Physics major irresistibly drawn to black hole research
Undergraduate research opportunity advanced knowledge on how supermassive black holes form and grow.
As audiences worldwide rocketed to theaters this summer to enjoy the Pixar flick Lightyear, physics major Timothy Woelfle ’24 was busy conducting research that took him to infinity and beyond. Collaborating with Assistant Professor of Physics Francesca Fornasini as part of the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), the junior from North Salem, New York, investigated how supermassive black holes form and grow.
“I participated in this project because I’ve always been curious about astrophysics,” Woelfle said. “Black holes are fascinating because they’re so mysterious. You don’t know what’s going on inside them because light can’t escape a black hole.”
Woelfle and Fornasini’s work builds upon a foundation of research set by scores of scientists. Astronomers have previously observed that supermassive black hole growth is enhanced when multiple galaxies merge. However, it is still unknown whether the merging of dwarf galaxies produces the same sort of growth as that of their larger counterparts.
Megan Perry ’22 helped address this question during the summer of 2021. She and Fornasini discovered four black hole candidates among approximately 100 pairs of merging dwarf galaxies. Woelfle picked up where they left off by expanding the sample of merging dwarf galaxies to about 150 galaxy pairs and analyzing the results in more detail, evaluating whether black hole activity was more likely to be associated with a particular stage of the merger and whether active black holes were more likely to be found near the centers of the dwarf galaxies or farther out. With that information, he and Fornasini hope to compare their results to other studies of non-merging samples of galaxies.
As they collaborated on this project, Woelfle came to value Fornasini’s mentorship.
“It’s certainly nice to have an expert who can answer your questions when you don’t understand something,” he said. “I think the hardest part about working on a project like this is learning how to clearly explain your work to other people. That requires an advanced understanding of the topic. I didn’t have that when I was first starting out. Fortunately, Professor Fornasini is always open and ready to help you learn.”
Fornasini was equally impressed with Woelfle, noting his scientific progress throughout his SURE experience.
“When students like Tim start a research project, they’ll come to me to let me know that they’ve run into a problem that they don’t know how to fix,” said Fornasini, who in 2021 secured a coveted NASA grant to continue her research on black holes. “Over time, they start developing their own theories, tools and ideas. When they face a problem, they begin to assess what could have gone wrong and come up with potential ideas on how to fix it. It’s really nice to see them come into their own.”
Fornasini attributes Woelfle’s progress to his hard work and his inquisitiveness.
“While some astrophysics research projects require large groups/collaborations, there are still lots of astrophysics questions that can be pursued by individual researchers,” said Fornasini. “These types of projects allow individual undergraduate students to develop a greater sense of ownership over their research and a greater level of independence in making key decisions about how to carry out that research compared to some other branches of physics.”