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Frostburg State University Physics Students Present Research at American Astronomical Society Conference

Frostburg State University Physics Students Present Research at American Astronomical Society Conference
From left, Allen Benton, Caleb Godwin, Robert Lemaire and Becca Reimer

A group of computational physics students at Frostburg State University are peering into the heart of a galaxy to see what makes it tick.

Allen Benton of Liberty, S.C., Caleb Godwin of Downsville, Robert Lemaire of Tilghman and Becca Reimer of Taneytown are working together to identify material along a galaxy disc in Galaxy NGC4736, also known as Messier 94. The research is important for understanding where the fuel for star formation comes from.

“We know galaxies rotate circularly, but we were also trying to show they have radial flows inward and outward,” Reimer explained.

The group learned that existing models of galaxies may not be complete because data should be accounting for radial flows of galaxies in addition to circular flows.

“Most people, when they do models of galaxies, they ignore radial flows completely, so by showing that they could (flow radially) in fact, it shows that previous models aren’t entirely correct,” Reimer said. “Although the radial flows that we did find were small, they could still have an effect on the dynamics of the system.”

Benton, Godwin and Reimer all traveled to the American Astronomical Society conference in Grapevine, Texas, in January to present their research, accompanied by advisor Dr. Jason Speights, assistant professor of physics at FSU. The research and poster presentation had to be peer-reviewed and accepted to attend the conference. The conference also serves as a way for students to network for job opportunities and for graduate school. It’s believed this is the first time FSU students’ undergraduate research was accepted into the conference. Another student, Jake Lichtenberg, presented different research at the same conference.

“This shows that Frostburg State students are capable of doing real astrophysics research for publication and are capable of presenting this type of material to a worldwide audience,” Speights said.

The research relies heavily on coding and algorithms, crunching data provided by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array Telescope in Socorro, N.M., and the Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s the type of physics that interests Benton, who started out studying computer programming.

Benton, who has an associate degree from Allegany College of Maryland, wanted to prove to Speights that he could work hard on these difficult equations to be part of the research.

“I wanted to know how he applied standard calculus to galaxies and how you can explain how trillions of objects interact,” Benton said. “The most challenging part was learning how to program in a way that fits all of the math and all of the studies that have been done over all these years.”

Godwin is also keen on marrying his math and computer science skills. He wants to pursue a master’s in applied computer science at FSU. Using those skills to find out how a galaxy behaves gave Godwin a new perspective.

“It hit me how math could truly describe just about anything,” said Godwin, who has an associate degree from Hagerstown Community College.

Math showed how the galaxy “is developing, how it moves – the speed of the material as it rotates,” he added.

That movement behavior gets complicated because it takes millions of years to observe a rotation, so researchers examine models and what clues those models could give.


“We’re fitting equations to the data and solving for the unknown parts of the equations that we’re trying to understand better,” Speights said.

Reimer also learned the importance of teamwork for complicated research.

“It’s vital. There’s no getting around it,” said Reimer, who has an associate degree from Carroll Community College. “You have to learn to work with other people in this field. There’s too much knowledge to fit in one person’s head.”

For more information on the physics program at FSU, visit

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.


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