Astronomy Grad Gazes at Galaxies
Elysse Voyer has stars in her eyes — or more technically, star-forming galaxies that existed outside the Milky Way up to 8.5 billion years ago.
An observational extragalactic astronomer, Voyer analyzes data from ground- and space-based telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope, to study galaxies far, far away.
The aim is to better understand how and why galaxies evolved from irregular “morphologies” or shapes when the universe was young, into the well-formed, universally recognizable ellipses and spiral pinwheels like the Milky Way.
Voyer is one of Catholic University’s newly minted doctors of physics. She earned a master’s in 2009 and her Ph.D. this spring.
Now the young astronomer is a researcher on the Physics of Galaxies team at the Laboratoire D’Astrophysics de Marseille, a public research institution which is part of France’s Center National de la Recherche Scientifique.
During her two-year assignment, Voyer will analyze star-forming galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, the nearest high-density concentration of highly varied galaxies located 16.5 megaparsecs away from the Milky Way.
In astronomical distances, one megaparsec is 1,000,000 parsecs. One parsec is 3.26 light years away. And one light year is how far light can travel its natural speed of 186,282 miles a second — almost six trillion miles.
By the time the light from stars within the distant galaxies of the Virgo Cluster reaches Voyer’s eyes at a telescope, she is seeing the galaxies as they were millions of years ago.
In her new job in France and alongside other astrophysical researchers, instrumentation specialists, and engineers, Voyer will study the “largest and deepest” set of data in the range of ultraviolet light ever obtained on the Virgo Cluster, she explains.
Voyer says she will probe how star-forming galaxies evolve in these cluster environments and then put this work in the context of what astronomers understand about the processes in the evolution of galaxies since the Big Bang.
To arrive at this work in the final frontier, the young astronomer has come a long way herself. At Sunday breakfasts as a child, Voyer eagerly grabbed the science section from her parents’ Boston Globe, and read about new discoveries by NASA and the missions to Jupiter and Mars.
That interest skyrocketed in school. “I was always excited to learn about the solar system and space in grade school when it came up in class,” says Voyer. She loved trips to the Boston Science Museum and IMAX shows on the astronaut program. And after hours, she read “a good deal” of science fiction.
In time, Voyer studied at Catholic University — which led to rare opportunities to observe astronomical phenomenon from world-class observatories affiliated with the Catholic Church.
Catholic University has a “very strong collaboration” with the Vatican Observatory, Voyer explains. In fact, the University is a member of the International Network of Catholic Astronomical Institutions, cofounded by physics department Chairman Steven Kraemer and Associate Professor Duilia DeMello, along with Rev. José Funes, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory, and others.
So in 2009, Voyer spent 10 nights observing from the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. She hunted for new regions of star formation between and around interacting starburst galaxies, also known as “Blue Blobs” for their bluish tint. Her work was part of an international project jointly headed by Professor DeMello and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.
While at Catholic University, Voyer also was able to secure a competitive graduate student research fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Greenbelt, Md.
Voyer worked with professional astronomers and post-doctoral researchers on a “daily basis,” which produced scientific collaborations she still maintains — as Voyer continues her star searches across space and time.
Hometown: Marblehead, Mass.
Degree: M.S. physics 2009 and Ph.D. physics 2011
Favorite class: Optics, taught by the late Charles “Chick” Montrose, professor of physics. “He was truly a wonderful and gifted teacher.”
Favorite sci-fi movie: “‘Metropolis.’ The really cool thing about it is how many sci-fi concepts it contains that were used as the basis of later sci-fi movies. It’s really quite impressive for a movie that was done in 1927!”
Would you like space travel? “I would love to travel in space someday! It was definitely a childhood dream of mine that has never disappeared.”
Best things about your job: “Being able to study really interesting and beautiful galaxies every day; the creativity I get to bring to my research, like developing my own computer code to help analyze data; and the opportunities to travel all over the world for scientific conferences and observing runs.”