Astronomy & Physics major wins prestigious American Astronomical Society award

| in Community, Student Profiles

In early January, Nicolas (Nico) McMahon (CAS’24), an astronomy & physics major from Windsor, Conn., traveled to New Orleans to present his research at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. On January 30, he received word that he won the prestigious Chambliss Award, given to recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students who present at one of the poster sessions at the annual meeting. Arts x Sciences asked McMahon about the experience. 

Nico McMahon, Chambliss Award Winner

How did you become interested in astronomy?

Like many astronomers, I fell in love with stargazing at a very young age. Growing up, my fascination with science ignited a burning curiosity for the big questions astronomers grapple with all the time. What is our place in the cosmos? How big is our universe, and what is it made of? That curiosity stayed with me through high school, where I was incredibly lucky to have an astronomy teacher who encouraged me to keep going. My time at BU has only stoked those fires more and allowed me to follow my interests in the field of astronomy.

Nico McMahon, Chambliss Award Winner

What is your favorite aspect of astronomy?

Astronomers undertake a herculean effort to categorize, describe, and understand the universe on scales of time and space that push the boundaries of human comprehension. It is this scientific quest that inspires me most about astronomy. I love to feel like a small fish in a big sea, or rather, a small human in a big universe. To me, there is something oddly beautiful about the intangible vastness and complexity of the cosmos. Doing my small part to help unravel this complexity is the chance of a lifetime. Astronomy is also undeniably very cool — I literally do research on exploding stars!

What research did you present at the conference?

Last summer I worked as an intern at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where I began a new research project on supernova cosmology. My project is centered on the standardization of Type-Ia supernovae (SNIa) and the Mass Step relationship, an empirically observed correlation between the peak brightness of SNIa and the stellar mass of their host galaxies. This is deeply puzzling to experts in supernova cosmology — why would a supernova care about the size of its host galaxy? Using the Pantheon+ sample, the largest sample of SNIa to date, as well as cutting-edge computational tools like the spectral energy distribution fitting code Prospector, my team and I are working to understand how our methodology impacts the observed strength of the Mass Step relationship. By fitting spectral energy distributions to SNIa host galaxy data, we can recalculate their galactic stellar masses and replot them to generate a new Mass Step. This work has wide-ranging consequences for cosmology, most importantly regarding the concentration of dark energy in the universe, which has been measured using standardized SNIa distance estimates.

Nico McMahon, Chambliss Award Winner

How did you learn about the Chambliss Award?

The Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award is one of the most prestigious awards for undergraduate and graduate astronomy students. It is among the highest honors given by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) for which undergraduates are eligible to compete and recognizes an undergraduate or graduate student who conducts exemplary research and who presents at one of the poster sessions at an AAS meeting. The winners are awarded an engraved medal for their accomplishments.

The Chambliss Award is given out at the annual meetings of the American Astronomical Society. Ever since I started as a freshman at BU, I have heard wonderful things from professors and upper-level astronomy students about going to AAS meetings — some even call it the Super Bowl of astronomy. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to attend an AAS meeting, and after my internship at STScI [The Space Telescope Science Institute], I finally had enough research experience to present a scientific poster at the conference. Soon after my summer internship, I presented my work at the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) annual meeting in Washington D.C. I first learned about the Chambliss Award from one of my NAC peers, Miguel Montalvo, who won the award as an undergraduate and graduate student for his presentations at recent AAS meetings. I was pumped for a shot to demonstrate my skills and compete for the Chambliss Award at the next meeting. Thanks to generous funding from NAC and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), I suddenly found myself on a plane headed to New Orleans!

What was the application process like?

To qualify for the Chambliss competition, I submitted my poster a few weeks ahead of the conference for pre-judging. To my excitement, I moved on to the next round and my poster was selected for the in-person competition. A few days into the conference it was finally time to face the judges. During a one-hour poster presentation session, I explained my science to an audience of students, professional astronomers, and volunteer judges, who are typically graduate students, post-docs, and sometimes professors, as they passed by my poster. The judges scored me on my oral presentation skills, knowledge of my subject, and understanding of my project in the broader context of the field.

Nico McMahon, Chambliss Award Winner

What does winning the Chambliss Award mean to you?

I’m deeply honored to receive the Chambliss Award, it really means a lot to me. I think that my biggest strengths are in science communication and hands-on research, so I knew early on that I wanted to put my name in the running. I firmly believe that communicating your science is just as important as conducting it, so it feels amazing to be recognized for my efforts. With that said, astronomy is a human endeavor, so I couldn’t have done it without the tireless support of my team at STScI, my mentors at BU and NRAO, and the thoughtful encouragement of my peers.

What was your reaction when you learned you won?

On the last day of the conference, a friend of mine told me she overheard my name at the closing ceremony, which I unfortunately didn’t attend. I was thrilled to hear it, but at that point, we didn’t know if I had been named a winner or an honorable mention. My friends and I went out to dinner for some New Orleans cajun food to celebrate our hard work and wish me luck as we waited for official results to be released. When I got the email saying that I won I was overjoyed and even a little emotional — this is my first ever award in astronomy.

— Abby Van Selous (COM`24, CAS`24)