COS PhD Student Wins First Place

Becker_PortaitHave you ever wondered how or what enabled planets to form? Tracy Becker, a PhD student in the Physics Department, is working hard to find out the answer. She has always known that she wanted to study astronomy, but she is especially interested in the solar system. Becker’s current research is focused on Saturn’s rings.

Recently, Becker had the opportunity to present her research at the Inaugural Statewide Graduate Student Research Symposium. This was the first symposium of its kind in the state.

“The statewide symposium gave students the opportunity to meet other graduate researchers (some from similar fields) and discuss projects being done across the state. I think the statewide fair was a great networking opportunity,” said Becker.

More than 75 students represented eight universities from across the state of Florida. Students presenting at the Statewide Symposium were winners from their own university graduate research competitions. The University of Central Florida had 21 students compete in the Symposium, all winners from this past year’s Graduate Research Forum.

Becker won first place in the STEM: Physics Sciences category for her research, “Unique Solar Occultation Measures Particle Sizes in Saturn’s F Ring.” She is trying to characterize the sizes of the particles that make up the ring by using a misaligned solar occultation observed by the Cassini Spacecraft, currently orbiting Saturn. A solar occultation is when the spacecraft stares at the Sun as it moves across the rings. The sunlight gets blocked by the rings; however, the amount of sunlight that gets blocked is dependent on the size and density of the particles in that ring.

In her project, the spacecraft did not have the Sun in the center of its field of view, and therefore she also detected diffracted sunlight. The amount of light scattered can tell her about the tiniest particles in the ring. She studies the particle sizes because Saturn’s rings — and especially the F ring —  have a lot of particle interactions that emulate the conditions of the early solar system. So, by understanding the sizes of particles, she can learn about the frequency of collisions in the ring, and perhaps gain a better understanding of the conditions of the early solar system that enabled planets (like Earth) to form.

“I really enjoy this research because I have the opportunity to analyze data coming from a spacecraft hundreds of millions of miles away, orbiting Saturn, with the chance to learn something new and exciting about Saturn’s rings.”

Becker has been at UCF since the Fall of 2010 working towards her PhD in Physics on the Planetary Science Track. She really enjoys doing research but she is equally interested in teaching and outreach.

“I was a TA for the physics labs for three semesters and I am very active in science outreach, especially at the Robinson Observatory here on campus where we host public Open House nights and private tours for Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops.”

She hopes to follow the academia track and become a professor at a university where she can conduct research, teach astronomy courses and remain involved in public outreach.

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