Guest Blogger: Samantha Scibelli

by Mary Martialay on January 24, 2013

Samantha Scibelli and Professor Heidi Newberg at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society

(High school senior Samantha Scibelli – named yesterday as one of 40 finalists in the prestigious pre-college Intel Science Talent Search 2013 – wrote this excellent post for The Approach, to tell us about her research  with Professor Heidi Newberg. Enjoy!)

My name is Samantha Scibelli, I am currently finishing up my senior year at Burnt Hills–Ballston Lake High School. I have always had a love for science, starting from the time I was young, polishing rocks in my rock tumbler and analyzing fingerprints with my forensics kit. My passion for science escalated the summer before my sophomore year. That summer I attended a career exploration program at Cornell University where I took a workshop on astronomy. Immediately I fell in love with the field and the exciting research it was producing. I was fascinated by dark matter, exoplanets, parallel universes, and all of the mysteries in the farthest depths of our universe.

That same year I was accepted into my school’s science research program. This program is designed to have students work with professional mentors on cutting-edge research for three years starting their sophomore year. I was determined to work in astronomy research. So I got busy trying to find a mentor.

That fall I spent hours reading professional papers on various types of astronomy research. I scrolled through the internet searching for possible mentors at various college campuses. Incredibly, my science research teacher had arranged for me to meet with Professor Heidi Jo Newberg of RPI. I was thrilled! I had read dozens of her papers on topics such as tidal streams, dwarf galaxies, and dark matter. Shortly after we met I joined the research group and delved into a project of my own.

The research I do with Professor Newberg involves classifying blue stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Stars are classed based on their temperature and luminosity, with blue stars being of the very hot and luminous variety. They are unique to study because of their rarity. Blue stars burn their fuel faster compared to other cooler stars, therefore they die faster. An accurate classification of stars, specifically rare blue stars, is important when astronomers want to gain information about stellar populations and describe the structure of our galaxy.

The SDSS provides publically accessible data of objects in one-fourth of the entire sky. The SDSS has been a part of numerous discoveries, including the discovery of the most distant quasars and of various substructures in the outer Milky Way. Visually, errors within the computer generated spectral template classification system have been noticed. It’s important to minimize these errors so future research can become more accurate.

My research involved looking by eye through the spectra of over 12,000 blue stars. I found that 10 percent of these stars were misclassified by the SDSS. I then placed these misclassified stars into 11 new classes. Some of these classes include binary stars, featureless stars, cataclysmic variable stars, DB white dwarfs, and unknown blue stars. I found that the spectral classification problems within the SDSS can be accounted for the lack of templates for stellar objects. There are 42 templates with only 8 templates for hot blue stars. I suggest that additional templates be added into the SDSS to account for rarer types of blue stars.

Much of the research done with SDSS is on extragalactic objects, such as galaxies and quasars. But as research on stellar spectra from the SDSS data becomes more common, errors with the classification should be minimized. The work I’ve done will hopefully draw attention to the classification problems and create accurate data results in the future so astronomers can learn about the structure of our galaxy and universe as a whole.

Working with Professor Newberg on this project has been an incredible experience. I have been fortunate enough to present my findings at various professional conferences and compete in local science fairs. Being a part of this research and being able to collaborate with professional scientists has been life changing. Scientific research has given me the ability to learn beyond the confines of a classroom. I have had the opportunity to ask questions and find my own answers. I look forward to a long and prosperous future in research, and I hope I can inspire other young students interested in math and science to follow in my footsteps.