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Elle Shaw: GU alum reaches Antarctica for her PhD telescope research

Published: April 27, 2023

by Minh Do

“Every achievement takes a huge amount of hard work and dedication” – said all-rounded Elle Shaw, a former Greenville University physics and mathematics double major. In 2016, Elle graduated from GU with the President’s Citation Award for her outstanding academic achievements over the course of her four years.

And just a few months ago, she traveled to Antarctica as a culmination of her PhD research career.

Elle Shaw: GU alum reaches Antarctica for her PhD telescope research

A developing interest turns into hand-on experience

Elle Shaw has always really enjoyed the stars and loved picking out constellations. While that is fun, she admits, it does not begin to scratch the surface of astronomy or physics research. Elle first worked with a telescope back in 2013 at Greenville University, when she and Peter Huston ‘2015, spent the summer setting up a newly purchased 11-inch, computerized telescope at the Ayers Field Station and tried their hand at developing an astrophotography unit for the Planets and Stars course.

She spent the summer between her junior and senior years of undergrad doing research in a condensed matter physics research lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign through an NSF funded Research Experience for Undergraduates. Her experience doing research full-time for the summer convinced her to apply to Physics Ph.D. programs in the fall, where she mostly considered joining another condensed matter physics lab. However, after she enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she pivoted her research area, and joined a lab conducting research in experimental cosmology, studying the origins, history, and development of the Universe. She will graduate from the program later this summer.

SPIDER – The Telescope Launch in Antarctica

Elle’s doctoral research is on an experiment called SPIDER, a multi-university collaboration. SPIDER is a balloon-borne, millimeter-wave telescope (polarimeter) that looks at the polarization of light from the very early universe, the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

SPIDER's first flight was in January 2015, before Elle graduated from GU. When she joined her research lab at UIUC in 2017 Elle began to work on the new telescopes that would be incorporated on a second flight of the instrument. Over the past six years Elle has worked on the characterization and development of the detectors and telescopes, getting them ready for flight. Deployment opportunities were delayed a few years due to COVID-19, yet they finally got the chance to deploy the instrument to Antarctica this past Austral summer (start in October and end in March).

Elle left for New Zealand en route to McMurdo Station, Antarctica in mid-October. She and the team assembled and reintegrated the entire payload in less than two months at the NASA Long Duration Balloon Facility on the Ross Ice Shelf, just outside McMurdo Station. SPIDER's second flight began on December 22, 2022 and continued until January 7, 2023. The moment of launch was emotional for Elle. When she saw the balloon, Elle’s emotions were overwhelming relief and joy. “I have been working on the project for six years, and at some point, I was not sure if we could launch it at all. After a week of launch attempts scrubbed due to bad weather, and very little sleep, I finally burst into tears after hugging another senior graduate student whom I have worked with for the last 6 years.”, Elle remembered.

Elle Shaw: GU alum reaches Antarctica for her PhD telescope research

Elle Shaw’s impressive achievement working with the SPIDER telescope can inspire current GU students to maintain and develop their passion and continue their graduate studies. According to Elle, “Having experiences in a field that you are interested in going into matters. Besides networking, internships, gaining research experience is absolutely critical for getting into graduate school!”

In the image above, Elle is standing in front of the Spider payload the morning of the launch before it was rolled out to the launch pad.

More about Elle Shaw’s travels and updates on PhD research here at her blog:

SPIDER is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate, through award 80NSSC21K1986. Support in Antarctica is provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program, part of the National Science Foundation

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