based on his work, Oppenheimer qualified to go on to the Upstate JSHS, sponsored by SUNY Albany, next month.
Oppenheimer’s goal was to learn more about a particular kind of galaxy called a “blazar.” Blazars contain enormous black holes and sometimes project jets of energy and matter called “flares.”
Oppenheimer became interested in the blazar phenomenon while conducting data analysis at Columbia’s Nevis Laboratories in Irvington for his Science Research class at Hastings High School, where students develop individual projects. He decided to make a specific blazar, Ton 599, the focus of his investigation. He was intrigued by the way the flares from blazars behave.
“There’s a lot of scientists who are interested in learning more about them, but not much is known,” Oppenheimer said. “They don’t know if there are patterns associated with them or what causes them.”
Oppenheimer has been interested in physics since eighth grade. “I thought it was cool, I guess,” he reflected. “I attended many of the Nevis talks. There are a lot of good resources in this region to be interested in.”
Oppenheimer said blazars are worth studying “because of their incredibly high energy phenomena, that can produce gamma rays of higher energy than we can produce on Earth.” He decided to write an algorithm to describe them.
Professor Reshmi Mukherjee of Barnard College, a member of the combined astrophysics departments of Barnard and Columbia located at Nevis, agreed to be his adviser for the project.
“I was given a couple of articles to read over the summer, and that acted as a springboard for my research,” Oppenheimer said. In the process of performing his online investigations, he had virtual meetings with graduate students and attended virtual departmental meetings and weekly lectures offered to astrophysics students.
Oppenheimer noted that there has been research on blazar flares in the past, but creating his own algorithm and finding that it worked gave him “a certain level of positive satisfaction. It’s an incredible feeling.”
JSHS is open to students in grades 9-12 who participate at the regional, district, and national levels to present the results of their original research efforts in the STEM fields. The program is a collaborative effort between the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense and a group of universities around the country. Contestants compete for thousands in scholarship awards. The culmination of the competition is the National Symposium, which will be held virtually from April 14-17.