Peering into Black Holes: examining X-ray data from satellites

Dennis Gallant & Sophia Waddell, 2017 Summer Research Award recipients

Supervisor: Dr. Luigi Gallo, Department of Astronomy & Physics

 Dennis Gallant, astrophysics student

Dennis Gallant, astrophysics student

Dennis Gallant says he became interested in Astrophysics as a child the way a lot of people do: he loved looking at pretty pictures of space. Luckily he also loves math, because that’s “what you do all day” as a fourth-year student completing a BSc Honours thesis.

 Sophia Wadell, astrophysics student

Sophia Wadell, astrophysics student

Sophia Waddell, a President's Scholarship and Dean’s List award recipient, was first introduced to astrophysics in the International Baccalaureate program in high school. She is in her second year at Saint Mary’s University and loves math and physics. She is thrilled to be studying with astrophysicist Dr. Luigi Gallo.

 

Learning Through Research

Last summer, Gallant and Waddell both worked on projects studying central engines of galaxies that outshine all the stars in the galaxy called active galactic nuclei (AGN), which are powered by supermassive black holes. They examined and modelled X-ray data from multiple satellites to learn more about the structure and mechanisms.

“I think the student gets an entirely new perspective of academia; they are working on a problem that no one has before,” says supervisor Dr. Luigi Gallo. “They cannot Google the answer or check the back of the book or ask the professor if the solution is correct, they have to figure out ways to test their solution.”

When asked about the practical side of studying black holes—not the most accessible topic—Gallant says that “you never know what will be useful.” He adds that computing science, data analysis, and techniques from fields such as statistics, medicine, and neuroscience can be applied to astronomy. To illustrate the point, Waddell points out that technology developed for NASA is now used in prosthetics.

“Research introduces students to problem solving they can't really learn in the class room,” says Dr. Gallo. “Sometimes they come across some neat stuff that I wasn't expecting or that throws me for a loop. Those are the best moments.”

 

Future plans

Both Gallant and Waddell say that a degree in Astrophysics teaches them numeracy, programming, and problem solving, and that critical thinking skills is a key takeaway which will serve them well in future endeavours. They are both thrilled to be doing research as undergraduate students and say that the access to one-on-one interaction with faculty was a big consideration when deciding to study at Saint Mary’s. 

Once he finishes his honours thesis, Gallant plans to pursue his Master's degree. As an undergraduate, he has been the recipient of the Nova Scotia Power award and the Duncan W Lynch scholarship, as well as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Undergraduate Research Student Award funding that made his summer research possible.

Waddell is also planning to pursue graduate studies. Joking that she’s too squeamish for medicine, she says this is her way to become a doctor.