Meet a Scientist!

This month, we feature an interview with Matt Taylor, Ph.D. student in Astrophysics.


Matthew Taylor

Ph.D. student of Astrophysics,
Department of Physics & Astronomy, Wayne State University

Matt, you have run the gamut from computer science, to nanotechnology and condensed matter theory, to work as a professional programmer,     and now, as a Ph.D. student in the field of Astrophysics at Wayne State University. Your background is analogous to a road map. You’ve covered      quite a bit of territory in your professional and educational career. Can you elaborate?

I started at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, completing an undergraduate degree in Computer Science. This led to employment as a programmer analyst, but ultimately I decided to leave an eight-year programming job and return to school to complete a Masters degree at Rice University in Texas.

Was it difficult for you to choose an area of study for your thesis?

My interest was in nanotechnology so I selected this field, but I found out I was not suited to lab work and switched to condensed matter theory. 

So you became a Theorist?

Yes. The paper I produced for my Masters thesis was a simulation, at the atomic level, of a single atom of lithium scattering on an aluminum surface.

It looks like your computer science background was an asset to completing your Masters degree.

Definitely. I used computer modeling for the simulation.

Then you found your way to Detroit to pursue a Ph.D.?

No. I took another detour and went back to work in the computer science area working for Compaq and CRAY. 

Why did you decide to return to school and pursue a Ph.D. in Physics?

I always loved physics. My grandfather was a physicist, even though I never knew him, and my dad is a retired engineer and he influenced me in the areas of math and science. But, I was always fascinated with space exploration and loved science fiction books.

You feel, then, that science fiction and space exploration have been an influence?

Yes. Read science fiction! Some of the stories have real science to open your mind and familiarize yourself to science topics (keeping in-mind, though, it is hypothetical and not all real). These stories can open you up to possibilities.

Any particular books that are your favorites?
Metaplanetary, written by Tony Daniel.  The book involves politics and intrigue in a futuristic setting in our solar system.

Now you are in Detroit and a Ph.D. student - that’s a long way from Texas and Rice University.  Why did you chose Wayne State University and our Physics & Astronomy Department?

My family was originally from Detroit and now I live in the city of Detroit. You could say I’m a “local person.” And my parents met in a Wayne State University classroom!

All joking aside, I find the WSU physics faculty especially devoted to learning, both their students’ learning and their own discovery through research.  At other universities, there is a lot of competitive pressure to get first results and publish, publish, publish.  WSU also encourages publication, but in my opinion, WSU faculty take a more balanced view, i.e. that publications and funding are means to an end (learning and discovery about nature) rather than an end in themselves.

Your field of study sounds fascinating - Type 1A and Core Collapse supernovae.  How did you get started?

I arrived at Wayne State in the Fall of 2006, and began my coursework. Originally, I had a different advisor but discovered the research of Professor David Cinabro (my current thesis advisor) and was hooked.

My research started as a broad supernovae research project. Dave is interested in Core Collapse Supernovae (CCSN). The problem withCCSN, though, is that they occasionally mimicType 1A Supernovae (1ASN). 

Can you back up a minute and explain the difference between CCSN and Type 1ASN?

Sure, CCSN occur when the iron core of a massive star collapses under the force of gravity and the densities become so great that the core rebounds outward in a gigantic explosion. To have a Type IASN, the current thinking is, you have to have a white dwarf with an orbiting nearby star.  Matter is transferred from the nearby star to the white dwarf and when it reaches a critical mass it explodes as a supernova.

What do you hope to discover from your research?

Type 1ASN are “standard candles” in Cosmology. At very large distances astronomers can’t use standard methods of measurement to determine distances to celestial objects.  Instead, we rely on objects such as Type 1ASN that we believe to have consistent light output (absolute magnitudes). Knowing the light output from Type 1ASN enables us to determine distances to galaxies and other distant objects.

Initially, I wanted to try and determine how frequently CCSN can be mistaken for Type 1ASN and the first step was knowing the overall rate that this can occur.

How do you collect the data for your research?

We got our data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 2 Supernovae Survey (SDSS2 SN).  This survey uses the same telescope as the original SSDSS1 SN Survey and uses dedicated search patterns to search for Type 1ASN.

What do you do with this data?

I write programs in C.  And I analyze light curves which plot brightness vs time (of the objects observed). The Sloan Survey analyzed anything that changed its brightness over time but a lot of what the Survey captured were not supernovae. The program I wrote found approximately 600 objects, but I knew I did not get them all so I made a statistical model as a function of the supernovae’s brightness.

With all of this talk about writing programs in C and creating statistical models, I’m curious as to what classes you took in school that have served you well.

Most important to my research has been the courses I took in quantum, statistical and classical mechanics.  Also, calculus and my computer background.

Let’s change tacks a bit and talk about life as a grad student. What is a typical day in the life of a WSU grad student?

This all depends on where you are in your studies.  I’m a theorist, and after completion of the required coursework, I went to work on computer simulations, and testing and debugging my software.  It has involved a lot more math than originally thought, and a lot more calculus (integrals and derivatives) and statistics.

What excites you the most about your research?

I’m fascinated by Cosmology and Astrophysics. There is so much yet to be discovered and I’m interested in black holes, neutron stars, the Big Bang.  Our research is only a tiny piece of this and I am interested in the whole picture!

But the biggest news in a long time, in my opinion,  was today’s news in Nature(April 15, 2010 issue) about “Optical Vortex Coronagraphs. “ These will enable scientists to blot out the light from host stars and find exoplanets more easily.

Matt, you are also Planetarium Staff and present shows, and you also teach Astronomy. How has this changed your perspective?

Aside from helping me to navigate the night sky, teaching Astronomy and presenting planetarium shows and sharing knowledge with students, makes it more alive.  And I love to observe people, and watch when they discover things, for themselves, in the planetarium.  I get a vicarious thrill seeing people’s excitement when they learn something that I learned a long time ago!

What advice can you offer people reading this interview that want to pursue a career and graduate studies in Astronomy or Astrophysics?

Study math and science, especially math and physics, and believe it or not, read science fiction!  As I mentioned earlier, these stories can open you up to possibilities!

And above all, STAY IN SCHOOL!