Erin Maier to pursue graduate studies in astronomy and astrophysics
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Even Erin Maier is surprised how her academic journey at the University of Iowa has turned out.

The graduating senior from Hudson, Ohio, enrolled at the UI to study creative writing, then “accidentally” fell into astronomy, she says.

It’s a good thing she did—for her and for the university.

Erin Maier

Hometown: Hudson, Ohio

Area of study: Physics and astronomy

Graduation: May 2017

Activities and honors:

  • Twice winner of U.S. National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates scholarship
  • Goldwater scholar
  • Will pursue a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Arizona
  • First author on two peer-reviewed papers as undergraduate

Maier helped design and build sophisticated instruments for UI-commissioned telescopes that are exploring the cosmos and yielding insights into some of the most fundamental questions about the universe.

Along the way, she twice won National Science Foundation–sponsored internships, is first author on two peer-reviewed papers, and nabbed a coveted Goldwater scholarship.

Maier will receive a Bachelor of Science in physics and astronomy on Saturday, May 13, and is one of more than 4,800 UI students who will graduate during commencement ceremonies at the end of the spring semester.

After commencement, Maier will head to the Graduate Program in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Arizona to pursue a doctorate with a research focus on ground-based instrumentation.

“It’s been a roundabout, strange path, but my experience here has helped me figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Maier says.

Maier had no clue the UI had a physics and astronomy major when she stepped on campus in the fall of 2013. She chose the UI largely based on her high school English teacher’s recommendation for the university’s strength in creative writing.

Her academic focus changed in the beginning of her first year when she took a General Astronomy class about the solar system taught by Robert Mutel, professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“I didn’t have to take that class,” says Maier, adding she had enough advanced placement credits to fulfill that academic requirement. “I took it because I wanted to, and I’m glad I did.”

Unbeknownst to Maier, Mutel was scouting talent to help with various research projects, a practice he has employed for some time for himself and his colleagues in the department.

Supported by an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates fellowship, Maier spent her first summer in Iowa City analyzing radio emissions from the center of the Milky Way with Cornelia Lang, UI associate professor in physics and astronomy. She also helped Mutel install a telescope in the Van Allen Observatory, located on the roof of Van Allen Hall, which is used for classes and public viewing events.

“Erin and I spent that first summer together working on understanding the complex magnetic properties of the core of our galaxy,” Lang says. “She is delightful to work with and one of the most passionate and hard-working students I’ve gotten to know here at the University of Iowa.”

The summer after her sophomore year, Maier ventured to Northern Arizona University and partnered with other undergraduates to study how turbulence in spiral galaxies is associated with star formation. That stint, funded by the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, led to Maier being chosen as first author on two papers, one of which has been published in The Astronomical Journal. (The other paper also will be published in The Astronomical Journal.)

Though she enjoyed interpreting data gathered by the telescopes, Maier began leaning toward a focus in instrumentation.

“I just started thinking, ‘What if I was building those instruments? That would be so cool,’” she says.

Fortunately, Mutel had some ideas. In the spring of 2015, he invited six undergraduates, including Maier, to take a semester-long research class in which they prepared to install a new, $125,000 telescope funded by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. The students divided into teams to learn the ins and outs of telescope operation, instrumentation, and assembly.

That May, Mutel and the students traveled to Arizona. The telescope, called the Iowa Robotic Observatory, arrived in a box “the size of a car,” Mutel recalls, like some massive Lego set that needed to be built from scratch.

“They tested the instrument; they assembled the main telescope and the mount; they tested its capabilities; and they put on the instruments, the spectrometer, the camera, the main wheel, et cetera,” Mutel says. “They basically made it an operating telescope in a few days. It was very impressive, actually.”

It came with some tense moments, though. For three days, Maier and her fellow students were unable to test the telescope, deterred by cloudy nights. On the last night, Maier and two others didn’t sleep, instead capturing as many clear-sky viewings as possible.

“We came out of observing at five in the morning, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we did this!’” she says.

“They were very dedicated, I can tell you,” Mutel adds.

The first images gathered by the Iowa Robotic Observatory have drawn more than 461,000 views on the image-sharing platform Imgur.

“They were beautiful, gorgeous images that with the previous telescope would have taken much longer, with a fraction of the quality,” Maier says.

Maier was awarded a second NSF REU scholarship to help build a camera that would allow astronomers to make observations of star clusters in two optical wavelengths simultaneously, which cuts the background clutter in the images that are being observed. The instrument was successfully tested at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas.

“At the end of this, any doubts I had with my interest in instrumentation had vanished,” Maier says.

Maier volunteered at the Van Allen Observatory and otherwise availed herself of any opportunity she could find to learn more and be involved.

“I would say she’s what you might call a good citizen,” Mutel says. “She’s been involved in the Society of Physics students (a student leadership program). She goes to seminars in the department. In that sense, she’s much more like faculty and graduate students, who are invested in the life of the department.”