Bright future

A pair of Maui High School students are looking forward to continuing their study of the mysteries of our sun, after their science fair investigation of heliophysics won them recognition on an international stage earlier this year.

Chris Kim and Thomas Sturm worked with the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy to develop and carry out their project, including using a cutting-edge computer system to analyze thousands of images of sunspots to prove the existence of invisible “gravity waves” in the sun’s electromagnetic field.

“It’s been postulated that they exist, but they haven’t been directly observed,” Kim says. “If we’re able to see these gravity waves, we’re essentially proving that the sun works the way we think it does.”

After taking first place at the Maui District Science Fair in January, Kim and Sturm’s project went on to the state competition, where they qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May. Their project finished in third place within the physics and astronomy category, and they received first place in a special award presented by the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society, recognizing the best team science project.

“It felt very good,” Sturm says. “My partner and I spent hundreds of hours on this project. I really enjoyed the research, and getting that recognition was reassuring, in that we think it’s cool, and other people think it’s cool as well.”

Kim says it was inspiring to be surrounded by so many top young scientists from around the world, and to get input from some of the biggest researchers studying heliophysics.

“It just affirmed my passion for science,” he says. “I just learned so much about myself and about what I want to do.”

The partners also won a cool $2,000 in prize money for the two awards.

Both Sturm and Kim are currently seniors at Maui High.

Kim says his interest in astronomy was sparked as a freshman when he attended the AMOS Technical Conference on Maui and was introduced by his teacher to the Institute for Astronomy’s Maui education and outreach specialist, J.D. Armstrong.

“J.D. has been my mentor ever since,” he says.

Sturm was at an astronomy camp working on a project on galaxies, when he heard about another project investigating heliophysics. He was intrigued, and got help connecting with a mentor in solar physics, who helped him develop an idea for a research project.

For their project on the sun’s gravity waves, or “g-waves,” Kim and Sturm built on the research of another IfA scientist, astronomer Stuart Jeffries, they say. The Maui High pair wanted to see if they could directly detect gravity waves behaving in a way that had previously been only theorized by physicists.

The sun’s electromagnetic field is a powerful, invisible force that plays an important role in the formation of sun spots, or solar flares, which have the potential to damage satellites or disrupt electrical grids on earth. Detecting gravity waves in action could help scientists understand how sun spots form.

To carry out their experiment, Kim and Sturm searched through a database of images of the sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, searching for images that would allow them to observe a single sun spot over a period of several days.

After collecting thousands of images, they analyzed them using a powerful computer program available through the IfA, looking for a Doppler frequency that would show the effect of the g-waves on the sun’s surface.

After an error in their procedure got them a negative result the first time around, they were able to find a frequency very close to what had been predicted by solar physicists.

“That’s what we were looking for,” Sturm says.

The team went on to duplicate their result with a different sun spot, giving them the confidence to move forward with the project.

Scientists who reviewed their work at the Intel competition encouraged them to gather more data, and Sturm says they would need to analyze at least 10 more sun spots to feel their results were conclusive; still, he says, the findings were “promising and encouraging.”

The two plan to team up again for science fair this year on a slightly different solar project.

Long term, Sturm hopes to go on to a university such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pursue a career as a research scientist or mathematician.

Kim is weighing his options. He says his experience in science fairs opened his eyes to real-world careers in math and science, but he also is passionate about computers and writing, and would love to be a journalist, Hollywood screenwriter or computer programmer – “maybe for Google, that would be cool.”

But right now, being a teacher – maybe a science teacher – is at the top of his list.

“I want to be someone else’s mentor,” he says, “and to do for them what someone like J.D. has done for me.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.