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Past: Spring 2015: Valerie Rapson


Featured Graduate Student: Spring 2015

Valerie Rapson

Valerie is a Ph.D. candidate in Astrophysical Sciences and Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She earned her B.S. in physics and astronomy and minor in mathematics from the University of Rochester. Currently, she is conducting research on star and planet formation with colleagues around the world. Valerie is the president of the Rochester Academy of Sciences Astronomy Chapter, runs star shows at the Strasenburgh Planetarium, and participates in astronomy outreach in Rochester, NY. When she is not studying the stars, Valerie enjoys cooking, gardening, and attending hockey games and demolition derbies. Upon degree completion in May 2015, Valerie will become a lecturer at the University of Texas San Antonio where she will teach astronomy courses and develop an outreach program for the Physics and Astronomy department at UTSA.


1) How would you describe your field of study/research to a friend who is not in your graduate program?


My field of research involves studying how stars and planets are born. We know that stars are born from giant clouds of hydrogen gas called molecular clouds. When gravity takes over, pieces of the cloud collapse to form stars. The gas in these clouds is moving and spinning, so as the material compresses to form a star, it also spins and some of the gas flattens out into a disk around the young star. This disk is where planets are born. Specifically, I am interested in what these disks around young stars are made of, and whether or not they are actively forming planets. Using infrared space telescopes such as Spitzer and Herschel, we can obtain spectra of these disks and determine their gas and dust components. Using ground based infrared telescopes such at the Gemini South telescope, we can take images of these disks and look for young planets carving out gaps in the disk as they orbit the star and grow in size. By studying the birthplaces of stars and planets, we can learn more about how our solar system formed and how life on Earth came to be.


2) What brought you to RIT for your graduate studies?

When I was searching for graduate schools, I found that most Ph.D. programs in this field are Physics programs with a focus on astronomy for research. RIT had a brand new AST Ph.D. program that was different from most other programs in that the coursework was also focused on astronomy/astrophysics. Since I was most interested in studying astronomy and conducting observational research, I decided that RIT was the right place for me. Also, I am a native of Rochester, NY and enjoy the area very much.


3) What's been your best experience so far?

Since the AST Ph.D. program was small and new when I started in 2010, I was able to really shape my own graduate experience. I had the opportunity to travel to Kitt Peak to conduct research, initiated an outreach program that the graduate students participate in, and took many independent study courses that revolved around what I wanted to learn. The variety of courses offered, the ability to shape my own experience, and the friendly graduate student body have made my experience at RIT a fantastic one.

4) What do you most enjoy about Rochester?

I have lived in Rochester most of my life and my favorite thing about it is the changing seasons. Even though it gets pretty cold in the winter, it’s nice to experience all four season. I also enjoy the fact that Rochester has the perks of a large city (music, sports, entertainment, etc.) but it’s just a short drive out to the country where you can experience wonderful hiking, skiing, etc.


5) What are your plans for after graduate school?

In August 2015 I will be heading to the University of Texas, San Antonio where I will be a lecturer of astronomy and in charge of developing and running an outreach program for their physics and astronomy department.


6) What trait do you find most necessary to succeed in graduate school?

Self motivation. In graduate school, you have the freedom to conduct research and take courses as you chose. Thus, you need to be motivated to get your work completed and strive to be the best astronomer you can be.


6) Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program or someone considering graduate studies in astronomy?


Your graduate experience is as wonderful as you make it out to be. Take any opportunities you can get to travel, obtain hands on experience and network with other people in your field. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to your current and future career, and do extra things outside of your research (astronomy related or not) that you enjoy. The goal of graduate school is not only to conduct excellent research and publish papers, but also to find your niche is the science community and figure out what type of work you would be most happy doing for the rest of your life.


You can find Valerie's personal webpage here.