Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Willamette grant allows Dylan Angell to pursue his passion for space

Willamette students participated in a wide array of internships and research projects this summer. This story is one of several in the works to highlight their experiences.

As a kid, Dylan Angell ’14 gazed up at the stars and dreamed — of learning more about what he saw, of someday working for the space program, of becoming one of the lucky few to travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

While he’s still a long way from becoming an aerospace engineer or an astronaut, the Willamette University undergraduate is already contributing to his future field, thanks to opportunities he never imagined as he stared at those twinkling dots in the sky.

This summer, a Willamette research grant allowed him to study a star that no other scientist has examined in 15 years. He’s using a camera mounted on a telescope — located at Willamette’s research forest — to collect data that could provide greater insight into why stars pulsate in different ways.

“When you’re sitting in a physics class, the professor tells you what we already know and the results,” Angell says. “Even in lab courses, you’re often given an experiment where you know the answer before you start.

“The coolest thing about my research project is that I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m seeing and finding out things that no one else out there knows.”

Examining the Stars

Angell came to Willamette from Everett, Wash., thinking he wanted to pursue the university’s 3-2 engineering program. But he found himself drawn more to the physics side of engineering, and chose to major in that instead.

“I like understanding how things work, and physics shows you really cool things about the world around you,” he says.

After space, Angell’s other major interest is much closer to Earth. He declared a second major in archaeology, a choice that took him to Athens, Greece, for a semester of study; and to two archaeological digs, one in Bulgaria and the other in Scotland.

In physics, he developed a mentor in Professor Rick Watkins, who specializes in astrophysics and cosmology.

Several years ago, a donation from Willamette graduate Rick Baumann ’70 allowed Watkins to install an observatory at Willamette’s Zena Forest. He and his students have been using the 11-inch telescope to study variable stars.

“When you play a musical instrument, it vibrates at several frequencies. The note that you hear is called the fundamental, but you’re also hearing the harmonics of that fundamental,” Watkins says. “You would expect pulsating stars to pulsate in all the modes that they have, the fundamental and the harmonics. But most stars only pulsate in one or two modes.

“We only know about five stars in the galaxy that pulsate in three modes. Dylan is studying one of those. We’re trying to understand why there are so few triple-mode pulsators, and what makes these stars different from those that pulsate in one or two modes.”

Skills for the Future

Angell’s examination of that triple-mode pulsator, V829 Aquila, was funded by a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant and an additional donation from Baumann.

The last time this star was examined was 1998. It was part of a larger study of many stars, and those researchers only took one picture of V829 Aquila a day.

But using the observatory at Zena, Angell is taking 200 images of the star during each of the two dozen nights he plans to photograph. By having so many more images, he can better track how the star’s brightness fluctuates in the course of a night — and hopefully draw more specific conclusions about why it acts as it does.

Watkins says the project gave Angell a good introduction to research techniques that he will use again in the future.

“This work lets him apply what he’s been learning in the classroom to the research environment,” he says.

Angell plans to study astrophysics in grad school after Willamette — and continue pursuing that dream he first imagined when he was young.

“I feel lucky to have gotten to do this research project because it’s new and it follows my passion for stars and space, and that’s really exciting.”

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Carson Grants

Carson Undergraduate Research Grants provide up to $3,000 for students to undertake summer independent scholarly, creative or professional research projects in any academic field.

The 13 students who earned grants this summer have projects ranging from examining feminist student activism in Egypt, to studying a software program that “improvises” jazz music, to writing a play about Robert and Clara Schumann.