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May 4, 2023

Student view: Aiming for the stars

Wasundara Athukoralalage is a senior majoring in astrophysics/physics from Kuliyapitiya, Sri Lanka, and a College of Natural Science Dean’s Research Scholar.

Wasundara Athukoralalage

Growing up in rural Sri Lanka with beautiful night skies, I developed a passion for astronomy. Early on I decided to pursue a degree in astrophysics, joining MSU in 2019. As a woman of color, I struggled to find my place in astrophysics. The severe lack of women of color meant that I had no role models. However, my research mentors helped me build a support network and continue to pursue research.

I was introduced to astrophysics research in my first year at MSU when I modeled neutron star cooling after joining Professor Edward Brown’s group. This research made me interested in learning more about compact objects and motivated me to explore them with observational astronomy techniques. Later, I worked with Professor Stephen Zepf and postdoctoral researcher Kristen Dage to study observational signatures of ultraluminous X-ray sources in extragalactic globular clusters. I led a first-author paper on this source that was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society last year.

I was also fortunate enough to be selected as a summer undergraduate research fellow at the California Institute of Technology in 2021 and 2022, where I worked with Professor Fiona Harrison and postdoctoral research associate Sean Pike to study accretion in a neutron star X-ray binary using phase-resolved spectroscopy. In 2022, I worked with Professor Harrison and postdoctoral research associate McKinley Brumback to explore the changing warped accretion disk of a pulsar SMC X-1. I am also preparing two first-author papers based on my work with the Caltech group to be submitted in the Astrophysical Journal. This experience cemented my graduate research interests in compact objects and demonstrated how observations with phenomenological modeling can enhance understanding of a system.

My research experiences have motivated me to explore the unknown regimes of physics surrounding compact objects using multi-wavelength observations ranging the electromagnetic spectrum and complementing them with computational modeling. My excitement for working on leading questions in astronomy and the encouragement from support within the community has motivated me to pursue a career of becoming a professional astrophysicist.

I’m proud to have been able to represent my research and my department as a Dean’s Research Scholar and as a Wielenga Research Scholar. I’ve also presented my research nationally and internationally at McGill University, Caltech, APS CUWiP, West Virginia University, the 24th University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum at MSU, and the American Astronomical Society. For my research efforts, the MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy awarded me the Lawrence W. Hantel Endowed Fellowship, the Bruce VerWest Outstanding Junior Award and the Osgood Outstanding Senior Award.

My experiences as a woman of color in astrophysics have highlighted the need to support students from diverse backgrounds to foster a productive research environment. Throughout my time at MSU, I’ve been able to give back to my community. I have worked to increase representation and retention of minority students in STEM by providing support through mentorship and outreach. I am a part of the Stellar Mentorship Program and an Honors Navigators Peer Mentorship Program, where I provide a support system to underrepresented students in astrophysics and physics. As part of my physics senior thesis with the Physics Education Research Lab, I study retention of minorities within the STEM majors using computational modeling. Furthermore, to support other international students during the pandemic, I worked as an International Student Ambassador to provide prospective students resources on scholarships and research.

My experiences at MSU have prepared me to thrive and be a valuable part of the research community. As I graduate this spring, I am excited to continue my research career as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. I plan to pursue my research interests in compact objects and continue my commitment to supporting underrepresented students. I hope to one day lead novel research and expand our understanding of the extreme conditions in the universe.

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