Throughout history, stars have inspired scientists and writers. As a physics major and English minor at William & Mary, Ramisa Akther Rahman ’24 is doubly inspired to explore the mysteries of the universe.

During a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), Rahman joined a team of researchers consisting of astronomers from the CfA, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Hawaii at Mānoa that discovered and analyzed an extreme flare on a young star (HD 283572) 40% more massive than the sun and about 400 light years away in the Taurus star-forming region. The study was published Feb. 6 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

As physics chair Jeffrey Nelson explained, W&M students have a reputation of success in REUs, which makes them desirable candidates for other programs.

The CfA team, led by Rahman’s advisor, Joshua Bennett Lovell of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), discovered the flare while using the Submillimeter Array (SMA), a collection of powerful telescopes in Hawaii designed to detect millimeter wave light. 

Rahman was simultaneously studying radio waves emitted by such stars in the same star-forming region for her REU project. 

“I examined HD 283572’s radio data using the same process I had been using for other young stars,” said Rahman. “By doing that, I was able to analyze some of its properties in the radio-regime.”

The addition of Rahman’s radio wave data enhanced the results of the study.

“By combining SMA data with longer wavelength observations, we’re able to probe the physics of flares and their emission mechanisms,” said Rahman. “In future studies, we hope to gain more knowledge about flaring rates of young stars similar to HD 28357 to better understand their properties and the impact of flares on the development of newborn planets.”

A fusion of art & science

Rahman’s passion for astronomy began with reading.

“I always loved reading novels and stories and wanted to be a writer,” said Rahman. “Reading about characters journeying into these new, amazing worlds ignited this sense of adventure in me and made me realize how much there is to explore in the universe. This led me to become intensely interested in astrophysics.”

In order to prepare for a career in that field, Rahman immersed herself in a broad range of physics disciplines at W&M.

“Modern Astrophysics was a great course,” said Rahman, “and there are lots of other classes at W&M, like Electromagnetism and Quantum Mechanics, that teach the underlying fundamentals of astronomy, so they were really useful, too.”

In her sophomore year, Rahman began working in Physics Professor Irina Novikova’s quantum optics lab.

“Ramisa embodies some of the best qualities of a young scientist,” said Novikova. “She is deeply intellectually curious and motivated toward solving big and small mysteries of the universe. She is always ready to work hard and put a lot of effort into her research, and she is a wonderful and caring member of the scientific community, respected and valued by her colleagues.”

For her part, Rahman was eager to delve into research that would help her understand the universe.

Ramisa Akther Rahman ’24 (Courtesy photo)

I wanted to get any type of hands-on experience with research that’s even remotely related to astronomy,” said Rahman. “So I decided to work with light. I joined Professor Novikova’s quantum optics lab, where I worked on projects involving lasers. That gave me basic skills and understanding of optics and electromagnetism. It also gave me valuable experience in Python programming.”

Rahman balances her astrophysics research with English courses, a combination made possible by William & Mary’s personal education model.

“Minoring in English really helps me use a different, creative part of my brain,” said Rahman. “Also, a large part of science involves reading publications, so analyzing English literature has also helped me to become a better scientist by sharpening my ability to dissect scientific literature.”

English courses have also honed Rahman’s ability to communicate science to a wider audience.

“If science isn’t understood by people who aren’t specifically in the field, then I feel like it’s inaccessible,” said Rahman. “And I find that taking English courses has really helped me enhance my science communication skills.”

Rahman also recently joined the American Astronomy Society’s Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), whose mission is to strengthen the participation of underrepresented minorities in astronomy and astrophysics.

“I definitely want to help make astronomy and physics in general more accessible to underrepresented minorities,” said Rahman. “As part of CSMA, I’d like to advocate for women and gender minorities of color, and build workshops to provide aspiring astrophysicists with tools and necessary resources to help them succeed.”

As her own physics experience at W&M broadened, Rahman applied for competitive REUs at other institutions. The summer after her sophomore year, she was accepted to an REU at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, she gained her first research experience specifically in astronomy. Her project at NRAO involved investigating the polarity and magnitude of the magnetic fields in the IC 1396 Nebula to better understand how magnetic fields alter and impact those regions.

The W&M physics department requires a year-long faculty-mentored research thesis for all undergraduate degrees, and Rahman is continuing the NRAO project for her senior thesis.

After her junior year, Rahman was accepted into the SAO summer REU at the CfA, where she was part of the research team that discovered and analyzed the flare on HD 283572.

Rahman is finishing up her original SAO REU project, which is called RADIOHEAD: The radiowave hunt for young stellar object emission and demographics. For that project, she has conducted a comprehensive analysis of radio emissions from nearly 600 stars in their earliest stage of development in the Taurus star-forming region using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array telescope’s all sky survey, VLASS.

“Using the RADIOHEAD methods, we hope to expand our research to other star-forming regions and see whether those trends and properties of young stars in Taurus we observed still hold,” said Rahman. “That way, we can gain a broader understanding of the radio mechanisms involved in the evolution of young stars and their planetary systems.”

, Research Writer