From space camp to quasars: student pursues origins of universe

Ashley Disbrow has applied her passion for astronomy and cosmology to her undergraduate research in the physics department. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Ashley Disbrow has applied her passion for astronomy and cosmology to her undergraduate research in the physics department. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

Last week, after finishing her quantum physics exam, Ashley Disbrow moved on to her next task of the day: working towards a better understanding of stars, galaxies, and the origins of the universe.

Disbrow, a sophomore in the physics department, is currently working on a project analyzing redshift distributions of quasars in the universe from data collected at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M. In other words, she is determining the positions of thousands of luminous, highly energetic galaxies relative to each other.

A better understanding of this kind of data can help scientists draw more concise conclusions about the origins of the universe. Disbrow’s work is supervised by Shirley Ho, an assistant professor of physics.

Disbrow is passionate about physics and cosmology, and explained that the continuous explorations in these fields have come to define part of who she is today.

“I’ve always had hobbies in astronomy through middle and high school,” Disbrow said. “I wanted to pursue that as a major.... I thought that would be a great thing to do for my job in the future.”

She recalled her time as an eighth grader running through mission simulations at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. She pointed out that after the experience, she decided she “wanted to be an astronaut.” This interest ultimately led to Disbrow’s current position as an undergraduate majoring in and researching physics at Carnegie Mellon.

So what does a typical day in the field look like for this researcher?

“When I ‘go to work,’ I normally just log off my Windows partition and pull up Linux,” Disbrow said. “I open a terminal and I type. There’s a lot of programming involved, especially in IDL, which is the programming language I’ve been using.”

IDL, or Interactive Data Language, is a data analysis programming language used often in the astronomy and cosmology fields. While picking up the language was initially a difficult task for Disbrow, constant development in this environment helped her learn the ropes.

“A lot of the data that I produce goes into the algorithms written by the post-docs that I’m working with,” Disbrow said. “They’ll sort of include it in the simulations or the models that they’re making. Plus they helped me program in IDL, so that was good.”

In addition to the Carnegie Mellon physicists she collaborates with, Disbrow also gets constant exposure to the larger scientific body around the field of physics.

“I’ve gotten to meet a lot of really interesting people through this research,” Disbrow said. “The Cosmology Department has weekly seminars all planned out between Carnegie Mellon and [the University of Pittsburgh]. They’ll fly someone in from out of town [to speak]. So I’ve gotten to meet some cool people involved in physics from different universities around the country.”

Excluding research, Disbrow is taking 41 units of classes this semester and explained that balancing classes with her research is no easy task.
“It can be a struggle,” she said. “I think that the best way to tackle it is to manage your time really efficiently.”

Aside from her research and academic schedule, Disbrow is also involved in multiple other extracurricular activities. She is on the Carnegie Mellon water polo team, and just recently picked up an interesting hobby.

“I’ve taken up gliding as a sport this past summer,” Disbrow said. “It’s a lot of fun.”