Editor's Note: This story by Steven Norris was originally published on Dec. 7, 2019, at the Georgia Tech home page. The order of presentation was alphabetized for the College of Sciences website.
Our universe is still full of unknowns. How did it begin? Is there life beyond our planet?
We don’t have all the answers — despite new discoveries and new ways of thinking about and exploring Earth, our solar system, and beyond.
Across Georgia Tech’s campus, hundreds of women are crunching numbers on whiteboards, building spacecraft, running computer simulations, developing international policy, and exploring how human experiences in space are reimagined through science fiction. The inquisitive explorers are looking skyward for answers to these and other cosmic questions, taking on the challenge to investigate the great unknowns of space.
With Atlanta hosting the Miss Universe competition this weekend (Dec. 7-8), we want the world to meet the women right here at Tech who are exploring the universe, each in her own exciting way. They are our very own cadre who give new meaning to the title “Miss Universe" in 2019.
DAWN ANDREWS, Ph.D. candidate, aerospace engineering
As an undergraduate and master’s student, she’s already done four rotations with SpaceX. She has also already been a hardware-responsible engineer — she designed a specific component of a launched vehicle and monitored it after it was sent to space.
Andrews works in the Space System Designs Lab at Georgia Tech and has played an integral role in projects that have been launched to space, including RANGE — a cube satellite developed to improve spacecraft positioning in space using GPS, atomic clocks, and laser ranging.
She’s now focused on building hardware, currently at work on the Lunar Flashlight program developing a propulsion system for a satellite that will help scan for evidence of water on the moon. These will be some of the first small-scale satellites and scientific payloads to be sent here.
“We’re building this at a lab here at Georgia Tech. We’re going through the NASA design reviews. We are the responsible engineers for this mission. It’s so exciting to say my name is on that and it’s going to go to the moon.”
“My career will start with SpaceX and I will continue to work on hardware design with the commercial space program. This means I’ll be genuinely starting my dream job.”
TAMARA BOGDANOVIC, associate professor, School of Physics
"We want to understand how these black holes work. At this point we don’t have a way of making one, or knowing how to control one, but in the future that could become very important for us. That’s just part of what I’m researching.”
Bogdanović studies how black holes interact with their environment and with each other. She is a theorist, which means she spends a lot of time doing calculations and building models — using computer simulations to model the things in space that we cannot see. She also teaches undergraduate courses on black holes, relativity, and astrophysics at Tech.
“We think that pretty much every galaxy in the universe hosts a super massive black hole at the center. We know that massive stars end their lives as black holes. Black holes are so fascinating because they can affect everything else we study in space. Black holes create conditions for a lot of energy and radiation to be released. It could become so hot that its host galaxy can no longer form stars,” she explains.
Bogdanović collaborates with researchers in Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics. She also teaches in the College of Sciences and was last year’s recipient of the Class of 1940 Course Survey Teaching Effectiveness Award.
“Black holes are very efficient at extracting energy from gas that spirals into it — much more efficient than nuclear reaction, currently our most effective extracting energy. Imagine if we figure out how to harness that capability from black holes.”
MARIEL BOROWITZ, assistant professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs
“I’ve been intrigued about space since the 4th grade.”
Borowitz studied aerospace engineering as an undergraduate at MIT. She went on to earn a master’s degree in international science and technology policy from George Washington University and a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Maryland. She combines these fields at Georgia Tech as a researcher and teacher examining the intersections of international policy and space exploration.
“I think having an awareness about how decisions are made matters. What is the legal structure? What funding is available? What other countries can we work with and what are their technical availabilities? Our next stop is probably the moon, and part of that is because that’s where every other country wants to go,” Borowitz says.
She looks in-depth at international space policy issues, including international cooperation in Earth-observing satellites and satellite data-sharing policies, human space exploration strategy, and developments in space security and space situational awareness.
“It looks like the commercial companies SpaceX and Boeing are about a year away from launching humans to space. It will be so fascinating to see what happens with that and what it means for space travel.”
Borowitz served as a policy analyst for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. from 2016 to 2018. Her book, Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data, was published by MIT Press in 2017. Keeping one eye on the stars has led her to a successful career.
“Whatever your passion is, just keep following it and see where it takes you.”
LAURA CADONATI, professor, School of Physics
Laura Cadonati is a professor in the School of Physics and has been featured on CNN, the Washington Post, and the BBC for her research on intergalactic phenomena. She’s also part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team from Georgia Tech that helped discover gravitational waves.
Three of Cadonati’s publications, with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which appeared in Physical Review Letters and Astrophysical Journal Letters, helped usher in the era of multi-messenger gravitational-wave astronomy. The papers chronicled LIGO’s first detection of a gravitational wave produced by the merger of black holes in 2015, the result of two black holes crashing into each other nearly 1.5 billion years ago. The waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime, were originally predicted in 1915 by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity.
“Those were huge milestones. These initial detections opened a new window of the universe and gave us our first glimpse,” says Cadonati. “This new chapter will allow us to create a path that will bring our field to its full potential.”
LIGO has continued scanning space for evidence. Earlier this year detectors registered gravitational waves from what appears likely to be a crash between two neutron stars — the dense remnants of massive stars that had exploded. They also believe to have detected a wave that resulted from the collision of a neutron star and black hole, an event never before witnessed.
Cadonati was appointed as LIGO’s first-ever deputy spokesperson. She also fosters new LIGO collaborations with partners around the world as the group continues to explore the data pouring in from activity in outer space.
After a short break for upgrades in November, LIGO’s observatories are back up and running. That means Cadonati and her team have more numbers to crunch. But for now, each new detection brings the chance for new insight into the universe.
“The future is gravitational-wave bright!” she exclaims.
SARA MILLER, Ph.D. candidate, aerospace engineering
It started with family vacations to space centers and museums. That led to a summer high school experience with NASA. She says she was hooked on the great beyond. Then Miller ended up at Georgia Tech.
As an undergraduate, she worked on plasma propulsion engineering projects with NASA — one of six rotations with the agency. Two took place at NASA Johnson, three at NASA Glenn, and one at NASA Marshall.
Miller has rocketed into research. Specifically, she is aiming to better understand the degradation of spacecraft electric propulsion engines.
“Operating these engines in the harsh environment of outer space over extended periods of time leads to a deterioration of engine materials, which is often the life-limiting process for electric propulsion systems. Understanding the mechanisms behind engine degradation will allow us to build better propulsion systems that can operate longer, pushing spacecraft farther into space than we've ever been,” Miller says.
In her first year of graduate school, she was recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for being the only student author working with a team of fulltime NASA employees (on research about the International Space Station’s electrical power system.)
SUSANA MORRIS, assistant professor, School of Literature, Media, and Communication
“To be black and not only envision yourself in the future but at the center of the future — to be the agent and subject of the future, and not relegated to the primeval past, used as props or pawns, or disappeared altogether — is an act of resistance and liberation.”
As a young child, Morris says she started exploring worlds beyond our own, and even outside our reality.
“I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on but was particularly drawn to science fiction and fantasy. I loved Stars Wars and Star Trek and was generally a nerd. There came a point, however, when my emerging racial consciousness collided with my love of sci-fi and I wondered, where are all the black people in the future?”
Morris says she remembered Nichelle Nichols, Billy Dee Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg, but largely saw a lack of representation in science fiction, and her interest waned. It wasn’t until high school that she discovered the work of Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower) that sparked Morris’ interest in what she now understands as Afrofuturism.
“I am a scholar of black feminism, black media studies, and Afrofuturism. In my current book project, I am exploring how black women in literature, art, activism, and media understand and connect Afrofuturism and feminism, particularly in regard to climate change and the Anthropocene,” Morris explains.
Morris is an associate professor in Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication. She is also a co-founder and contributing writer for the popular feminist blog, The Crunk Feminist Collective. In these roles, she persistently questions what representation looks like in science fiction and why it matters.
“Speculative thinking, particularly in the arts,” Morris says, “is a catalyzing force that is not only fun and exciting, but also inspiring and transformative for a whole host of reasons.”
SAUMYA SHARMA, undergraduate student, aerospace engineering
Sharma is currently working on printed circuit boards, the custom-created computer components for tools used in space. In particular, she is working on a LiDar satellite device that could be launched into space to gather topographical information about celestial bodies. Currently, devices such as the Mars Rover gather data in real time on the ground. Satellite devices like the one Sharma is working on could collect that same data from space.
Sharma was one of 35 individuals from across the U.S. to be named a Brooke Owens Fellow, an award given each year to college-age women who show promise in the aerospace field.