School girls join study to understand black holes and the birth of stars

Black holes are some of the most bizarre objects in the universe. They can have as much mass as a billion stars combined. How did they form and how did they get so big?

Ilana Feain, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison
Ilana Feain, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison

“What are they doing to the galaxies in which they live?” asks Dr Ilana Feain of the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility.

This is one of the biggest questions facing astronomers in the 21st Century. The 29-year-old astronomer will use her L’ORÉAL Australia For Women In Science Fellowship in her quest for an answer to this question.

And she is enlisting two Australian girls’ schools to contribute to a 24/7 program to observe a ‘nanoquasar’ and its associated black hole some billion billion kilometres from Earth.

What role do black holes play in the creation of stars and galaxies? Stars form from collapsed clouds of interstellar gas. When black holes are nearby do they help concentrate that gas to make stars easier to form, or do they blow the clouds apart before the stars can get going?

“Black holes could play an important role in star formation and galaxy evolution,” says Ilana. As a PhD student Ilana made a series of remarkable observations of black holes in the most distant galaxies in the cosmos.

“Ilana is intelligent, enthusiastic and has a very probing style,” says Ron Ekers, Federation Fellow at the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility.

“She digs into the fundamentals and develops a clear understanding of both the instruments she is using and the objects she is studying.”

Ilana has travelled to major observatories in the USA and Chile to make her observations, and she has attended a number of prestigious meetings and workshops overseas.

While this sort of international travel is a necessity for scientists these days, she has her sights firmly set on a career based in this country. Australia is one of two possible sites for what will be the largest radio telescope in the world – the Square Kilometre Array.

Ilana is keen to get her hands on it to extend her work. “The galaxies and black holes I’m studying are basically the most distant objects in the universe—they existed when the universe was less than a tenth of its present age—and we have no idea how these bodies could have formed so quickly after the Big Bang,” says Ilana.

Ilana’s other passion is public outreach: talking to school students and adult groups to convey the excitement of the work she and other astronomers are doing.

“I feel rewarded when I go into schools and give them a ‘this is astronomy’ talk and they ask questions,” she says. Ilana actually dropped out of school after year 10, but soon changed her mind and went back to finish Year 12.

“I was never inspired when I was a student. I didn’t enjoy school, but here I am now a physicist!” she says with a wry laugh. This is part of why she is so passionately committed to spreading the word about the excitement and wonder of scientific research and why she has already taken part in many outreach activities.

“I’m very committed to my work in astrophysics, but I also want to spend a lot of my time taking science to the public through various outreach activities,” she says.

“I think it’s important to encourage students and let them know how exciting science is, and how much opportunity is out there.”

This is one reason why she is now involved with an ambitious project enlisting high school students to contribute to for cutting-edge astronomical research.

Global Jet Watch—an initiative being led by Dr Katherine Blundell at Oxford University in the UK—is establishing small observatories at five girls’ boarding schools around the world, Tara in Sydney, and one in India, South Africa and Chile.

A second Australian site is proposed for Perth. The students will make real scientific measurements of the behaviour of a famous black hole system called SS433.

“This exotic phenomenon fires jets of hydrogen from near its black hole at speeds of over a quarter of the speed of light in two directions. These sweep out along an axis every six months, producing a corkscrew pattern. As visible astronomy can only be done at night, keeping a constant watch on SS433 is impossible for a single dedicated observatory and yet is essential for us to understand the physics of nanoquasars, and by analogy of quasars and radio galaxies,” says Ilana.

The data will be combined and processed by Global Jet Watch scientists and, it is hoped, will lead to a better understanding of these bizarre cosmic beasts.

Ilana was approached to be the Australian scientist for the project, and will divide her time between training and encouraging the students and analysing the data they generate.

The L’ORÉAL For Women in Science Fellowship will greatly facilitate this work. It promises to be an exciting and rewarding endeavour—and the perfect outlet for Ilana’s talents and interests

Biographical details

2006 – PhD (Astrophysics) The University of Sydney

2002 – Bachelor of Advanced Science with Honours Class I (Physics) The University of Sydney

1996 – Higher School Certificate The Emanuel School

Career highlights

2006- – Bolton Post-Doctoral Fellow, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Australia

2003-2006 –  Laboratory assistant, School of Physics, The University of Sydney, Australia

2000-2001 –  Research assistant, CSIRO, Australia Telescope National Facility, Australia

1999-2000 – Research assistant, School of Physics, The University of Sydney, Australia Honours, grants and awards

2003-2006 – CSIRO Postgraduate Student Research Scholarship

2003-2006 – Denison PhD Award, School of Physics, The University of Sydney

2003-2006 – Australian Postgraduate Award Scholarship

2002 – Denison Merit Award, School of Physics, The University of Sydney

2002 – The University of Sydney Medal

2000 – Cadbury-Julius Sumner Miller Scholarship No. 3 for Senior Physics, The University of Sydney

2000 – The Walter Burfitt Scholarship No. 2 for Senior Physics, The University of Sydney
Teaching and public outreach

2007 – Australian scientist, Global Jet Watch

2007 – Invited talk, Astrophysics for Physics Teacher’s Workshop

2007 – Invited talk, Sydney Girls High School Astronomy Club

2006 – Teacher, Topics in Modern Astronomy, Continuing Education Series

2006 – Teacher, NSW hSC Cosmology Distinction Course

2006 – Teaching Associate ‘Wildflowers in the Sky’ outreach campaign: Taking astronomy to remote schools in Western Australia