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Unraveling the Mysteries of Space

“You got a burst!” the text message on her cell phone proclaimed. Erin Kara ’11, a physics major and NASA summer intern, raced from the grocery store back to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to get her first look at the information transmitting to her computer from the massive Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Two colleagues were waiting to help. But that night, Sunday, July 19, Erin was in charge, and the gamma-ray burst was hers.

Just one hour was left of her 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. shift as gamma-ray burst advocate, assigned to analyze these mysterious high- energy flashes that pierce the sky without warning, billions of light years away. “No one really knows what causes them,” Erin says; at present, many researchers think they result when huge stars explode and then form black holes. Whatever their origin and however long they last (anywhere from a few milliseconds to several minutes), scientists agree that they offer tantalizing clues about the early universe.

For NASA and its research partners at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the analysis that helps lead to those clues waits for no one. “I was up until 4 a.m.,” Erin recalls, so that she and her colleagues could present their report the same morning at 9 o’clock. By the afternoon, she had e-mailed the results to observers around the world.

That was just one day out of her 10 weeks at Marshall. The rest of the time, Erin did related research and analysis with NASA’s gamma-ray burst team, including one other 12-hour advocate shift (with no bursts), and assisted with a paper analyzing three other short, bright with bursts—the brightest to date—detected by the Fermi telescope. “She really picked things up quickly,” says Jerry Fishman, Erin’s supervisor and head of high-energy astrophysics at the Marshall Center’s space science department.

Now back at Barnard, Erin says she’s been interested in physics since high school, when a memorable teacher grabbed her attention. “He made it very accessible and intuitive—you could see physics working in front of you every day,” she explains. In college, she continues, “It’s really encouraging to see a physics class of 40 women. It’s made me more confident in my abilities.”

This year Erin is trying out courses in astrophysics and computer programming. In addition, her advisor, Reshmi Mukherjee—also a member of the Fermi team— has asked her to install Fermi data-analysis tools at Barnard, so that researchers here can study bursts and other phenomena observed by the gigantic space telescope.

Is a space-related career ahead of her? Maybe, but she’s planning to take time to explore other areas of physics, too, as well as chemistry. As for outside interests, Erin is incoming codirector of the jazz singing group Uptown Vocal, and an art- history minor, “I really appreciate that Barnard allowed me to take all these classes, even as a science major.” Still, the physics opportunities ahead are “mind-blowing,” she says. “There are so many layers of things we don’t know, so much to learn ... like the universe, it will never stop growing.”

-by Trudy Balch '78, photograph by Sylvain Guiriec