CPP astronomy professor wins NSF research grant worth $650,000

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Matthew Povich, a Cal Poly Pomona astronomy faculty member, is getting $650,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, given to full time professors working towards tenure. This is one of six grants awarded nationally in the astronomy field, and the only one to be awarded to a primarily undergraduate university.

The NSF grant spans five years, and will sponsor a postdoctoral fellow to assist in research, teach and assist in other grant activities. These additions are comforting to CPP’s Physics and Astronomy Department, due to the grant’s financial stability and support.

The grant’s aims are to build a strong foundation of astronomy research activity at CPP, leverage an international community of over one million citizen scientists to power discoveries and build enthusiasm for astronomy, and establish Bring the Universe Into LA Districts.

Povich’s proposal includes building a new calibration and spatially resolved map of the present-day Galactic star formation rate.

“I like to say that star formation is the lifeblood of a galaxy, and the star formation rate is a galaxy’s pulse,” said Povich in an email correspondence.

“My CAREER project is focused on improving measurements of the star formation rate in our Milky Way Galaxy, so in a sense we’re trying to ‘take the pulse’ of the Milky Way.”

With the incorporation of citizen science, Povich’s groundbreaking Milky Way Project aims to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. Tens of thousands of volunteers have classified well over 50,000 images from the project website, www.milkywayproject.org.

“In the past what we did was have small teams of professional astronomers looking at very small blotches of the sky,” said Povich. “What we want to do now is use the Milky Way Project to look at the whole galaxy sort of unrestricted, which is much harder because the galaxy is very big.”

To date, the Milky Way Project has been used to catalog several thousand star-forming nebulae throughout a large fraction of the Milky Way Galaxy. Part of the CAREER grant goal is to do the rest of the Galaxy. However, before beginning CAREER grant research, Povich intends to first use the Milky Way Project to search for bow shocks in our galaxy.

I’m trying to get [new] data prepared,” said Povich.

This new project is funded by the stellar-wind bow shocks project, a $90,000, 3-year grant in collaboration with the University of Wyoming that began this year. Povich serves as the project’s Principal Investigator. This grant also funds one CPP undergrad per year to spend a few weeks in the summer in Wyoming helping out with the observations.

This year, the summer intern is third-year physics student Julian Andrews, who had done research with Povich in the past year. That research included research on stellar-wind bow shocks and the Milky Way Project.

In addition to the one intern CPP currently hosts under the stellar-wind bow shocks project, CAREER will fund two additional summer interns.

The CAREER grant also involves community outreach through BUILD, where undergraduate students will advertise and host six evening events per year, including public talks on astronomy-related research and career paths and night-sky viewing.

Offering the most prestigious awards, NSF declares its winners based on the professor’s exceptional research and excellent education, as well as the integration of education and research in the campus’ mission. Povich is the first CPP faculty member to receive this award in the university’s history.

“Postdoctoral fellows are actually very common in big universities like UCLA or UC Berkeley, but it’s unusual to have them in a Cal State campus,” said Steven McCauley, the department’s chair.

McCauley explains that the presence of a postdoctoral student is a sign of CPP’s growing maturity and its ability to support a variety of programs. NSF has been looking to see if the university has the infrastructure to support this type of work, he said.

“In the past they might have passed us over thinking, ‘Well we are just a teaching institution, and that’s all’, but I think our stature has gone up,” said McCauley.

One attractive asset CPP offers is the close involvement of students in faculty research.

“The faculty don’t go off in the quarter and work on research by themselves; they get students involved in the research, and I think that’s a very strong theme in Povich’s career proposal,” said McCauley.

College of Science Dean Brian Jersky said that Povich’s research is exciting to the country’s research community, and that this type of award helps determine how successful a university is.

“The success of the university depends on the success of its faculty, and this is an indication that we are able to attract very talented and successful faculty,” said Jersky. “That means they can work with our talented and successful students.”

Povich feels honored to receive such a significant grant.

“Most of [these grants] go to research universities,” said Povich. “To be able to win one of these for Cal Poly is just special to me.”

The NSF grant is evaluated in terms of intellectual merit and aims for a broader impact: the benefit to society of the research and related public outreach and education activities.