“We study astronomy to increase our knowledge of the Universe and our place in it, not [just] because it will help develop new technologies or inventions,” said Simon Schuler, an astronomy and physics professor at UT.
Schuler grew up in the small town of Hastings in Michigan. His lifelong interest in science led him to astronomy. The immensity of the subject and its connection to physics solidified his desire to pursue it.
He graduated from the University of Miami with a Bachelors in physics and went on to get a PhD in physics from Clemson University. After graduating he focused on studying the chemical composition of stars and how they form and evolve.
He was awarded a grant from NASA to observe stars that have small, Earth-size planets that have been discovered by the NASA’s Kepler Mission. The Kepler Mission is a program that focuses on the exploration of the structure and diversity of planetary systems, according to kepler.nasa.gov.
The program utilizes Kepler, a space telescope, that was created to look for planets around other stars in our galaxy, according to Schuler.
“By studying the compositions of stars with small planets, we are hoping to learn why small planets form around some stars but not others,” Schuler said.
Getting permission from observatories to use a telescope is a process. Twice a year, professional astronomers have the option to submit observing proposals to a committee.
In the proposal, astronomers have to explain what they intend to use the telescope for, how many nights they need to use it for and what kind of instruments they need to use.
“The time between proposal submission and actual observing can take up to six months or more. People generally do not get their requested time during every proposal cycle, so when you do, you want everything to go as smoothly as possible. If you don’t get any data, you may have to wait a whole year to try again,” Schuler said.
Some of the tools that he utilizes to conduct his research are the 10-m Keck telescopes in Hawaii which are located on the Big Island of Hawaii, the 8-m Gemini-South telescope in Chile and the 9.2-m Hobby Eberly Telescope in Texas.
The telescopes he has been able to use range from 0.9 m (3 ft) to 10 m (33 ft). He uses these large optical telescopes to get high-resolution spectroscopy of stars.
“Spectroscopy is the process of spreading out light by wavelength, so we can see individual components or colors (like a rainbow) of the light,” Schuler said. “The light from stars carry information about the elements (e.g., carbon, oxygen, titanium and iron, to name a few) in their atmospheres, and I interpret that information to learn about the compositions of the stars.”
Some of the questions that influence Schuler’s research are why planets form around some stars but not others, and whether planet formation affects star formation.
“The results of my research contribute directly to humans’ ever increasing understanding of nature and the Universe, and I do not take that lightly,” Schuler said. “At the same time, I believe it is every scientist’s duty to disseminate their knowledge to the rest of humanity, and so I take my responsibilities as a professor very seriously. I often tell my students about my research in hopes that it will inspire them to find something that they love to do and work hard to achieve their aspirations.”
Schuler collaborates with his students and frequently attends the annual American Astronomical Society, a society of professional astronomers and other individuals interested in astronomy.
Drake Williams and Zachary Vaz are Schuler’s protégés. They assist him in his research on the elemental chemical composition of distant stars.
When Vaz began working with Schuler, he was an undergraduate evolutionary biology major. He is now a UT alumnus and pursuing another BS in physics at USF.
“Doing this work with Dr. Schuler has forced me to better and more thoroughly understand the science composing this particular sub-field of astrophysics,” Vaz said.
Williams, a senior and psychology major, said that working with Schuler is an amazing experience because of his willingness to teach him the work, but the extensive science that goes along with it.
“He wants us to understand every step of the work and how it relates to the broader field of Astronomy, how it relates to all of science, and how it eventually relates to humanity as a whole,” Williams said. “He provides for an extremely supportive environment in which his main goal is for me and Zack, of course to learn, grow and better ourselves. I can’t speak highly enough about him.”
Zoe Fowler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org