Student Spotlight: Brandi Henry

“This is so much more than me, this is so much greater than me, and that’s incredibly humbling,” Brandi Henry effuses with a smile, moving her hands animatedly as she speaks. The ‘this’ she’s referring to is the sky that hangs above her curly hair and Eastern’s Walton hall, the grandeur of which is not lost amongst our words – it glows to match Henry’s lingering excitement over her summer fellowship.

Henry spent most of June and July in a small, humble college town in northern Ohio. Yet, under the tutelage of Dr. Robert O. Harmon of Ohio Wesleyan University, Henry’s work was anything but lowly. With a team of three other students, Henry studied the starspots of LO Pegasi, a B-magnitude star only visible with the help of a telescope. Henry explains that starspots are the darker, cooler regions of stars that are only perceived through indirect methods. As Henry jokes, “You’re studying a dot on a dot in the sky.”

In January, Henry discovered the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a program that places bright young students interested in science, mathematics, and engineering into competitive summer programs. “I thought that I was least expected to get [the fellowship] because of my lack of experience in astronomy,” she says while shrugging her shoulders. At Eastern, Henry is a junior majoring in mathematics and minoring in astronomy. Her doubts were needless, for her hope to explore mathematics through the stars this summer awarded her the research position. “I wanted to see if this is where I want to take my math,” Henry says as she points to the sky.

Henry began the program by attending Dr. Harmon’s lectures about LO Pegasi, long presentations filled with instruction and information regarding how the sunspots may explain some of the star’s behavior. Though perhaps the least experienced in physics and astronomy, Henry was the most attentive of her fellow students, furiously taking notes, asking questions, etc. She attributes this to Eastern and especially the Templeton Honors College: “I have learned to accept this whole aporia, ‘I know nothing,’ sort of thing with open arms and with love, knowing that it means I am going to grow a lot and I’m going to learn a lot in the end.”

Unfortunately, the team’s research into the starspots’ relationship with LO Pegasi was delayed by weather: “It turns out it’s really rainy in Ohio during the summer!” Henry says whilst laughing. The group was thus only able to observe the night sky three times over the course of the summer. But it was exactly this lack of data that led Henry to discover her previously untapped love of astrophysics.

Without observation time, Henry and her teammates worked to determine whether LO Pegasi had a pole starspot, a dark region that due to its place on the star’s inclined pole could not be directly recorded. Using a computational method that Dr. Harmon created, Henry and her teammates were able to estimate the minimum size of LO Pegasi’s pole starspots for the years 2006 to 2014. The estimations involved highly theorized mathematics, which stirred Henry’s interest in the mathematical side of astronomy. She laughs, “I like the theoretical physics; I don’t want to be doing the observing or data computation especially . . . [but] I could see myself getting more involved in astronomy.”

At the program’s end, Henry was able to publish her findings, presenting her research in front of Dr. Harmon, her fellow students, and Youtube. Her presentation is published on Youtube under the title, “Brandi Henry’s Presentation at the 2015 Ohio College Summer Science Symposium.”

Henry’s experience was not only academically enriching but also spiritually enlightening. To her surprise, Henry felt at home while having deep conversations with her fellow researchers: “The interesting part is that these conversations were happening without the initial or foundational common belief that everyone believes in God.” Upon this conversational platform, the other students in the program became a second family as they shared meals every Monday, played volleyball at night, and celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks.

When asked how she will remember this summer, she relates this image: “As we’re sitting there in class, lecturing or whatever, my mind would be blown, and I could hear Dr. Bradstreet’s voice in the back of my head: ‘And that’s how we know God is real,’ or ‘Look at the beauty around you.’”

Image courtesy of Matt Wolek / The Waltonian

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