Graduating student Eric Koch has his sights on understanding the life and death of interstellar bodies
Eric Koch found the perfect place to explore space: UBC’s Okanagan campus. Koch is set to graduate from the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences with a BSc Honours in physics. During the last four years he has been involved in several research projects, had dinner with retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and helped unravel some of the mystery surrounding the birth, life, death, and afterlife of stars.
“In high school I took a physics course, and knew I wanted to study it further,” says Koch. “During my first year I learned of a work-study opportunity with (assistant professor of astronomy) Erik Rosolowsky and began working with him on a project focused on star formation. The research and the mentorship of Dr. Rosolowsky really clicked for me. I have stuck with the star formation topic the remainder of my undergrad.”
The life cycle of stars
In 2012, Koch won a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Undergraduate Student Research Award (NSERC USRA) to examine filaments within molecular clouds – thread-like cosmic structures where stars are born. The work, done with Rosolowsky, became the basis of his honours thesis.
In another project, Koch, Rosolowsky, and a team of researchers led by Assistant Professor Jason Loeppky used data collected from NASA’s Kepler space observatory to examine the properties of planets outside our solar system. Last summer he assisted Craig Heinke of the University of Alberta with two NSERC USRA-funded projects examining dead stars, known as compact objects, using optical and X-ray telescope data. Koch is currently working on a directed studies project with Loeppky that combines simulations and real data to determine the necessary conditions needed for stars to form.
Koch’s research looks at the life cycle of stars, which fuse hydrogen to generate energy. At some point every star runs out of hydrogen and, depending on the mass of the star, becomes a white dwarf, a neutron star, or a black hole. Regardless of which it evolves into, all dying stars expel gas that will cool and contribute to forming a new molecular cloud, which in turn creates the next generation of stars.
“If we can better understand this cycle,” says Koch, “we can look at any group of stars or a molecular cloud and infer things about its history and its future. We can predict why and where star-forming regions exist, and how many stars will be formed in a region.”
Dinner with Commander Hadfield
Last October, Koch attended a dinner for famed astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was in Kelowna as part of UBC’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Koch, the only undergraduate student invited to the dinner, was thrilled to break bread with someone who shares his fascination with the cosmos. That sense of wonder will serve Koch well when he begins graduate studies at the University of Alberta in the fall.