Studying How Galaxies Grow
Charlotte Christensen, assistant professor of physics, recently received a $484,300 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
CAREER Awards are the most prestigious and competitive grants the NSF awards. They are made to junior faculty members who are exemplary scholars and teachers to enable them to pursue projects encompassing both research and teaching.
Christensen is the second Grinnell College faculty member to receive a CAREER grant. The first was Eliza Kempton, associate professor of physics, who received a CAREER grant in 2017 to conduct research on exoplanets and develop a spatial reasoning course and peer-mentoring program for STEM students.
Beginning June 1 this year, Christensen’s CAREER grant will support her research into how galaxies form. Astronomers have found that galaxies grow through a balance of gas loss, gas in-fall, and star formation. What drives these processes, however, is only poorly understood.
To enhance that understanding, Christensen will model dwarf galaxies, which are ideal test subjects for studying galaxy growth because they have low masses and are especially sensitive to energy input from supernovas.
For the teaching component of her project, Christensen will develop a set of computational exercises, labs, and open-ended research projects for students that will be integrated into the physics curriculum.
Christensen and her colleagues had earlier integrated a computational lab into the 200-level mechanics course with the support of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. Building on this work, Christensen will improve the overall education of physics majors by incorporating computational problem-solving, an increasingly fundamental component of a modern physics education.
The grant also will support summer research projects for 12 Grinnell students, including opportunities to present at national conferences and to visit collaborators at research institutions. By participating in these innovative projects, Grinnell students develop a dedication to truth, evidence, and critical thought.
In addition, Christensen’s curricular development will address a gap in computational skill development that the physics department has observed between male and female physics majors. Female students, including physics majors, are substantially less likely to enroll in computer science classes than male students.