Students Highlight Findings at Research Symposium

Supermassive Black Hole, Electronic Car Cooler Featured at Event

Alyssa Melaragni and Ibrahim Alshawabkeh

Alyssa Melaragni and Ibrahim Alshawabkeh

05/11/2012
By Edwin L. Aguirre and Karen Angelo

Imagine studying an extremely massive black hole in a young starburst galaxy. Or developing a portable, solar-powered electronic cooler that keeps a car’s interior cool during summer while it’s parked. Or analyzing turbine blades and combatting childhood obesity. These are just some of the exciting projects by student researchers recently showcased during the 15th annual Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium.

Each year, UMass Lowell students gather to present their research in oral and poster presentations to their peers, faculty and guests. These include creative work, internship and co-op experience, community service-learning, study abroad and thesis research.

“It is important for you to be involved in research projects while you are at the University because discovery is the highest form of learning through experience,” said Provost Ahmed Abdelal during the poster presentations that took place on the second day of the event. “I am so proud of all of you — both our undergraduates and graduates — and appreciate your engagement and participation in this research symposium.”

The first day was dedicated to the Humanities and Community Engagement Panel presentations. Topics covered during the student-led question and answer panels included the Lowell strike of 1912, Shakespeare and the feminist and the Panama Canal as a U.S. Enterprise. Listen to some of the students discuss the importance of their research projects.

“The two-day event provides an opportunity for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students to enhance their résumés and prepare for graduate schools or careers, learn to present and communicate scientific work to all audiences including non-scientific fields, exchange ideas with other scholars from multiple disciplines in a supportive atmosphere and receive feedback from faculty and scholars in their field,” says Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen.

Since the first symposium was held in 1997, the event has grown to involve students from all the departments across the University, she adds.

More than 150 posters from undergraduate and graduate students in all of the University’s six colleges and schools were viewed by the more than 300 people who attended the Tuesday session. See photos of this year’s symposium in the UMass Lowell Photo Gallery.

A Stellar Cannibal

“The black hole is part of an X-ray eclipsing binary star system located in the galaxy IC 10 in the constellation Cassiopeia,” says Alyssa Melaragni, a senior in the Physics and Applied Physics Department. “Its closely orbiting companion is a Wolf-Rayet star. Wolf-Rayets are hot, massive stars that rapidly lose mass by means of strong stellar wind.”

The black hole’s powerful gravity captures some of the gases flowing away from its companion, forming an “accretion disk” around the black hole. As these captured gases spiral down and fall onto the surface of the black hole, they get heated up and give off powerful X-rays.

Analyzing data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as measurements of the binary system’s radial velocity, Melaragni determined the system’s light curve and X-ray eclipse profile as well as the black hole’s mass, which she estimates to be 23 to 32 times that of the Sun.  

“Observations indicate that the black hole is being eclipsed by its Wolf-Rayet companion star, but the data show it may be partly eclipsed just by the companion’s atmosphere instead of the star itself,” she says. “This would explain why some of the X-ray emissions from the black hole’s accretion disk are still being detected even when the black hole is in eclipse.”

She hopes to continue studying this binary system, making more accurate calculations of the system’s masses and orbital period, and possibly gathering more observations using the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

“This will help us gain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of supermassive stars,” she says.

Watch a video of Melaragni explaining her research on YouTube.

A ‘Green’ Way to Keep Your Car Cool

Ibrahim Alshawabkeh, a Ph.D. candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, has designed and built a solid-state cooler that uses thermoelectric cells, heat sinks, fans and a blower to cool the car’s cabin while it is parked under the Sun.

“The thermoelectric cell is a semiconductor-based electronic component with no moving parts,” says Alshawabkeh. “It acts like a ‘heat pump,’ drawing heat from the car’s interior and venting it outside. At the same time, a blower directs cool air from the cell’s cold plate into the cabin compartment.”

He says since a car is typically parked in the Sun at a workplace for about eight hours or more, you can use a solar panel placed behind the car’s windshield or on the roof to provide the DC electricity needed to power the cooler.

“It’s a low-cost, environmentally friendly way of maintaining the car’s interior temperature at a more tolerable level, without using your air-conditioner and consuming gas,” he says. “Of course, the performance of the thermoelectric cell will depend on the amount of current delivered by the solar panel — the higher the current, the higher the cooling efficiency of the cell.”

Watch a video of Alshawabkeh explaining his research on YouTube.

New Journal for Undergraduate Research Launched

The symposium also marked the formal launching of the UMass Lowell Journal of Undergraduate Research (UMLJUR). 

Published through the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the new journal features abridged journal-format papers on studies conducted by students on campus, such as senior research, directed studies, capstone projects and summer research. These papers are peer-reviewed by student-editors and faculty members. Accepted papers are published online biannually, and select papers are printed annually as hard copy.

The journal was founded by biology seniors Robert DeMatteo and Denis Jakuj and biology alum Daniel Warden, who also serve as chief editors. Other editors include biology junior Nathan Manalo and biology seniors Raymond Lam and Brian Gablaski.

The group proudly presented copies of the UMLJUR to Chancellor Marty Meehan and Provost Ahmed Abdelal during the symposium.

For more information or to submit papers, e-mail umljur@uml.edu or visit the journal’s website and Facebook page.