Two assistant professors in the Washington State University Department of Physics and Astronomy have been named Women of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.
The award was presented to Vivienne Baldassare and Anya Guy for their work contributing to the region through their professional endeavors, commitment to their community, and willingness to lead. The Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho spans 29 counties covering 65,000 square miles, serving over 3,000 girls.
Before joining WSU faculty in 2020, Baldassare was a NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Astronomy at Yale University, where she led the discovery of what was then the smallest known super black hole.
Guy implements research-based instructional practices in undergraduate physics at WSU. She completed resident studies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The bachelor of science in physics degree is among nine Washington State University bachelor’s-degree programs from five colleges recognized for outstanding assessment of student learning that helped guide changes to undergraduate curriculum or instruction.
The programs were announced Nov. 8 at the Fall 2022 Celebration of Assessment Excellence. Hosts of the event were the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President, the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement, and the Office of Assessment for Curriculum Effectiveness (ACE).
“Assessment of student learning is one of the ways we can fortify WSU’s strengths and position as a top research and land-grant university,” said Bill Davis, interim vice provost for academic engagement and student achievement. “It can provide vital evidence and data to guide programmatic evaluation and evolution to better meet the current and future needs of our students, our disciplines, and our state.”
Led by faculty assessment coordinator Michael Allen, the physics department examined students’ ability to think independently and critically in acquiring, reproducing, and assessing information from a variety of sources. It evaluated research poster presentations in the senior-thesis course and found that students need to improve communication of research information from various sources. Based on this, faculty introduced a new prerequisite course where students create a thesis proposal to better prepare them to present their research in the course.
An intermediate-mass black hole lurking undetected in a dwarf galaxy revealed itself to astronomers when it gobbled up an unlucky star that strayed too close. The shredding of the star, known as a “tidal disruption event” or TDE, produced a flare of radiation that briefly outshone the combined stellar light of the host dwarf galaxy and could help scientists better understand the relationships between black holes and galaxies.
The flare was captured by astronomers with the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE), a survey designed to detect cosmic explosions and transient astrophysical events. An international team led by scientists at UC Santa Cruz, the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and Washington State University reported the discovery in a paper published November 10 in Nature Astronomy.
This discovery has created widespread excitement because astronomers can use tidal disruption events not only to find more intermediate-mass black holes in quiet dwarf galaxies, but also to measure their masses.
“One of the biggest open questions in astronomy is currently how supermassive black holes form,” said coauthor Vivienne Baldassare, professor of physics and astronomy at WSU.
Scientists at WSU’s Institute for Shock Physics discovered something unexpected when they tested humankind’s most valuable metals to see how much pressure they could take.
It turns out platinum is the only precious metal that retains its atomic structure when subjected to the kind of pressure found at the center of planet Earth, holding up better than gold.
“No one really expected this. We thought that gold was stable forever, but it turns out it changes into a different related crystal structure under enough shock wave pressure,” said Yogendra Gupta, director of the Institute for Shock Physics at WSU. “So basically, if you want a material that will never change no matter what then store platinum.”
It’s this kind of intellectual curiosity and commitment to scientific discovery that has helped bring international acclaim to WSU’s Shock Physics research. And it demonstrates the unique capabilities of the Chicago-based Dynamic Compression Sector (DCS), a facility designed and built by WSU that enabled the experiments to be conducted.
An X‑ray beamline with a first-of-its-kind imaging source is being installed at Washington State University’s Dodgen Research Facility. The instrument, valued at over $1 million, will allow researchers to study a range of materials at nano- and atomic-scales. It’s also perhaps the only X‑ray beamline in the world to be housed in the same facility as a research nuclear reactor, facilitating the study of irradiated materials.
The 20-foot-long instrument sends a beam of light that can penetrate through a sample which then scatters the beam onto a detector. This allows scientists to see the material’s nanostructures and atomic features. WSU’s X‑ray beamline can analyze a wide array of organic and inorganic materials from plant leaves to irradiated heavy elements to nanoparticles used in smart medicine.
“It’s a very versatile instrument,” said Liane Moreau, a WSU assistant professor of chemistry. “It has some pretty unique capabilities. It’s the only one currently in the United States that has an imaging source. That allows us to take images and get data from a specific spot on a sample and correlate it to different spots and structures the sample might have.”
Unlike a high-powered microscope which requires dried samples, the X‑ray beamline can measure liquids and material dissolved in a solution. Researchers can also modify the environment, including changing temperature or humidity, or introducing a gas, and see how the material responds in real-time.
The machine can collect data on atomic and nanoscale structures of interest to a wide range of fields including biology, chemistry, engineering, medicine, and pharmaceutical sciences. The researchers encouraged other WSU faculty to explore how this instrument might help with their investigations.
“We are very open to working with people in different disciplines,” said Brian Collins, an associate professor of physics. “We have a team of faculty who are well versed in X‑ray techniques. We’ve worked with materials from the lightest down to the heaviest elements.”
Moreau, Collins, and chemistry Professor Jim Boncella helped secure the funding to bring the beamline to WSU, raising $850,000 from funds granted through the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust and university support. Xenocs, the company that makes the machine, also gave WSU a discount and provided the unique imaging source, valued at over $110,000, for free, in return for helping test its capabilities.