At Rockhurst, Professor Encourages Students to Look to the Stars

By Timothy Linn, Public Relations Specialist, Rockhurst University

Mark Pecaut, Ph.D. (Photo by Rockhurst University)

Mark Pecaut, Ph.D. (Photo by Rockhurst University)

The universe has countless stars and planets, each with a story to tell. Call Mark Pecaut, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics at Rockhurst University, then, a storyteller.

Though he’s been with the University less than two years, Pecaut brings with him an accomplished resume as an astronomer, including one research paper published during his graduate work that is helping to reshape the way astronomers look at planet and star formation.

But at Rockhurst, Pecaut teaches a primarily undergraduate student population. And he is adamant about providing the kind of research opportunities he had to his students, giving them not only something for their own resumes, but also hoping to stoke their enthusiasm for all aspects of scientific inquiry, especially astronomy.

“We can get a lot more done if they get my best ideas to work on,” he says. “I also like doing research with the students because we’re not trapped in the confines of the course. The disciplines aren’t separated like we otherwise think they are. Anything that tells us more about what we want to know about is fair game.”

Pecaut says he remembers being young and looking up at the sky, wondering about the nature of stars and the scope of the universe. That interest followed him through high school, but in college, Pecaut found himself drawn to the more technological side of science, which led him to a physics and mathematics double major.

After a two-year stint in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer and a few years in Wyoming as an information systems developer, Pecaut enrolled at the University of Rochester, where faculty and students were doing a lot of technology-centered science research, including repurposing graphics processing units — built to maximize the performance of video game consoles — to run complex astronomical numeric simulations.

Those processors were put to work running simulations of solar systems orbited by rocky debris. For Pecaut, that work was a gateway, reintroducing him through technology to the study of the universe that had fascinated him in the first place.

“The thing about astronomy is that there’s more data than there are people to research it. Because it’s publicly available, you can go through it and always find new things to look at,” he says. “You don’t always have to have a fancy telescope to have good ideas and do cool things.”

As part of his graduate work, Pecaut started to comb through data from the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP), analyzing a group of young stars for insights into planetary formation alongside a faculty adviser. But while looking at one variable group’s orbit, Pecaut noticed discrepancies in the brightness of one of the stars over the course of about a week and a half. 

“I didn’t know what to make of it, so I gave it to my boss,” he says. “He got really excited.”

That reading ultimately led to the discovery of a new object in the system, J1407 — likely a sun-sized star orbited by a brown dwarf surrounded by rings thought to be approximately 200 times bigger than that circling the Milky Way’s own Saturn. In looking for one phenomenon, Pecaut stumbled upon a much rarer object. A 2012 paper published in the Astronomical Journal about the finding spurred continuing studies of the object itself and a search for similar systems, as well as stories in publications like National Geographic and The Huffington Post.

Another Pecaut project might have even more far-reaching implications for astronomy. In 2009, Pecaut and his colleagues were looking at observations of the Upper Scorpius star association, a cluster of stars about 470 light years away that had previously been calculated to be five million years old and has been often used as a benchmark for calculations of the early lives of other stars. Using a host of data sources, from state-of-the-art models as well as luminosity and temperature readings, Pecaut and his research partners, Eric J. Bubar and Eric Mamajek, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester, determined the Upper Scorpius stars were actually about twice as old as previously thought.

“I really thought I must be wrong, and so I double-checked and triple-checked,” says Pecaut. “And then I started looking at higher-mass stars and those results agreed, too. It all started to paint a consistent picture.”

That paper, which was also published in the Astrophysical Journal, has now been cited more than 170 times and is part of a growing body of research that is leading scientists to reconsider previous perceptions of the universe.

With the same enthusiasm, Pecaut works with undergraduate students on research projects mining the Upper Scorpius data for new insights into the various aspects of star and planetary formation. Over the summer, one of those students, Megan Hyde, ’16, presented with Pecaut at the annual Cool Stars conference in Sweden, while another of his students, Kate Boyce, presented in late October at the Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences.

“I try to focus them on the big picture,” he says of working with undergraduate students. “I show them where the physics community has put the data and I meet with them weekly to catch up on their research.”

Pecaut also helps recruit and oversee engineering students who modify toy cars to make specialized, low-cost mobility vehicles as part of the Variety KC GoBabyGo! Powered by Rockhurst University program. Other students might be working to improve a walker’s ability to climb stairs or to build analog circuits. It’s certainly resume-building, but Pecaut says that it’s also about giving students a more complete approach to science.

“A lot of the students who are coming to college know the formulas really well and are comfortable moving symbols around,” he says. “But they don’t always have a good grasp on what all of that means. It’s important to me for them to have the problem-solving skills that science really values. That it’s not about having answers — it’s about having questions. I want them to be able to ask good questions and then go out and look for the answers.”