Kunder Milky Way NSF
October 15, 2020

LACEY, Wash. — Saint Martin’s University’s Dr. Andrea Kunder, an assistant professor of physics, has been awarded a $187,000 National Science Foundation grant to sustain her research on the Milky Way Galaxy.

The grant will fund a survey Dr. Kunder is leading called the Bulge Radial Velocity Assay for RR Lyrae stars (BRAVA-RR).  This survey will produce a map of three-dimensional motions of these stars, 5,000 of them, which are the oldest stars located in the inner part of the Milky Way Galaxy.  The goal of this map is to provide a more detailed picture of the formation processes of the Milky Way Galaxy. 

“Just like archaeologists use fossils to study the early history of the Earth, so old stars can [help us] study the early history of the Galaxy,” said Dr. Kunder, whose area of expertise is astrophysics with more than 70 refereed scientific publications. “It is not easy to know if a star is old or young.  But there are some stars, called RR Lyrae stars, that pulsate with periods of around 12 hours, because they are undergoing Helium fusion in their core.  These stars are unequivocally old, which we know from the physics of how nuclear fusion works and how long it takes for Hydrogen to be depleted in the core of a star and then for Helium fusion to start.”

The NSF grant is an expansion of the work Dr. Kunder conducted with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Fund’s College Research Program. Part of the grant will also help fund six undergraduate research assistants who will travel to Australia with her to use the 4-m class Anglo-Australian telescopes to carry out observations. 

While research opportunities at other universities are usually restricted to graduate students, Saint Martin’s faculty encourage and recruit undergraduate students to participate in research. “In a series of papers carried out largely at with my research group at Saint Martin’s, we were able to show that we are able to handle these pulsating variable stars,” shared Dr. Kunder. “A number of undergraduate students, including Jonathan Ogata, Dylon Maertens, Alexander Tilton, Emily Boren and Emma Murari, worked meticulously on various different analysis of these stars, publishing our results to illustrate to the scientific community that the BRAVA-RR survey is both successful and impactful.”

Only one out of five Astrophysics NSF grants are funded, said Dr. Kunder.  The only Astronomy and Astrophysics NSF research grants awarded in Oregon, Idaho and Washington this year went to the University of Washington and Saint Martin’s University.

The National Science Foundation funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. It does this through grants, and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research organizations throughout the United States. The Foundation accounts for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

Saint Martin’s University is an independent, four-year, coeducational university located on a wooded campus of more than 300 acres in Lacey, Washington. Established in 1895 by the Catholic Order of Saint Benedict, the University is one of 13 Benedictine colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and the only one west of the Rocky Mountains. Saint Martin’s University prepares students for successful lives through its 29 majors, 11 master’s programs, one doctorate program and five certificate programs spanning the liberal arts, business, education, nursing and engineering. Saint Martin’s welcomes more than 1,300 undergraduate students and 250 graduate students from many ethnic and religious backgrounds to its Lacey campus, and more students to its extended campus located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.