April 18, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin student Melissa Haegert receives honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship.

Growing up a missionary kid in Gambia, West Africa, Melissa Haegert had a passion for stargazing. “The stars there are amazing. It’s a lower latitude, and you can see some of the stars you can’t see here,” Haegert said. “Sometimes I’d climb a tree, and sometimes I’d climb up on my roof. All I had in Gambia for studying astronomy was a pair of binoculars and several books and a very darkened night sky.”

A couple of years ago Haegert, a physics and astronomy major who goes by “Lissa,” traded in that rudimentary equipment and the amazing West African stars for the astronomy facilities at Calvin College, where, in her sophomore year, she has earned a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. The award, $15,000 over two years, will provide the 19-year-old with the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board while she continues her research with Calvin physics and astronomy professor Larry Molnar on what she calls “space rocks.” 

Space Rocks

Haegert and Molnar are studying the Flora asteroid family. “An asteroid family is comprised of all the little shards that result from a collision, and they’ll have approximately the same type of orbit,” Haegert said. The Flora family is the result of a collision of two large asteroids—one 60 miles in diameter and one 90 miles in diameter—about 500,000,000 years ago. The asteroid family, all 80,000 members and counting, pursues its orbit in a space between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

“Since that time the sunlight has pushed on them,” Haegert said. “Basically, what we’ve done is study how they have moved because the sunlight has been pushing on them.”

The research duo discovered that the position of the Flora asteroids relative to the sun was based on their heft. “It’s like you have a whole bunch of rocks, and some are big and some are little, and you push them out,” Haegert extemporized. “The biggest ones stay closest to you; the medium-sized ones go a little farther, and the smallest ones go even farther.”

Studying the Flora family is important, she added, because about 35 percent of the asteroids that have hit the earth are Floras. For this project, Haegert and Molnar used a telescope stationed in Rehoboth, N.M.—a twin to Calvin’s telescope and operated via remote control—because of the darkness of the sky there. They have published three papers on their research and are working on a fourth.

Haegert feels privileged for the opportunity to study with Molnar. “I think an amazing thing about Calvin College is that in the fall of my first semester here, as a freshman, I could get involved in asteroid studies.” After Calvin, she plans to pursue a doctoral degree in astronomy, in solar system astronomy and cosmology.

She was playing cards with her sister and a friend when she learned about the Goldwater honor. “I read my e-mail and plastered my hands over my mouth, unable to speak, while my sister read over my shoulder,” she said. “The next day, I snuck down and hid a note in the breakfast rolls for my parents to find.”

Even as she pursues her asteroid research into her junior and senior years, Haegert still takes time out to check out the night sky. “I just went up last night. I stood on the observatory deck and pointed out the constellations.”

Honorable Mention

Another Calvin student, sophomore Sarah Tasker, earned a Goldwater honorable mention for her study of the use of synthetic peptides as catalysts for a desulfurization reaction of dibenzothiophene (DBT), an aromatic sulfur-containing compound found in petroleum. “This compound and others like it, which co-distill with diesel fuel, are a problem when they are burned because their combustion releases sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This causes health problems and, when it combines with water in the air, forms acid rain,” Tasker said. She has partnered with Calvin chemistry professor Chad Tatko to create a non-living system to catalyze this reaction.

Though the Goldwater honorable mention doesn’t include a financial reward, it is a prestigious award that Tasker is grateful to receive. She is also grateful for the opportunity to work with Tatko, particularly for the autonomy allowed her in the research.

“After graduating from Calvin, I plan on going directly to graduate school to pursue a PhD, most likely in organic chemistry,” she said. “I want to continue doing research as a career, be it commercially or by teaching at a university. Research is really my passion.”

Student Melissa Haegert

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