Astronomer receives NSF award to study black hole evolution

December 17, 2009

Vanderbilt University Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kelly Holley-Bockelmann has been awarded the National Science Foundation's largest ever Faculty Early Career Development grant. She will use the prestigious award to continue her studies of black holes while supporting the university's innovative program designed to make the university the top producer of underrepresented minorities with Ph.D. in physics and astronomy.

Due to the availability of Recovery Act funds, Holley-Bockelmann received the largest Faculty Early Career Development grant that NSF has ever awarded in the field of astronomy. CAREER awards are considered NSF's most prestigious honor for junior faculty members. According to the National Science Foundation, CAREER awards support exceptionally promising college and university junior faculty who are committed to the integration of research and education and are likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

Holley-Bockelmann will use the award to address one of the fundamental mysteries that surrounds the supermassive black holes, exotic objects weighing in at millions to billions of solar masses that astronomers have found lurking at the core of most galaxies. For example, the black hole that has been detected at the core of our own Milky Way galaxy has a mass of about four million times that of the sun.

"We don't have a real, detailed understanding of how supermassive black holes grow. The first stars in galaxies began forming about 300 million years after the Big Bang and the first quasars show up about 700 million years later. Quasars are the enormously bright nucleus of a galaxy, and we think they're powered by the vigorous accretion of gas onto a supermassive black hole. What this means is that supermassive black holes must have evolved in a surprisingly short period - the question is how did they grow so big so fast?" Holley-Bockelmann says.

Understanding how supermassive black holes form is important because these objects have played a major role in the evolution of the universe. Specifically, they appear to have had a major impact on the development of galaxies such as affecting the rate at which they produce new stars.

Holley-Bockelmann will also use part of her grant to support the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program - a partnership with historically black Fisk University designed to encourage underrepresented minorities and women to pursue careers in physics and other sciences. She is following in the footsteps of Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Keivan Stassun, who received a CAREER Award in 2004 and used it to start the Bridge program.

In the last five years the program has proven exceptionally successful. It has attracted 31 underrepresented minority students with a retention rate of 97 percent and so is poised to become the nation's top source of Ph.D.s in physics and astronomy awarded to underrepresented minorities. In the last few months, the program has received $3.7 million from several federal programs to support and expand its efforts.

Holley-Bockelmann, who is an adjunct professor at Fisk, will hire two Bridge graduates to assist in her black hole studies. Her grant is also providing "time-release" for a Fisk instructor so he can finish up his doctoral degree. In addition, she is hiring an additional post-doctoral fellow to assist in her black holes studies and a graduate student to serve as a computational guru for the Bridge program. She will also teach a "computational boot camp" for entering graduate students and supervise a program using rocketry to train Fisk students pursuing high school teacher certification which will be field tested in local schools.

"As a first generation college student, and a woman astronomer, it's important for me to help students realize that they can be a scientist no matter where they come from or what they look like, as long as they love science enough to put in the hard work.," Holley-Bockelmann says.
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[Note: A multimedia version of this story is available on Exploration, Vanderbilt's online research magazine, at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/exploration/stories/blackholegrowth.html]

Vanderbilt University

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