WRITER: Justin McCabe, a senior from Post Falls, Idaho, is majoring in English literature and minoring in history.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Irish Joy Martos is a senior international student from the Philippines majoring in psychology.
Physics student finds home away from home in research and activities
Sarah Horvath spent spring 2016 scrolling through information about thousands upon thousands of stars spotted by NASA’s Kepler space observatory.
“There’s the potential of multiple exoplanets around any given one,” said Horvath, 20, a physics major at the University of Idaho. “Yet I heard that Kepler’s field of view is comparable to the amount of night sky you can block out with your hand extended above you. It was fascinating to have a firsthand sample of the amazing size of the universe.”
Horvath, of Missoula, Montana, was thrilled to be given the opportunity to work as a research assistant during her junior year. Jason Barnes, an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Science, had tasked a team of graduate students and undergraduate assistants, such as Horvath, with researching planets that orbit stars other than the sun, also known as exoplanets. Horvath’s work was supported by a NASA Astrophysics Data Analysis grant.
“Sarah’s a strong worker and really contributes well in a team environment,” Barnes said. “I like starting undergraduates early in their college careers because it allows them more time to contribute as they learn their way and grow in the program.”
The goal of the project was simply to begin forming ideas about the exoplanets’ characteristics by using a specialized computer program written by Barnes. In particular, the team focused on exoplanets that demonstrate spin-orbit misalignment — a phenomenon where a planet’s orbit is inclined away from the plane of its star’s equator — and exoplanets that orbit gravity-darkened stars, which rotate so rapidly they take the shape of flattened spheres.
Horvath’s job was to search through Kepler’s database of stars in order to find the stars likely orbited by exoplanets. Horvath, a member of the UI’s Campus Christian Fellowship student group, said the scientific experience was also a deeply spiritual one.
“Kepler gathered the data from over 100,000 stars,” Horvath said. “But the information it contains barely scratches the surface. It really put me in awe of the design of the universe.”
Horvath’s deep appreciation for the magnitude and complexity of the universe has instilled her with a healthy sense of adventure. It was largely her desire to explore new places that led Horvath to leave her hometown and study at UI in the first place.
And although she finds the UI to be a beautiful, friendly and practical school, what Horvath truly loves the most about Moscow are the friendships she has made during her studies and extracurricular activities.
Horvath is also passionate about music. She began her time at UI as a flute performance major. However, after taking physics classes during her freshman year, Horvath was inspired to change her curriculum and begin her sophomore year as a physics major studying space and astronomy. Now, it is planetary science’s ability to continually captivate her that keeps Horvath pursuing the field.
“Right now the thought that intrigues me most is teaching at the community college level,” she said. “My favorite part of physics is being fascinated by all there is to learn, and by teaching I would get to share that with other people.”