Spence News

NYU Astrophysicist Shares Her Research with Middle School Students, Faculty

According to Dr. Maryam Modjaz, not only are supernovae the most powerful explosions in the universe, they are also vital for life in this galaxy.
On Tuesday, October 26, 2016, Dr. Modjaz, an acclaimed astrophysicist and assistant professor in astrophysics at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics of the NYU Physics Department, presented portions of her research on stellar explosions to an assembly of extremely engaged and curious Middle School students and faculty in the Spence Theatre.
Throughout her research, Dr. Modjaz has focused on supernovae and gamma-ray bursts and the many fascinating elements they each create. For example, she explained to students that these explosions leave behind extreme objects in their wake, while also expelling many of the elements found in the periodic table.   
For Lyla C., Grade 8, one interesting fact she learned from the presentation regarded how the elements ejected from supernovae explosions eventually make up future stars, planets and other celestial bodies. 
“I have always been interested in becoming an astrophysicist, and the presentation helped reinforce that interest,” she said.
And while a gamma-ray burst near planet Earth would result in fatal consequences such as climate change and mass extinction, Dr. Modjaz assured attendees that her research shows Earth is safe from such explosions, which prefer low-metallicity and dense habitats, unlike our Milky Way.
She also reinforced to students that anyone with access to a telescope is able to hunt for supernovae, including amateur astronomers.
“The youngest person to discover a supernova was only 14, and you don't have to be an astrophysicist to discover supernovae. So anyone could do it!” said Maren L., Grade 7. “I thought it was so cool that supernovae and GMBs are vital to the Earth yet extremely dangerous if they come [too] close.”
After fielding several questions from the sea of student hands in the air throughout the presentation, including what effect technology will have on astrophysics, where the universe is expanding, how stars are born and more, Dr. Modjaz also personally visited with two Grade 8 Earth Science classes. 
“I’ve never seen so many hands raised for questions after an assembly. And lots of girls stayed after to ask Dr. Modjaz questions and left with many more unanswered. Unanswered questions are great! They are an engine for learning,” said Eric Zahler, director of teaching and learning.
Dr. Modjaz’s visit marked the first presentation reflecting Spence’s new partnership with NYU, which promotes a heightened interest in science for young girls. 
Zahler, who was central in launching this initiative with NYU, explained that Dr. Modjaz represents a very compelling model of what it looks like to be a woman in science.
“She debunks stereotypes about women in science by explaining how in many astronomy departments, nearly 50 percent of majors are women,” he said. “This initiative is all about generating experiences so that girls can truly see themselves as scientists. Given the importance of identity development during adolescence, we are targeting the Middle School years in particular.”
A K-12 independent school in New York city, The Spence School prepares a diverse community of girls and young women for the demands of academic excellence and responsible citizenship.


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