Britt Lundgren Does Absorbing Work

Jun 25, 2013

For three generations, Britt Lundgren’s family has been in the camera business in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois. By using digital photography from Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Hubble Space Telescope cameras in her astronomy work, she feels that she is carrying on the family tradition.

Britt is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and an expert on quasar absorption lines. Prior to coming to the UW last fall, she was a postdoc at Yale University. She graduated in physics from the University of Chicago and earned her PhD in astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In her research, Britt uses quasar absorption lines to study how galaxies evolve in terms of their gas content. Since 2000, she has used large samples of quasars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). She creates automated algorithms to mine the 200,000 quasar spectra now available. “It would be hard to record all of the absorption lines manually within a lifetime,” she says. Supercomputers facilitate the extraction of catalogs, which are used to make 3D maps of metal-enriched gas and to understand how the gas evolves.

Britt relates the gaseous signatures extracted from the SDSS to galaxies that might be expected to produce them. “It’s tricky to see the galaxies that are home to these absorbers at high redshifts. They’re faint and difficult to detect,” says Britt. “Using deep galaxy surveys that overlap with the quasars, we can sometimes see galaxies that produce metal absorption lines, study their properties, and see how they’re correlated.”

Britt draws on the expertise of Professors Christy Tremonti, Jay Gallagher, and Dawn Erb (a frequent visitor from UW-Milwaukee). “There’s growing evidence that many of the absorbers are produced by gas ejected by strong winds from star-forming galaxies. If we can link the absorbers to galaxies with enough concentrated star formation activity to launch large-scale winds, then we can also use the location of the absorbers to constrain the distance to which the winds extend and their effect on the galaxy’s environment,” she explains.

She is also helping Professors Ellen Zweibel and Eric Wilcots and graduate student Anna Williams find targets for their research, which uses absorption lines to help measure the magnetic fields in galaxies.

“I always liked the challenge of science,” says Britt. “Astronomy was the only thing I wanted to study. I dreamed of being an astronaut at a very young age but was too farsighted!” As a teenager, she would drive up to Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin and set up her telescope. “Wisconsin was darker than Rockford and a fun place to go,” she says.

As part of the NSF Fellowship, the only federally-funded post-doctoral fellowship that requires education and public outreach in addition to research, Britt is working with an educator from Yerkes Observatory to develop educational materials for SDSS—fun activities for middle school students and up and a new website for teachers and students. She is also helping UW Space Place with its new Speakeasy Science programs and mentoring an Eagle School student on an astronomy project using data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The department values education and outreach,” says Britt. “With three NSF Fellows—Ben Brown, Brian Morsony and myself—UW, along with MIT, has more than any other school. That says something about the culture of the department.”

When not busy doing her research and outreach work, Britt runs (she ran track and cross country in college), does some rock climbing, and snowshoes on Lake Mendota.

Her publications include “Large-Scale Star Formation-Driven Outflows at 1<z<2 in the 3D-HST Survey” about targeting the galaxy hosts of absorption lines using Hubble, submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. She would like to teach and continue her research after her postdoc.

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