As an undergraduate at UMass, Kevin Harrington ’16, used the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico to lead the discovery of a set of galaxies that are the most luminous objects yet discovered in the universe. Harrington is currently a PhD student at the International Max Planck Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Bonn, Germany. He recently visited UMass to continue ongoing work with his former professors and research collaborators, including Min Yun.
Tell me a little about your time here as an undergraduate.
I was involved with such a vast array of things. My first semester, I helped to establish a meditation group on campus, and I’m glad to see that it’s continuing. I also had a second major in psychology, specifically neuroscience, I taught a West African drum class, and I performed with the New Africa House Ensemble. Performing helped me stay grounded when things like quantum physics and organic chemistry were stretching and challenging me.
Whenever I get back to Amherst I tap into that energetic side of me and I somehow feel like I have to do everything at once! I can’t imagine how I was able to juggle so many things when I was here as an undergrad. I appreciate those opportunities, all the support I had, and the strong relationships formed here.
Can you walk us through the focus of your research?
The summer after my second year, I started doing research here on galaxy evolution, and that work carries through today to my PhD work, specifically looking at very active star-forming galaxies. My work is observational — I look at CO (carbon monoxide) as a tracer of the total gas supply that’s available to form stars.
The galaxies that I’m studying happen to be gravitationally lensed. That’s something that Einstein predicted, that mass can bend light. Say there’s a galaxy in the middle of our view to a more distant galaxy. As the light from the distant galaxy passes by, if we have a geometrical alignment, then that light will be distorted, appear bent, like the images seen at the bottom of a wine glass when it's placed in front of a candle. What that does is amplify things, magnify them like a microscope. Only with these sorts of galaxies that are lensed can you resolve really fine details in a very, very distant galaxy. So I take advantage of this to start to make out what the largest gas clouds are, the densities and temperatures and conditions for star formation. We’re characterizing the ingredients for these really active star-forming galaxies.
These galaxies are simply very bright, both in apparent brightness from lensing and the intrinsic brightness, and they are recently discovered. There’s only a few of these small samples, and so our group here developed a sample that we discovered over the past few years, starting when I was an undergrad. That received a lot of attention and since then we’ve been carrying on this work. My PhD project follows up on that discovery.
When I started, Professor Yun’s graduate student assisted me in getting up to speed with the context of this project and I could really hit the ground running and produce a publication even as an undergraduate. Thanks to them, I was able to leverage the expertise in the department. He treated me like a graduate student while I was an undergrad, so that made more of a seamless transition to becoming a graduate student.
Was there a particular course or experience that helped shape your direction?
I definitely found a niche in the realm of radio telescope observations with the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico. I was the first undergraduate to get to do observations on it during its early commissioning period. Getting that experience made me realize that’s what I like to do, and I learned that the name of the game is to write proposals for [observation time on] telescopes. Since then I’ve been to the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, and also to Granada, Spain — I’ve been there almost ten times in just the past couple of years.
If we figure out the magic ingredients for star formation, what kinds of impacts will that have?
Answering that question would drive grant proposals for years! So I can’t say I have the answer for that. But if we do understand star formation from the smallest scales to the largest scales across the largest expanse of time, we can begin to piece together a timeline of the evolution of galaxies, various different populations of galaxies, some of them like our own.
It’s part of the very human question: Where do we come from? That’s a part of any field within astronomy, it all goes into that big picture. I also studied neuroscience, and that’s also involved with formation and evolution, the ability of the universe to cascade into different physical scales. For example, on a large scale we see the structure of galaxies, clusters of cores of galaxies, along filaments — it’s similar to synapses and clusters of neurons in the brain. The galaxies that I study in particular in the early universe remind me of the brain formation that happens in a baby. A vast majority of the brain develops in the first couple of years of life, and a vast majority of the stars that we see locally today, after 14 billion years of evolution, all formed within a certain time period very early on.
What brings you back to UMass this time?
I’m coming back again for face to face visits to streamline the collaborations I’m still working on with Min Yun and other professors and grad students here. Having that face to face time is really productive to work through issues and come to consensus on scientific arguments we would want to make for proposals. In the time that I’ve been here I’ve been able to submit three different proposals for telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and in the French Alps. I’ll find out in a couple months if I’ve been successful in getting time on them.
How have things changed for you since your time here as an undergraduate?
The focus of all that energy is changing, and I have more of a sense of purpose. I’m working to establish credibility in my field, publishing papers, continuing to do research, and following up as much as I can with this project. There’s really years and years’ worth of followup work that I can forsee. I’m fortunate to have a place in a sub-field of astrophysics that’s really growing. Spending time on this visit with Professor Yun has helped confirm the next steps I want to take on my PhD track. He’s encouraging me, and I take that seriously.