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Three Postdocs continue research at NRAO

The NRAO in Green Bank has three new Postdocs conducting research, from left: Nichol Cunningham, Natalia Lewandowska and Jennifer Weston. Photo courtesy of Tracy Samples
The NRAO in Green Bank has three new Postdocs conducting research, from left: Nichol Cunningham, Natalia Lewandowska and Jennifer Weston. Photo courtesy of Tracy Samples

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

After completing their PhDs, three young ladies – Jennifer Weston, Natalia Lewand-owska and Nichol Cunningham – began the next chapter in their research as Postdocs at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.

The three sent applications to several locations and all found themselves in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone where they will spend the next two-to-three years.

Although they have a love of astronomy in common, they each entered the field for different reasons and are studying one aspect of a vast universe.

Weston knew from a young age she liked math and science – a trait she got from her father – but it wasn’t until college that she developed an interest in astronomy.

“My dad was a high school physics and chemistry teacher,” she said. “My mom was world history and French. I guess I took after my dad more in my interests. When I went to college, I wanted to be a math major because I really liked math – it was my favorite class – but physics was my second favorite. I was thinking math major, physics minor. When I started taking classes in college, they were a lot more in depth. The physics classes really excited me I guess, so I ended up doing math and physics, double major.”

Of the areas of physics, astronomy drew Weston in and she chose the field for her doctorate.

“I ended up doing two years of independent research in college with one of the professors and really enjoyed that,” she said. “It was radio [astronomy], although that is not what I ended up doing. It was look at AGN [active galactic nucleus] and not stars. I decided I liked stars a lot more in grad school when I was shopping around for projects.”

Unlike Weston, Lewand-owska and Cunningham both knew from an early age that they wanted to study the stars.

Lewandowska, who grew up in Poland and Germany, began to ask questions about the universe after watching a documentary about the solar system. It wasn’t long before she had her own telescope, making her own observations.

“I was I think five,” she said. “After this documentary, my mom told me I started to ask very nasty questions about everything regarding the ‘so called’ universe. This was the first moment when I had a spark of interest. Then, when I was nine, I started to buy some books for kids about astronomy and telescopes, and then I realized there are different kinds of telescopes, and I wanted one.”

At 11, Lewandowska received her first telescope for Christmas and spent most of her time in the yard, looking up into the sky.

“This was great because we had a big garden at the time, and so I think I was more outside than inside after that,” she said. “I explored Mars, Jupiter, Venus. I didn’t have a camera at the time so I learned how to make sketches of the planets.”

By 14, Lewandowska pushed the telescope to its limits and after saving for three-and-a-half years, she purchased a new telescope which she still has 16 years later.

Cunningham was also a young night sky gazer and continued her fascination into her career.

“I remember always having had a fascination with the night sky and astronomy,” she said. “I think this was sparked at a very young age by my father who was always watching documentaries about space and the universe. I remember looking up at the stars and wondering where they came from and thinking how amazing it would be to become an astronomer.”

Each postdoc chose a specific type of star or field in astronomy for their PhDs and, for the most part, they are continuing that research at the NRAO.

“I did my thesis work on radio observations of symbiotic stars, and I wanted to keep working in astronomy,” Weston said. “Right now I’m kind of finishing up a lot of stuff that I was doing with my thesis work. I’m also starting to look at new projects in the same field that I could use the GBT [Green Bank Telescope] for because since I’m here, I really should use this great instrument.”

Lewandowska focused on the crab pulsar for her PhD thesis, and she is continuing research on pulsars as a whole to try to understand more about how they are created and how they survive in space.

“The crab is a so called ordinary pulsar which means – there are faster pulsars – the fastest one we know currently has a frequency of 761 hertz which is quite fast,” she said. “It spins like 761 times per second. The crab has a frequency of thirty hertz approximately thirty times per second. We see the pulses from the star when we observe it.”

Lewandowska was drawn to pulsars because astronomers have researched them for more than 50 years and still have not answered all the questions regarding their emissions and function.

“We have ideas, but we have no proof how the radio emission, for instance, is generated in the case of these stars,” she said. “I’m trying to understand the emissions from the pulses of these stars to see how they can actually produce the emission we see because we don’t know. They are corpses. They are the remnants of a supernova explosion, basically when a star just collapses into its core.”

The research collected on pulsars continues to raise questions for Lewandowska who hopes to make head way in the search for answers.

“Pulsars have a very huge magnetic field and we don’t know how they are built up in the end,” she said. “They spin around their own axis all the time. They are more stable than atomic clocks, so they are even used for navigation of satellites because of their very constant emission. I became fascinated.

“I’m pretty much aware that some of the studies can exceed a lifetime, sometimes,” she continued. “There have been many people who are very famous now in our pulsar books who studied this kind of emission from pulsars and some of the answers they were searching for, they found in the end, but some of them they did not find. You need to be aware of those, that some answers may not be given in your lifetime. This makes it very adventurous.”

When Cunningham chose her field, she decided to go big, massive to be exact.

“My PhD focused on the study of massive stars,” she said. “How they are born and form. While we have a pretty good understanding of how stars, like our sun, form, we still don’t fully understand how massive stars, which are ten times more massive than our sun, actually form. Massive stars end their life cycle as either a supernova or a black hole and these events can greatly affect the galactic environment, so understanding their life cycle from birth to death is really important.”

Cunningham is using the GBT to observe masers to learn more about the birth sites of massive stars.

“A maser is very similar to a laster but it emits in the microwave regime instead of the visible light regime,” she said. “I’m observing masers toward regions forming massive stars. My goal is to probe their properties and environments to gain more information about the birth sites of massive stars. A main part of my research is to detect analogies/differences between massive stars and stars similar to our Sun.”

Along with adjusting to the newest chapter of their research lives, they have also had to adjust to a unique part of life in Green Bank – life without cellphones, Wifi and other devices which cause interference to the telescopes.

It was a surprisingly easy transition.

“I like cellphones, but I can also live without them, so it’s not like a crucial thing for survival,” Lewondowska said.

“I miss my microwave more than I miss my cellphone,” Weston interjects.

“Yeah, right,” Lewondowska agreed. “I had an apartment in the past which had a microwave but not an oven, so right now, I’m very pro-oven. When you move here you need to get used to the fact that you can’t use several devices for an amount of time, but usually this is just like a switch in your head that ‘okay, I’m fine with that for a certain time.'”

Cunningham was surprised how easy it was for her to transition to a less connected life in Green Bank.

“The transition to life without mobile phones or Wifi was a lot easier than I was expecting,” she said. “It was actually quite nice to not have a mobile.”

Lewondowska, who observed on the Eiffelsberg Radio Telescope in Germany, said she was amazed that the facility in Green Bank was able to have radio silence.

“I was amazed that something like this can exist because usually when you go to a radio facility and you talk to the people who work there, you hear from them about radio frequency interference, or RFI as we call it, and it annoys observers because it’s in their data. They spend hours to weeks to get it out of the data.

“I had the same issue with my data,” she continued. “I spent weeks cutting out the RFI emission out of my data because it just smeared out the results in the end. So when I heard about this region here around the Green Bank Radio Telescope, I was kind of like, ‘wow, this is great.'”

While it will be several years before they need to look for a permanent job, they all are pleased to begin their careers with Postdoc positions in Green Bank.

Weston grew up in Maryland and was familiar with West Virginia, so she was happy to observe close to home.

For Lewondowska and Cunningham, who is from England, it was more of a leap, but they feel right at home thanks to their co-workers and the community.

“I’m obviously not American, but it was a very warm welcome which I received, and I enjoy this very much,” Lewondowska said. “Whenever I have an idea about scientific context, then I can speak with people about it and they are open. They ask questions. It’s a very stimulating environment for work.”

“I love the trails,” Cunningham said of Green Bank. “It is a very beautiful and unique area. I don’t think Green Bank is for everyone, but I am very much enjoying my time here.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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