Thoughts on Thesis: William Balmer '21

William Balmer ’21 (they/them/theirs) is an astronomy and physics double major. They are writing their thesis on the astrometry of an object forming within the accretion disc of a larger, forming star. Their thesis advisor is Assistant Professor of Astronomy Kate Follette.

Balmer next to a telescope used for their research. Photo courtesy of William Balmer ’21.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: My thesis is about trying to measure a lot of the properties of a very young and very small star. So, in astronomy, there’s a subfield called astrometry, which is essentially just trying to very accurately measure the positions of things. I’m trying to perform astrometry on this object. And the object is really interesting because it is forming as a companion to a much larger star. And that much larger star has this huge disc of dust and gas that’s around it, that it’s pulling onto itself because it’s still forming. So this tiny companion is sort of moving around within that disc pulling material onto itself as well. That pulling material processes is called accretion. It’s sort of how planets and other things are formed. This tiny star that’s accreting material is pretty, and it’s easier to see than a planet because it’s a star, so it shines on its own. But it’s sort of performing the same accretion process that we might expect a really big planet like Jupiter or Saturn to have done. So by observing it, we hope to be able to say something about the process of planet formation itself.

Q: What brought you to write about this idea and topic; how did you think of it? 

A: I think science theses are often a bit different than humanities theses [in] that often science theses are essentially piggybacking off professors’ projects, even more so than … humanities theses [do]. So this project was sort of presented as an option to me by my advisor, Dr. Katherine Follette. I’ve been doing research in her lab for the past two or three years, so I had a lot of encounters with this kind of data…, so it was just sort of a natural progression of my research experience.

Q: How did you go about starting your thesis? Was it intimidating, or did you get right into it?

A: You know, I think that the thesis can be really intimidating if you’re not set up for success by a lot of different people. And I am thankful to be in a position where I have a really, really great advisor; she has a lot of great ideas, but … knows when to help me out and when to give me the space to sort of move on my own. And so now, I think I have a lot of support. And, I mean, I really have sort of been just building up these skills … since freshman summer by doing research in our lab. So I already knew the data set that I wanted to work with over the summer when I was introduced to the project. And, right now, it’s just a matter of setting out a good foundation. I’m really trying to focus on just laying all of the groundwork. So I’m not sweating last week of spring, you know, trying to like throw shit together. I’m deep in it conceptually doing literature review, and as far as the actual work goes, [I am] really just trying to make sure I have all my bases covered [by doing] a little bit of everything each day.

Q: So far, what is your favorite part of the process?

A: I’m a big fan of [statistical] models that work right. I mean, all models are false; there’s no true model. It’s just a matter of how useful a model is, and I recently just start[ed] the data collection process for my thesis. I got to actually fit some models to observations we have of a creating protostar! And they fit better than I expected. I was like, ‘Wow,’ because there’s so many published results. There [are] people who have observations of crazy looking and really interesting things and no way to actually model everything going on. So, a good model lineup, at least for this project, was very satisfying.

Q: On the flip side of things, what is the most difficult part of the process for you?

A: You know, the strange thing about this thesis project is that I really like nearly everything about it. I mean, me personally, I don’t like doing classes. I’m not very good at doing work or, you know, being on time or anything. But this project is so driven by the actual science and data … that we have access to nearly every part about it, even the collecting of literature and writing backgrounds … to build up the actual document is all really, really engaging! I mean, who knows later, call me again after five more months… 

Q: What were your expectations going into your thesis? Were they met, or did your experience shift away from them? Did the current situation with the pandemic affect your experience and research?

A: Because I’ve worked with Dr. Follette for so long, we had been bandying around ideas for projects for a year or so now. And we really expected to get some newer observations. Now, unfortunately, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s some sort of pandemic going on. And usually we take our observations in the spring, so most of that got canceled. We’re planning on getting some relatively recent 2020 data sets, which is really important because [since] these things move through the sky, the more data points you have, the better you’re going to be able to fit those trajectories. So that was, I think, the biggest upset … as we just don’t have as many data points as we would have wanted. Well, we also would have gotten to travel down to the telescope in Chile. I’ve been looking forward to that ever since I learned that that was something an astronomer could do here. So that was a pretty big blow. Other than that, most of astronomy is working with code and big data sets. So, it all can be done remotely. We’re [also] missing out on face-to-face [interaction] with our really great group in Dr. Follette’s lab. I’ve been missing seeing everyone this year.

Q: What do you hope to learn by writing this thesis? Where do you hope it will lead you?

A: The thing about astronomy theses, especially at the undergrad level, is that there’s so much going on; there’s so many moving pieces at the conceptual and research level. So, we’re talking about learning so much about planet formation, star formation and circumstellar discs. These are each fields with people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to write [about these] certain things. So being able to experience all of that and make it come together cohesively, I think, for me, is like a foundational life project … I also think a lot of theses have the potential to be turned into publishable results too, which is one of my drivers. I like publications, [and they] look good on resumes, especially grad school apps. I’m happy that it’s given me so much in terms of future potential.

Artist’s impression of the disc and gas streams around HD 142527. Photo Courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Q: As the person writing this thesis, what do you hope people will take from it once you are finished?

A: I think the really important thing about theses, especially if you’re doing it in the labs that we have, is that [you are] laying one stone down on the path that the whole other lab is going to walk on, eventually. So, I think it’s … really important to synthesize my information clearly to be able to communicate it at an understandable level to not only my physics professors who have no idea about the astronomy things I’m doing … but also to someone just exploring [the idea] for the first, second or third time. It’s [important] to also point them to what’s next and to show them like, “This is what I got done. But, you know, this is where you can go next. And this is what you can do with what I’ve done.” So like trying to try to give them something that will help them out … as much as other people’s theses have helped me out.

Q: If you have to offer a piece of advice to future thesis writers, astronomy or not astronomy, what would it be?A: Write everything down! Make sure you document all your code. Make sure you write down all your references. Make sure you keep that in an understandable format, and don’t scribble! [Doing] that, I think, is one of the best ways that you can set everyone else up for success, [whether] it’ll help them make sense of your stuff in 10 minutes or in a couple of years.