Bryson Stemock is shown here in front of the Apache Point Observatory 3.5mm telescope, which he uses frequently for his research. Stemock received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will provide three years of funding to pursue his Ph.D. | Photo courtesy NMSU
New Mexico State University graduate student Bryson Stemock is joining approximately 2,000 young scholars in the nation to be offered a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the country’s oldest fellowship that directly supports graduate students in various STEM fields.
The five-year fellowship will fund Stemock’s research as he pursues his Ph.D. in astronomy for three years with an annual stipend of $34,000 per year and an additional $12,000 per year for university tuition and fees, with two reserve years.
“Knowing my funding is taken care of now will let me focus on what I’m actually here to do, which is to perform exciting research and begin my career as an astronomer.”
Stemock’s research focuses on combining innovative technology to learn more about the evolution of the universe using distant galaxies with very active central black holes called quasars.
“By studying the light from a quasar, we can learn about gas clouds in between us and the quasar that we normally can’t see because they’re too dim,” Stemock said. The problem he faces is to analyze the temperature or elements in just one or two gas clouds, or systems, can take up to a week for a trained professional to examine.
Currently, there are about 3,500 systems to study, which could take nearly 70 years to completely analyze, and as newer larger telescopes are built, keeping up with the data is nearly impossible.
“With these issues in mind, I’m using machine learning, which is a branch of artificial intelligence, to design neural networks that can analyze tens of thousands of systems in under an hour.” Stemock said.
“While I’m very interested in what we can learn from these systems, my primary research is about increasing the rate at which we can learn about our universe from these systems. I have also worked with my friends and coworkers in the department to study these systems and to use the 3.5m telescope at Apache Point Observatory on a fairly regular basis.”
Born and raised in a small town along the Ohio and Pennsylvania border, Stemock received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics/astronomy from Youngstown State University. After finding his passion for astronomy through his math and physics courses, Stemock applied to the NMSU astronomy graduate program and felt at home.
“After visiting the department, I really liked the people and the environment in the astronomy department here,” Stemock said. “Between that, the department’s close involvement with Apache Point Observatory, the wide breadth of topics studied in the department, and my particular interest in my current advisor, astronomy professor Chris Churchill’s area of research, I decided to accept my offer from NMSU.”
“Bryson has a passionate drive and a tireless “get-in-there” and “get-it-done” attitude,” Churchill said. “He is fearless in his research and totally unafraid to pioneer and exploit new technologies that promise to revolutionize how sciences itself is done.”
“We are entering the era of “Big Data,” in which a 100 billion new observations will be made in the next decade. Humans cannot cope with this volume of data. AI is our only hope; and this is what Bryson plans to do – develop the AI that will open science to the next level.”
Stemock prepared for the rigorous and competitive fellowship application process last fall with the help of NMSU’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Workshop Series led by assistant of psychology professor Megan Papesh.
“Professor Papesh connected me with Stephen Goldinger from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, who provided incredibly insightful feedback and a valuable point of view as a reviewer external to my field of research.” Stemock said. “I am very grateful to professor Goldinger, to professor Papesh and everyone else who helped with the workshop.”
Over nearly seventy years, the NSF has funded about 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships for students out of more than 500,000 applications. Of the fellows, 42 have gone on to become Nobel Prize-winning scientists and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.
As Stemock prepares for the next step, he is thankful for the knowledge and skills he has gained during his time at NMSU so far, especially for the mentorship he has received from Churchill.
“I have learned more from him in two years than I can really put into words,” Stemock said.
“Professor Churchill has been instrumental in helping me to build my career in a field I had never worked in before. I am excited to continue learning from him as well as the other faculty and graduate workers in the department.”
Author: Amanda Adame – NMSU