For billions of years, there have been stars.

And all but a tenth of the fuel that creates them is nowhere to be found. These two facts make for an uneasy coexistence, creating an effect without a visible cause.

Stars have formed at a rate so much greater than the observed quantity of gas such as hydrogen and helium in galaxies. Logically, stars should have stopped coming into being by now. But there is fuel to form the stars that keep turning up in the night sky. You just have to find it.

D.J. Pisano wants to make the invisible visible.

Pisano’s observations of even one portion of a galaxy can take hundreds of hours of work on a radio telescope. It’s painstaking work that involves studying subtle changes in wavelength patterns on a far-away star and disregarding the incredibly bright patterns of interference caused by nearby cell phones.

The West Virginia University assistant professor of physics and astronomy has designed a clear and simple test to help solve the case of the missing matter.

His work is so persuasive that the National Science Foundation has awarded him five years of funding through the prestigious CAREER award, designed to help young faculty on their way toward bright careers and tenure.

Pisano is the 15th WVU faculty member to receive the award and has garnered the most funds of any CAREER award recipient at the institution at nearly $800,000. His award also gives the Department of Physics the highest number of faculty honored at WVU with this award.

Even good ideas get rejected in the competition, so only the best and most persuasive can be selected, about one-tenth of the total. Pisano is one of an estimated 600 researchers a year to receive this particular stamp of approval.

The award is good news for Pisano, a tenure-track assistant professor who did post-doctoral work at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. But it’s also good news for WVU. It makes a statement to prospective faculty and students.

WVU’s CAREER Award recipients

D.J. Pisano, physics (2012)
David Graham, electrical engineering (2012)
David Klinke, chemical engineering (2011)
Justin Legleiter, chemistry (2011)
Paul Cassak, physics (2010)
Feruz Ganikhanov, physics (2010)
Xiaodong Michael Shi, chemistry (2009)
Daryl Reynolds, electrical engineering (2008)
Sergei Urazhdin, physics (2008)
Arun Ross, biometrics (2007)
Katerina Goseva-Popstojanova, computer science (2005)
Lisa Holland, chemistry (2002)
Bojan Cukic, biometrics (2001)
David Lederman, physics (1998)
Debra Mohler, chemistry (1997)

“It tells people that when they come here that they’re going to be competitive for these types of things, and so I think it helps WVU on the whole as well,” Pisano said.

He was particularly indebted to the university’s early seed money that put his research in motion and the assistance from colleagues and staff in writing the grant.

“The department and the university are both very supportive of young faculty in making sure we get our feet under us, both in terms of preparing us to be in a classroom but also supporting people’s early research so they can get grants like this,” he said.

In this research project he’ll continue the pursuit he began in graduate school of searching for gas that travels into galaxies to power their continued growth. He and his graduate and undergraduate students will be searching for cold filaments of gas, which aren’t really very cold at 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Theory predicts that they can be found around lower mass, isolated galaxies.

His survey of galaxies could tell scientists where the most promising possible gas sources could be. His more specific work could pinpoint the existence of the elusive star fuel.

But in doing so, Pisano isn’t just working to solve one problem. He’s working to put science in the hands of everyone, even middle school students.

Half of the grant’s focus is on the development of a project that will teach local middle school students about the electromagnetic spectrum and have them adopt a galaxy to study through remote access to a small radio telescope in Green Bank and optical telescopes across the world. The electromagnetic spectrum includes radio, infrared, light and x-ray sources, among others.

Schools across the country and the world could later use this curriculum.

“Astronomy is a great gateway to getting people interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields,” he said. “It’s not that the world needs tons of new astronomers, but it definitely needs people who are scientifically literate. Even if they don’t go into science fields, being able to understand science is critical for being a good citizen let alone for making contributions to society.

“It would be too much to ask one activity to inspire an entire class to pursue STEM careers, but if we can inspire even a few people that would be fantastic,” Pisano said.

This project ties in well with that of his colleagues, Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer. These two physicists run the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a program that engages high school students across the country in looking for pulsars, the remains of exploded supernovae.

“All the educational research out there shows that if you learn science hands-on, first off it’s a better way to learn it; you tend to retain more,” Pisano said. “But also it works better for a more diverse audience.”

It should work. It was Pisano’s turn at a telescope pointed at the starry western sky when he was 6 that led him to his present career. He followed Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” TV series from a young age and visited planetariums often.

But a trip to Dinosaur National Monument where a telescope enthusiast offered views of the sun and other stars made the difference.

“I was pretty much hooked,” Pisano said. “And I was fortunate when I actually started doing it in college. I was like ‘Wow, I actually like not just looking at the stars, but the research is actually kind of fun, too.’”

Aptitude and passion have led him to this research and outreach. But the project propels him forward as well. If all goes according to plan, he will observe at the MeerKAT array that is currently under construction in South Africa, projected to be one of the largest and most sensitive telescope systems in the southern hemisphere.

And it’s still fun.

“Being able to discover something, seeing something that people haven’t seen before is really quite exciting,” he said.


By Diana Mazzella
University Relations/News

CONTACT: University Relations/News

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