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Astrophysics Major Sets Sights High During ‘Golden Age’ of Discovery

A Q&A with senior Davin Flateau, senior astrophysics major and UC's November Undergraduate Research Student of the Month.

Date: 11/23/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Dama Ewbank
Phone: (513) 558-4519

UC ingot   The University of Cincinnati's Undergraduate Research Council has announced the November recipient of the Undergraduate Research Student of the Month award. Check out the Q&A with senior astrophysics major Davin Flateau.

Davin Flateau
Senior, Astrophysics
Under the direction of faculty mentors Margaret Hanson, PhD, and Mike Sitko, PhD

Davin Flateau
Davin Flateau

What undergraduate research project are you working on?
I’m working on refitting the University of Cincinnati’s astronomical observatory—located on the roof of Braunstein Hall—to detect planets around other suns. Around 500 planets have been detected orbiting around other stars. Many are giant Jupiter-sized or larger planets that are very close to their sun—much closer than Mercury is to our sun. Some of these planets are aligned with Earth in such a way that they pass in front of their sun, eclipsing the light from their sun slightly. This periodic change in the star’s brightness can be measured with an electronic camera attached to a telescope. UC’s observatory is equipped with a 14-inch diameter telescope with a sensitive CCD camera. We’ll be measuring the brightness variations of several known stars with planets by tracking them through several nights, and using the observed light curves to determine the planets’ size, mass, orbital period and other properties.

Why did you opt to do undergraduate research?
After a career as a planetarium director for many years, creating Imax-sized digital astronomy films, I decided that the amazing discoveries in astronomy and space science were too exciting. I decided to go back to school to pursue a career in astronomical research. Astronomy is going through a “golden age” of discovery, where incredible new discoveries are being made every day.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned?
If research teaches you anything, it’s patience. You can always plan on things not going as planned.  Spending time anticipating what problems might come up before you start—and devising workarounds—can really help in progressing through the experiment. Also, take the time you think it will take to do an experiment, quadruple it, and then you’re only going to be off by half or so. In the end, the final product will be worth it: your own creative contribution to helping solve a scientific mystery!

What advice would you give to other undergraduates thinking about getting involved in research?
Talk to your professors about research opportunities in your department, and start doing research as soon as you can. Also, check the listing of summer research opportunities at other universities throughout the country that are offered each year by the National Science Foundation. You’ll get to visit great places over the summer, meet new people and really hone your research skills.

What’s next?
After graduating in June, it looks like my wife, my new baby and I will be moving to Tucson, Ariz., the hub of a lot of astronomical research and the home of the University of Arizona.