First Class of Astrophysics Majors to Walk at Convocation

June 10, 2019

At convocation on June 15, nine students will be the first to graduate from the University of Chicago with a major in astrophysics. 

UChicago announced the major this past fall. Previously, undergraduate students interested in the subject would major in physics and enroll in elective courses in astrophysics. The new major, however, features a central sequence on major topics in astronomy and astrophysics as well as courses in statistics, computer science, and observational techniques.

Students pose in front of Yerkes telescope
Students at Yerkes workshop. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Chen.

"This first group of graduates is very accomplished and engaged," said Julia Borst Brazas, administrator of academic affairs for the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "They really inspired us and provided input as we established the major."

Two of the graduating students, Lindsay Berkhout and Rebecca Chen, contributed to the department by organizing quarterly workshops on observational techniques for undergraduates at Yerkes Observatory. In the summer of 2016, Berkhout and Chen worked on the 24-inch telescope at Yerkes as well as on a remote telescope in Sonoma, California to develop a methodology for obtaining precise photometry—a measurement of brightness—on small robotic telescopes.

"We wanted to [develop this methodology] on small telescopes so that the work could be done by students who don't have access to big telescopes," said Berkhout.

South Pole station
Lindsay Berkhout climbs ladder to experiment at South Pole. Photo courtesy of Berkhout.

After her second year in the College, Berkhout completed an NSF-funded research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she worked with their IceCube group, a group that uses the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole to study neutrinos. She later spent a few weeks at the South Pole working on CosRay—a cosmic ray detector—and a summer at Brookhaven National Lab. Next fall, Berkhout will attend Arizona State for a Ph.D. in exploration systems design, with a focus on instrumentation—a cross-disciplinary engineering and astrophysics degree.

Throughout much of her undergraduate career, Chen has conducted research with Chihway Chang, assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, on several projects related to weak gravitational lensing, a way of measuring the masses of astronomical objects and tracing the distribution of matter in the universe. She was a summer research student at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and will be starting the graduate program in physics at Duke, where she plans to study supernova cosmology.

First class of astro grads pose for photo
Astrophysics graduates with PSD Dean Angela Olinto, Astronomy & Astrophysics Chair John Carlstrom, Assistant Chair for Academic Affairs Rich Kron, and Academic Affairs Administrator Julia Borst

Another soon-to-be astrophysics graduate, Priya Lingutla, took a different path through her undergraduate career, focusing more on science writing and programming. In her first year, she worked as a history intern, writing a history of the Yerkes Observatory. She later interned with a biophysics lab on campus and at Argonne National Lab in the math and computer science division. After graduation, she will work as a data science associate for Nielson.

"In the astro field, you do a lot with large data sets," said Lingutla, "And I'm looking forward to working with data sets that have a real impact on people."

Assistant Chairman for Academic Affairs of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Richard Kron, expressed his pride for the class's research accomplishments: "Our first graduating class worked side-by-side with faculty on projects, which realized one of the main goals we had for the program. It has been a rewarding experience for us all."

The first graduating class of astrophysics majors are:

  • Lindsay Berkhout
  • Rebecca Chen
  • Elise Darragh-Ford
  • Max Goldberg
  • Armaan Goyal
  • Priya Lingutla
  • Aldo Panfichi Sanborn
  • MaCheaux Ransom
  • QiQi Wang