Linda Vu ’19’s life took an exciting turn the moment she started looking up. “I have the keys to the telescope,” she says, patting her pocket on a walk toward the Science Center. Vu studies the stars at Swarthmore using state-of-the-art equipment in the van de Kamp Observatory. The key-holding responsibility is daunting, but under the guidance of astronomy professor David Cohen, Vu’s getting more comfortable with it. As a child in Washington, D.C., stargazing was limited—light pollution hid the stars.
“Where I live,” she says, “the night sky is the color of red wine.”
Vu had planned to be a writer, not a scientist. She didn’t start wondering about space until high school, where teachers made biology beautiful and astrobiology even more so.
“This idea of life on other worlds is really cool,” she says, having grown to love astronomy so much that, in her spare time, she analyzes data on exoplanets.
“When I first met Linda,” says Cohen, “she wanted to know about an astrobiology course at Swarthmore, which we don’t have—yet. I offered her a position on our exoplanet research team. Since then, she has been a careful and skilled researcher and leader.”
For Swarthmoreans, the tradition of asking hard questions and breaking boundaries continues today, he says. “We fill a niche in providing real and meaningful research with experiential learning and these are skills that will transfer after our students leave,” says Cohen.
His own research includes studying massive stars. “I’ve always thought massive stars are interesting in their own right -- but since the advent of gravitational wave astronomy in the last couple of years, massive stars have new relevance as the precursor to the black hole binary systems whose mergers generate the strongest gravitational wave signals,” he says.
Amy Vollmer, Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor of Biology [and director of the Swarthmore Summer Scholar Program], is also a mentor to Vu. “Linda is an extremely thoughtful student and her passion for astrobiology is inspiring,” says Vollmer, who will host her in a lab for her honors thesis research.
Planetary protection is just one urgent question on Vu’s mind. “It's not discussed very much, however, if we're planning to do more space exploration and develop space tourism, we should start questioning the possible repercussions of human impact on space environments.”
Other what-ifs on her list include waste management on space tourism ships.
“It's not a farfetched idea considering how much pollution humans have caused on Earth,” she says. Vu wonders if space litter could take down satellites in collisions, fall back into the Earth and disintegrate into toxic particles in the atmosphere or collect over time to block out patches of the sky.
“Another aspect of human impact in space that's more commonly explored is the possibility of Earth life forms contaminating other planets and vice versa,” she says. “As science fiction writers have discussed in books like The Andromeda Strain and War of the Worlds, we don't know what could happen when Earth and alien organisms interact. We've seen how easily diseases can spread globally through planes, but how easily might a microbe hitchhike between planets on spaceships and probes? This is an issue that should be considered before we start exploring further into space, not after."
Working at the van de Kamp Observatory, Vu—a biology major with a minor in astronomy—finds open-house nights especially rewarding. After all, explaining basic astronomy to the public who come to view the night sky through the powerful 24-inch telescope is important.
“What’s the point of scientists doing all this great research if not everyone understands what’s going on?” asks Vu, who hopes to pursue an astrobiology Ph.D. “If people walk away with a deeper love for space at the end of the night, then it was worth it.”
Read more "Universal Attraction" - featuring Linda Vu '18, Nancy Grace Roman '46, Aaron Goldman '03, Jennifer Yee '07, Bruce Draine '69, John Mather '68, and Associate Professor of Classics Jeremy Lefkowitz - in The Bulletin.
Learn about Swarthmore’s impact on the local and global community at lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.