What is it like studying astronomy at LSU? For Katherine, it's like peering up at the sky to learn about some of the most mysterious stars in our universe, while also enjoying tabletop games and astronomy-inspired fashion in her spare time!
Welcome LSU 21' students! As we enter a new academic year, we are highlighting some of LSU's most outstanding current students, prospective students, alums, graduate students, faculty, researchers and staff here on The Pursuit! Hear from them what it's like to be a part of the LSU community, from studying abroad in Alaska, to starting a business after graduation, to conducting groundbreaking chemistry research.
Today we are featuring Katherine Nugent, an undergraduate student with an intriguing path into LSU's Physics & Astronomy program. This summer, Katherine helped develop comparison stars for Tabby's Star, a strange star named after LSU researcher Tabby Boyajian that displays odd dips in brightness that may be caused by dust formations. Boyajian's group may learn more about this mysterious star by comparing it's random light dips to other stars nearby.
LSU College of Science: What is your background? What inspired you to go into astronomy?
Katherine: It has a lot to do with how I grew up. My mom is a teacher, and she always facilitated my learning and increasing my knowledge base. I was always curious as a kid, about anything and everything, to the point where my parents would go crazy over how many questions I asked. But they would always do their best to provide me with answers. As I got older, this curiosity stuck with me and led me to want to do research, so I could learn more and spread that knowledge.
LSU College of Science: When did you first realize you liked astronomy?
Katherine: I've always loved astronomy. I can't remember a time when it wasn’t something I was passionate about. I once asked my mom if she remembered when I first started obsessing over the stars, and she responded that at three years old I wouldn't stop staring at the night sky – my parents used to have to fight me to go inside.
As I got older, I started to learn more about what space was and that all those stars in the sky have a story behind them. When I was nine years old, I decided that I wanted to be an astronomer. But as I got older, astronomy was never taught in any classroom setting. I began to feel like a career in astronomy was not tangible and that I should go into something more practical. I also felt like I just really wouldn't fit in as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In my senior year of high school, I took a psychology class and absolutely loved it, and so I decided to enter college as a psychology major.
LSU College of Science: You switched from psychology to physics in college. What made you make that choice?
Katherine: When I went to Spring Invitational, I learned that I had to schedule two physical sciences and two science labs as part of my major. I saw that ASTR 1101 and 1102 counted towards this requirement, and I decided to take the labs that went with the classes as well. After my freshman year, I was getting ready to enter my sophomore year as a psychology major. As the new year drew closer, I began to dread not having astronomy as a class anymore and never doing anything with astronomy ever again. And so, one week before classes started and in the midst of the 2016 floods, I switched my major to physics with a concentration in astronomy. This doesn't mean I love psychology any less, it just means I love astronomy more.
LSU College of Science: What does your typical day look like?
Katherine: It starts with me either going to class or going to physical therapy (I have a back injury). I go into work at Dr. Tabby Boyajian's office. After school and research, I sometimes head to the mall for my retail job. Between classes and after work is when I'll get my homework done. Over the summer, I pretty much went to Dr. Boyajian's office, went to my retail job, and spent some time with family back in Kenner, Louisiana.
LSU College of Science: What did you do this summer? Any fun internship experiences, research or trips?
Katherine: Working for Dr. Boyajian this summer was an awesome experience. It definitely taught me a lot about [astronomical] observation and how different filters and camera settings can impact your data and how usable it then is.
LSU College of science: What is your favorite thing you've worked on or studied as a physics/astronomy student at LSU?
Katherine: My favorite thing I've worked on would of course be KIC 8462852, or Boyajian's Star. [Tabby’s Star, or “the most mysterious star in the universe, was first observed by citizen scientists. It displays odd and random dips in brightness over time that have yet to be fully explained. Learn more about Tabby’s Star here.]
But if I had to pick a favorite class it would actually have to be Dr. Dana Browne's physics labs. I really enjoyed the hands-on experience the labs provided, and I definitely feel like I learned a lot from the labs. I don't think there's any better way to learn than to really be doing it, and both the labs and my undergraduate research job have been teaching me a lot of valuable lessons.
LSU College of Science: Can you tell us a bit more about the undergraduate research project you presented at the Summer Undergraduate Research Forum (SURF) the summer? What is it like to conduct research as an undergraduate student? Is it different than you thought it would be?
Katherine: I would describe my job over this past summer as a sort of quality control on the data around Boyajian's Star. I helped make sure that the data we collected about stars that we wanted to compare Boyajian's Star wasn't saturated, or that we didn't pick stars with hot pixels in the apertures or stars that were variable, etc., so that we had the most accurate data. I helped ensure that the stars we chose were the best comparison stars to use for further research on KIC 8462852. It was a lot of fun; I got to know a few professors and graduate students who have proven to be great mentors. They have helped teach me things that you don't always get to know in the classroom, and I'm extremely grateful for this experience.
As far as it being different from what I was expecting, I honestly don't even know what I was expecting. It was bit more laid back than I thought, and I quickly realized that I didn't have to stress about every single thing, but that's about it.
LSU College of Science: What's one fun/interesting/quirky thing about you? What are your hobbies?
Katherine: I love tabletop games. I wasn't in on the tabletop scene until I was in college. I met a lot of cool people through this random club I stumbled upon and it has gotten me extremely interested in strategy and party games. I'm now the Outreach Officer of the club. For those who want to know, it's Tabletop Games Club (what used to be Strategic Games Club).
LSU College of Science: What's the craziest, strangest or most dangerous thing you've done "for science"?
Katherine: I'm kind of a big wuss. I hate danger. I guess you could count this one time some friends and I bought liquid nitrogen online then tried to make Coke slushies with it. A friend of mine put some on his hand and now has a permanent white spot on it.
Then, a few friends and I drove all the way to Tennessee to see the total solar eclipse on August 21. We went to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. We watched the eclipse from the giraffe and rhino enclosures. The animals freaked out and ran around during totality, but I don't know if that's because the sky got dark or because people were cheering so loudly. I bought a wooden giraffe to commemorate the experience. We named him Jared - Jerry to his friends. After the eclipse, I was walking to the food area. On the way to the food area, I passed the meerkat enclosure. Meerkats are nocturnal and send a scout out during the day to make sure the area is safe. I guess the scout was out during totality because when I passed he was just sitting there looking up at the sky, not moving. He seemed very confused.
LSU College of Science: What do you love most about physics/astronomy? What excites you most about doing science on a regular basis? What challenges do you face?
Katherine: I just love learning something new. Learning is my favorite thing in the world, and that honestly excites me more than anything. As far as challenges, I find it hard to maintain the same type of social life that I had as a psychology major. Physics definitely entails a lot more work than psychology did, and that sometimes means you have to choose between your social life and your work. But if you surround yourself with the right people, this won't be a problem for you.
LSU College of Science: Can you tell us a bit more about your ongoing undergraduate research? Can you tell us about a surprising or particularly interesting scientific finding?
Katherine: Based on my research over the summer, one of the variable stars we identified when looking for usable comparison stars for KIC 8462852 has a really intriguing pattern I would like to study more. I plan on seeing if I can do anything with it for my ASTR 4261 class.
LSU College of Science: What advice do you have for high school or first-year students interested in physics/astronomy at LSU?
Katherine: It's not impossible. It might feel like it's the type of major that's only for other, smarter people, but you can do it too. I never thought I'd be where I am today so quickly. I wasn't the perfect student in high school, and I'm not the perfect student now. You just have to work hard and find something you're passionate about. Try and get on some research, the sooner the better. The professors know you're new; they'll guide you through the work until you can do it on your own.
LSU College of Science: What do you wish you'd known or done differently as a freshman at LSU?
Katherine: I'd like to answer this question saying that I wish I had entered as a physics major, and a lot of times I definitely wish I had, but the experience I gained from my first year was definitely valuable. I also learned that sometimes it's okay to change your mind, even if it's about a really big thing. I learned a lot about psychology, formed some really strong friendships, and ended up still going into a career path I'm passionate about.
LSU College of Science: What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Katherine: I love teaching, but I also want to do research, so I hope to one day to work as a professor and researcher at a university. In five years I see myself still in graduate school or about to finish and working on my career as an astrophysicist.
Learn more about astronomy at LSU here.