The Chemistry of the Universe

UH Hilo undergraduate Jasmin Silva started her journey into astronomy research when she received a NASA Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium fellowship in 2015.

Jasmin at computer, fronting several screens with data on desk and wall.

Jasmin Silva

Jasmin Silva, a junior at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is working alongside mentor Kathy Cooksey, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, conducting research contributing to the understanding of the gaseous structures surrounding galaxies and how they evolve over time. It is a way of understanding the chemistry of the universe and what has been created by stars.

Silva, a double major in physics and astronomy with a minor in mathematics, started her journey into research and discovery when she received a NASA Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium fellowship for the spring and fall 2015 semesters. This fellowship allows undergraduate students enrolled in fields relevant to NASA’s goals to do research alongside a mentor who is typically a faculty member.

Silva has been working on her project, “Understanding Galactic Evolution through Absorption,” under the guidance of Cooksey, a highly accomplished astronomer who arrived at UH Hilo in 2014. Cooksey researches the large-scale gaseous structure in the universe to understand how various elements cycle in and out of galaxies over cosmic time. Her specific area of expertise is the intergalactic medium (IGM), the gas surrounding and between galaxies.

From Waiakea High School to astronomy research

Silva is using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to construct and analyze quasar absorption-line spectra of the cosmos. Some of this work is done remotely at the UH Hilo campus. Silva was also able to observe with the 10-m Keck II Telescope, which is located on Maunakea but data collection is done remotely at the headquarters in Waimea.

The initial interest in the fellowship was sparked by a classroom encounter. Silva was enrolled in one of Cooksey’s classes already having taken physics at Waiakea High School, and this proved helpful.

Cooksey notes, “She was more advanced at some levels and focused on getting her astronomy degree.”

Silva says, “Kathy asked me to do research with her, but before that it was definitely in my head that sometime in my career I would do research. If you want to go to graduate school a lot of it is research. I figured I would want to get that kind of experience, then Kathy gave me a good opportunity.”

It was the first applied learning experience for Silva as a student.

The boost of applied learning

Something that Silva really appreciated about the fellowship was the fact that undergraduates were able to have the experience of writing their own research proposal and organizing a time scale in which to carry it out.

She explains, “It’s important for the future, when you are applying for grants or fellowships, to know how to do that.”

Silva also feels that the applied learning experience encourages students and allows them to see what they are capable of— “It helps me be more confident that I can do graduate school in the future.”

Cooksey herself conducted many research projects as an undergraduate and feels that the experience gained in applied learning is necessary for those wishing to continue on to graduate school.

She says, “Computer skills, thought processes… grad school wants you to hit the ground running. It’s great that the UH System is a Space Grant Institution that is allowed to get this NASA (funding) to pay for interns to get them started. Jasmin is now in a better position to get into more prestigious programs.”

Silva just finished her final semester of research with the fellowship but has continued to work independently with Cooksey. She is also applying to other internship opportunities and grants, including a summer internship with Gemini Observatories.

She feels that her undergraduate education has been supplemented by the fellowship. Silva believes that the experience has helped prepare her to educate the public about the science community (she serves as an astronomy educator in the Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area) and she encourages other university students to apply for similar opportunities.

She plans to continue on to graduate school.

Originally published at UH Hilo Stories