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CIS Undergraduate Research Sparks Prestigious Professorship in Astronomy
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Dec. 14, 2011
Amy Mednick

A poster book of huge, colorful photographs of the giant planets taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft captivated Sally Dodson-Robinson as a child in Los Angeles. “I thought it was really cool. All these pictures of planets and moons,” she says. “I always liked astronomy when I was a child, but I didn’t know how you would go about having a career in astronomy.”

She toyed with photography and always enjoyed science, but everything fell into place as a junior at the Center for Imaging Science. That year and the following year, Dodson-Robinson carried out a research project on binary stars with then-CIS Professor Elliot Horch. This close contact with a working astronomer motivated her to pursue astronomy as a career.

Dodson-Robinson, now 31, received a Bachelor of Science degree from CIS in May 2002, graduating summa cum laude as the College of Science Student Delegate. She also accepted the College of Science Outstanding Scholar Award. She is in the midst of her third year as assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Texas, Austin.

The access to such stimulating research projects at CIS, Dodson-Robinson says, directly led to her current, highly coveted, position. With Horch, Dodson-Robinson observed stars using the fine guidance sensors on the Hubble Space Telescope with the goal of finding binary, or double, stars. “The project was ongoing and when I started, we were in the very first phases of it. I think that first batch included about 12 stars. I enjoyed discovering things. I wanted to keep discovering and building knowledge.”

With the eventual goal of attending graduate school in astrophysics, Dodson-Robinson took a year off to teach English in Japan.  In 2003, she started doctoral work at University of California, Santa Cruz. She received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship between 2003 and 2006, which funded the bulk of her graduate career.

Almost immediately, as a result of a successful master’s level class project, she began working with Professor Greg Laughlin, who studies planetary astrophysics. While it included an analysis of observational data, Dodson-Robinson’s doctoral thesis took a more theoretical direction than her undergraduate work. She investigated the chemistry of planet formation and, specifically, how the composition of gas and dust determines planets’ growth. The boundary between observations and theory did not faze her. “If I get interested in a question, I will use any method I can to answer the question. I’m not particular about the method,” she says.

As Dodson-Robinson put the finishing touches on her dissertation in 2008, the University of Texas offered her a faculty position. At the time, she had already accepted a Spitzer Space Telescope post-doctoral position at the NASA Exoplanet Science Insitute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and so she deferred her UT offer until 2009-10.

At UT, Dodson-Robinson focuses on planet formation and planet archeology, but she has extended her research to include planet-forming accretion disks around stars. Analytical theory and numerical simulations of the dynamical and chemical environment of planet growth allows her to uncover the formation histories of exoplanets and Solar System objects.  Using spectroscopy, she also chemically analyzes stars and their orbiting dust, reading the fossil record of planet growth. In addition, analyses of infrared observations enable her to see the composition of dust grains that make up planets.

Dodson-Robinson’s collaborations are mainly rooted in her doctoral and post-doctoral work. She works extensively with two JPL researchers, Karen Willacy and Neil Turner, as well as with her “grand advisor” from UCSC, Professor Emeritus Peter Bodenheimer. Harkening back to her initial astronomical inspiration as a child, this year Dodson-Robinson obtained a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study the formation of giant planets.

While Dodson-Robinson, a Southern California native, does not miss the cold weather of Rochester, she looks fondly on her years at CIS and appreciates that all the students are encouraged to get involved in research. “I think that was one of the most valuable things for me, since I have a career in research now,” she says.

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