Three Pomona College students did research this summer in the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York City, thanks to the efforts of Jorge Moreno, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. The center is one of the world’s largest research hubs in the field. Moreno’s research is funded by the Simons and Hirsch foundations.
Moreno was named a 2023-24 IDEA scholar by the institute. The Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Advocacy (IDEA) Scholar Program invites distinguished scientists to do residencies at the institute as part of its commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in science. In addition to conducting research with his students, Moreno will organize a conference on galaxy evolution to be held in 2024, preceded by a workshop on incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion principles in mentoring.
Moreno brought three students with him for the two-week residency at the Institute in May. Gada Tefera ’26 is a computer science major from Minnesota. Anbo Li ’26, from Maryland, is exploring possible majors. Khadi Diallo ’25 is a geology major from Ontario, California. The three are studying the properties of stellar haloes, tidal tails and streams around simulated galaxies.
“If you think of a comet going around the sun, its gravitational pull disrupts the comet and it develops a tail,” Moreno says. “That happens to galaxies, too. When tiny galaxies are orbiting massive ones, they also get disrupted.”
Tefera explains that gravity from the larger galaxy pulls matter out from these smaller ones. The team used a tool called FIREbox to simulate galaxies being close together to model the gravitational attraction between them and study the characteristics of the resulting tails.
“When I look at galaxies and their structure, it can tell me something about their family history, their interaction history,” says Moreno. For example, “a massive galaxy like the Milky Way used to be a lot of tiny galaxies that merged together. Looking at the halos around galaxies, which is what the students are doing, will tell you something about how those galaxies formed and what those stars came from.”
Research of this nature requires high-performance computing, so Moreno is helping the students learn to code in Python, which is heavily used in astrophysics. “There are many libraries that have been created by users that are publicly available,” he says. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much.”
Working at the Flatiron Institute has given the Pomona students a first-hand look at how high-level science is done. Tefera notes that “we got massive monitors, and everything was essentially supplied to us. This was the most productive I’ve ever been in my life.”
“The first thing that hit me was that everyone there is so focused,” Li remarks. “I’ve never seen scientists actually working so hyper-focused.” And, he says, “the second thing is that the scientists seem like really cool people and very young.” The TV monitors at the institute that scroll the scientists’ biographies grabbed the students’ attention. “Some of them are surfers or into rock climbing,” Li observes.
Diallo says that the experience at the Flatiron Institute allowed her “to get out of [my] comfort zone,” and it gave her “a bit of insight on what the field is like.” Additionally, she could “meet tons of experts and other undergraduates doing research, and I could talk to them and learn more.”
The atmosphere at the institute is one of collaboration. Moreno says that he saw “at least 20 colleagues that I would only see at conferences. This place is really vibrant. They have a few permanent staff, but also lots of post-docs and visiting scientists from all over the world.” It was like he was in a conference, he says, but he had an office.
The Pomona students had offices, also. They enjoyed the coffee and snacks that were available, and every day lunch was delivered from local restaurants to maximize their convenience. “It’s like an open office concept where you don’t have to worry about anything,” says Moreno. “You can be productive.”
Located in the heart of New York City, the Flatiron Institute brings together scientists from the tri-state area. During this trip, the students also had the opportunity to visit Princeton University, where Moreno presented his work, and to spend the day engaging with scholars there. “The students were thrilled to meet my collaborator, Shany Danieli, who was happy to answer questions from articles she has authored,” says Moreno. “Witnessing the contrasts between Princeton, a more traditional institution, and the Flatiron Institute was very eye-opening for the students.”
After the Flatiron Institute residency, Moreno and the students are returning to Pomona to continue their work as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). In their work with Moreno, the students are part of something on the cutting edge. The James Webb Space Telescope has made it possible for astronomers to peer into faint regions in the sky and to look at tiny galaxies in deep space, says Moreno. “We want to get ahead with the simulations so we can make predictions before people make observations. That’s something I’ve done throughout my career. In my simulations, I find something and then people use telescopes to confirm it.”