Gina Chen Receives J. Michael McQuade Fellowship

An inspiring high school teacher helped Gina Chen gravitate toward physics. As a graduate student, she wants to share her passion for astrophysics with others.

"It’s cool to show people that physics is really interesting and not as scary as it sounds," said Chen, a Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon University’sá Department of Physics.

Chen uses complex simulations to create a dataset that shows how often black holes form in binary systems and in globular clusters. Binary black holes are two black holes that circle each other. In a binary system, two stars are gravitationally bound together, orbiting each other. In a globular cluster, tens of thousands of stars are bound together by gravity, with a high concentration of stars at the center.

Black holes typically form when a massive star dies, collapsing in on itself. Since the size of a star determines the size of a black hole - or if a black hole even forms - different types of star systems may affect the black hole or black holes that are formed.

Chen studies the two galaxy environments to determine how often binary black holes form and what the population of binary black holes looks like. She writes code for some of these large-scale models, and she runs her code and dataset through theá Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Katie Breivik , assistant professor of physics, advises Chen and said her work is exceptional.

"It’s an extremely broad project," Breivik said. "She’s doing a really great job of keeping a handle on this very broad set of astrophysics that all go in as pieces to this giant puzzle."

Chen said she hopes her dataset can be used by other cosmologists in their own research. It contains a realistic population of globular clusters that could have been formed, which would allow further research into these systems.

"I think that catalog can be used, not just for my research, but for lots of different projects," Chen said. "I’m already talking to a few other people that are interested in using that data. So, I think it’s very cool that something that I made specifically for one purpose can be used for lots of different things in the future."

Outside her research, Chen has served as a teaching assistant for multiple classes in the department.á

"I really enjoy explaining things to people because you can see the ’aha!’ moment when someone’s figured out something," Chen said. "It’s really nice to get people to that moment."

Over summer 2023, Chen taught introduction to astronomy, a course designed for nonmajors to learn more about astrophysics and cosmology. It was her first time creating materials and lesson plans for a class, and Chen found the experience rewarding.

"It’s definitely been really eye opening," Chen said. "It’s nice to be able to teach people who aren’t in astronomy."

Breivik said Chen’s passion for teaching is notable.

"Gina really wants to get into a classroom to teach and bring in active research," Breivik said. "She wants to share the kind of work that we do with everyone from high school students all the way to college students to the general public."

For her research efforts, Chen received the J. Michael McQuade Fellowship in Physics. After her Ph.D. is complete, she said she plans to become a professor and hopefully spread her excitement for the cosmos to the next generation of physicists through research and teaching.

"Because you can’t really see a black hole in person, it still feels kind of sci-fi to me," Chen said. "Being able to do this full time is really cool, and it’s really fun."

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