Supermassive: black holes, stars and software with Christine Corbett Moran

We’re delighted to welcome our next curator, Dr Christine Corbett Moran (@corbett), National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech, USA. Christine studied physics, computer science and engineering, mathematics and philosophy a MIT. Her PhD is in theoretical astrophysics awarded by the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Christine has worked in industry (Space X, Lucent Technologies) and in academic institutions over her career. Here’s Dr Corbett’s story.


I’ve always been interested in the fundamental questions, who are we, why are we here, what is the most ethical way to live, what is our place in the universe, that sort of stuff. I thought I wanted to study philosophy and ended up at MIT. I had a talent in math and science if not an interest, and MIT has a fantastic philosophy department. Since philosophy might not be a stable career path, I thought I could always go to law school and become a lawyer like my dad, and taking the core curriculum at MIT could even prepare me to do something like patent law. I was too practical to consider a career as a career philosopher, but I wanted to spend as much time as possible focusing on the deep questions. Everyone at MIT takes the same core classes: advanced math, physics, chemistry and biology. I added computer science to this, and started down the path of answering the questions I was interested in the realm of science.


At MIT ended up with a double major in Physics (concentration cosmology) and Computer Science (with a lot of artificial intelligence research in labs and internships) and a double minor in Mathematics and Philosophy (with a fair bit of linguistics mixed in). After graduation, I worked in the field of natural language processing for a fantastic company called BBN Technologies doing automatic translation between human languages using computers. I continued taking courses on the side at the Harvard Extension School and eventually realized I wanted to take courses fulltime again. With all my interests, it was hard to choose which field, but I decided on an algorithm: I got a physical copy of the MIT graduate school coursebook and circled every class I was interested in taking. The field with the most circles was physics, and so that’s how I ended up going to grad school in physics. I started out with a Master’s, and stayed for my Ph.D. I ended up in computational cosmology because cosmology and the study gravity specifically have the deep questions that excite me, and practically my computer science background and interest makes research in this field on a day to day basis great.


Right now I’m working on how the first supermassive black holes might have formed. We observe that supermassive blackholes formed within the first billion years of the universe’s existence, but how exactly this happened is something of a puzzle. Some ideas are that you might have had a big cluster of stars that ended up having a runaway merger process, or that you might have started out with a very big black hole that simply grew by feeding on gas around it. Hopefully future observations will resolve the puzzle, but to do that astronomers need people like me to predict what they might see in various scenarios. I do that by doing large simulations on supercomputers. Right now I’m working on simulations of the potential observational signatures of supermassive stars which might have formed in the unique conditions of the early universe collapsing. Supermassive star collapse could provide seed black hole masses which are much larger than from less massive stars, making the problem of forming a supermassive black hole by accretion from this seed a potential. To do these simulations I need to consider general relativistic physics. In addition I am doing simulations to determine under which conditions these supermassive stars could have formed at all. This helps us constrain whether we might expect supermassive stars to exist in the early universe, and if so how often.


Figuring out what happened in the first billion years of the universe might not affect your daily life any more than a great piece of art, literature, dance, or other cultural events but being curious about the universe is part of what it means to be human and helps make our short time on the planet a meaningful experience. What’s great about my research is that to answer these fundamental questions I have to prototype many techniques in supercomputing useful to a variety of more practical fields. Advances in computational astrophysics and cosmology have pushed supercomputing forward, which is beneficial to everyone from those simulating nuclear fusion to the weather. In scientific research, you never know what breakthroughs may pave the way for others, and we could see insights from figuring out how supermassive black hole formed spill over into understanding more about gravity and cosmology as a whole.



Right now I’m working on organizing a summer school for Pasadena, California area high school students called Summer App Space. It’s part of my grant from the National Science Foundation to spend part of my workday on scientific outreach to the community, and this was how I proposed to fulfill that duty–I’ve taught in similar programs in Jerusalem and Manilla and am thrilled to design and run my own here in the US. In Summer App Space I’m trying to reach students who might not otherwise consider a career in science or technology (because of socioeconomic level or lack of exposure to what such a career might be, not due to lack of talent) a bit younger than the breakthrough philosophy studying me had in college. The idea is to show them that not only can science and technology engage your brain, but it also can be a practical career. The program will be four structured weeks of learning to code in the python language and then two week of project work where students work on space related programming challenges in teams. For the last two weeks, I’m inviting high school teachers to join the teams to increase the impact of the program. Students and teachers


I do kung fu, fly planes, skydive, and am a former roller derby player. I love adventure and travel and have been to all 7 continents, and lived on every continent except for Australia and South America–yes even Antarctica where I spent 10 and ½ months as an astronomer running the South Pole Telescope at the South Pole. I’m also learning to write science fiction and hoping to write professional quality novel length works in the future. I’m also currently in the running for the NASA Astronaut Candidate class of 2017 and am one of just 50 finalists out of more than 18,000 applications.


My ideal day off would involve a flight in a small plane to a hike, cooking a nice dinner, and some reading before bed all in the company of my partner Dr. Casey Handmer.


Please welcome Christine!






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