Ollie Jackson (she/they), a current physics student in the Honors Transfer Program at Cabrillo College and Lamat 2021 Fellow, was awarded first place for their STEM research at the 2022 HTCC UCI Community College Honors Research Conference. The HTCC (Honors Transfer Council of California) is a partnership of over fifty California Community College honors programs, and their annual research conference is a place for honors students to showcase their original undergraduate research. Each year, three students are awarded prizes for their poster presentations in STEM research, and Ollie was one of two students to tie for first place. Posters were chosen based on visual presentation, creativity, originality, and reflection of sound scholarship.
Ollie’s presentation, “Weather or Not: Relating Adaptive Optics and Image Quality for Exoplanet Detection” showcased the work they did through the Lamat program at UC Santa Cruz (Summer 2021) and looked at how weather conditions in Earth’s atmosphere affects the quality of images taken at the W.M. Keck Observatory located on Mauna Kea. Exoplanet research is a rapidly growing field in astronomy and astrophysics, and Ollie’s research fits into the larger picture of how we identify and detect exoplanets. One way of detecting exoplanets is called High Contrast Imaging, where astronomers take direct pictures of exoplanets by blocking the light from the host star (“high contrast” meaning observing something dim next to something bright). However, taking pictures of stars (let alone exoplanets) is very challenging because of our atmosphere. When starlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere, the lightwaves become distorted by any atmospheric turbulence. Adaptive Optics (AO) refers to the system in ground-based telescopes that consists of a wave-front sensor that calculates such distortions, and seeks to correct the distortions using a mirror that can be reshaped (called a deformable mirror). Other astronomical research has shown that when high wind speeds are present at an observatory, images become distorted by what’s called a Wind-Driven Halo (where images show a literal halo of light around images of stars).
Ollie’s research, guided by their Lamat mentor Dr. Maaike van Kooten, focused on whether something like a Wind-Driven Halo happens at the W. M. Keck Observatory and any other ways that weather conditions manifest in images taken by Keck’s NIRC2 camera. They found that when the wind is traveling in an east/west direction across the telescope aperture, there is a possible correlation between wind speed and aberrations in light contained in an image around a star (possibly indicating something similar to a Wind-Driven Halo).
Ollie is excited to return to Lamat in the summer of 2022 and continue doing research with Dr. van Kooten, and will be building on the research they did last summer. Their overall finding from their 2021 research was that they needed more data in order to find a clearer relationship between weather conditions, adaptive optics error, and image quality, with the tangential conclusion that it would be easier to determine the optimal performance of Keck’s AO system if there were weather documenting instruments at the telescope site. Their research this summer will build on this finding and focus on the Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County, where she and Dr. van Kooten will be implementing an atmospheric profiler to determine on-site atmospheric conditions.
In addition to receiving the first place prize for her poster presentation, Ollie also received one of the Exemplary Achievement Scholarships from the HTCC Honors Conference, which recognizes students who have shown extraordinary growth and academic success through involvement in community college honors programs. The HTCC Honors Conference recognized 30 students with this scholarship honor of over 200 conference participants and hundreds more eligible honors students across the state. Ollie is the first student from Cabrillo College to present research at the HTCC Honors Conference, and will be graduating from Cabrillo in Spring of 2022 with Honors Scholar Designation.