Natalie Gosnell Leads Department Forward

Jan 24, 2013

by Barb Sanford, Development Specialist, UW-Madison Astronomy Department

A running joke with the Astronomy Department graduate students is that if you sign up to staff Washburn Observatory public observing nights with fellow grad student Natalie Gosnell, you can schedule something else to do that night. That’s because for the past four years, the weather has been cloudy and the telescope has stayed closed every time Natalie has been scheduled. That’s a total of 12 times!

Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Natalie grew up in Denver. “I always loved astronomy and physics. My dad was interested in it, and my favorite gift as a child was a telescope. I went to Space Camp when I was 10 years old. It seemed inevitable that I’d go into astronomy,” she says.

Natalie was a physics major at Colorado College and did a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at UW-Madison in summer 2007. “That’s the reason I’m here for grad school,” she says. “In college I realized it was possible to do astronomy as a career, so I did the REU to find out what that would be like.”

Working with Professor Bob Mathieu on her thesis research, she is looking at observational signatures of close stellar encounters in open clusters. Specifically, she is investigating the formation mechanisms of blue straggler stars. The Hubble Space Telescope data they receive this fall will be the main part of her thesis. “Bob and I are very excited about the Hubble data,” she says. “We’ll be looking for white dwarf companions of blue straggler stars—stars that defy normal ideas of stellar evolution. If we detect white dwarfs, it will be the first time anyone has directly determined the formation mechanism of a group of blue stragglers.”

Natalie is also working with Professor David Pooley of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas on X-ray binaries in open clusters that are often formed through dynamical encounters. He was a post-doctoral fellow at UW when Natalie started, and Mathieu urged her to broaden her research experiences by working with other astronomers, too. “I have been lucky enough to have two parts of my thesis, related scientifically but quite different technically,” she says. “I think the breadth of my skills gained at UW will lead to a richer career, and will help me find a job.”

In addition to her science work, Natalie sings with the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, also serving on its board, and the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble. “Singing is my longtime love. I sang in college, and I looked for singing opportunities when I was looking at grad schools” she says. “It’s important to have a creative release when you’re doing science all the time.”

Natalie likes the supportive community in the department. “The grad students in the department are an interesting group. We support each other and don’t just do astronomy. Most of us have other interests and try to keep a well-rounded work-life balance,” she says.

Natalie was part of a departmental committee to implement a family and medical leave policy for grad students. She and Professor Mathieu will be featured at a special session of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California in January. They will present the steps that were taken to put a unique parental and medical leave policy for graduate students. “It was a great example of grad students and faculty working together,” she says. “Its success was also an example of the importance of our Board of Visitors’ financial support.”

With fellow grad students Blakesley Burkhart and Katelyn Milliman, Natalie helps run the Women of Wisconsin Strengthening Astronomy (WOWSA) group. They meet and network about career issues with women colloquium speakers and visitors. She was also the faculty liaison, or grad student czar, for the 2010-11 academic year. With Mathieu and Christy Tremonti, she served on the committee that revitalized the “Committee of Three” graduate advising process that ensures that every grad student has an advisor and two faculty members to serve as mentors and guide student progress.

Natalie was awarded a Sigma Xi grant this year to fund her travel to visit collaborators working on the Hubble data in Canada and England. She has also received a Vilas Conference Travel Grant, Wisconsin Space Grant Award and American Astronomical Society Travel Grant.

Her publications include “An Unexpected Discovery in the Rich Open Cluster NGC 6819 Using XMM-Newton” in the 2012 Astrophysical Journal about discovering a candidate quiescent low mass X-ray binary candidate in open cluster NGC 6819. Her accepted Chandra proposal, for which she was the principal investigator (PI), will include follow-up observations to confirm the object. She will receive a 22-kilosecond Chandra observation and one orbit of Hubble imaging to find the counterpart to the quiescent low mass X-ray binary.

Natalie will graduate in 2014 and will apply for a post doctoral position. Ultimately, she hopes to teach at a liberal arts type school like her alma mater, Colorado College.

UW-Madison Astronomy Home