Astronomy student goes far at BT Young Scientist

23 January 2017

The Institute of Physics prize for the best project in the physical sciences section of the 2017 BT Young Scientist was awarded to Cormac Larkin, a final-year student at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh, Cork for his case study of data mining in observational astronomy: The Search for New OB Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Cormac also won the Runner Up Individual Intel student award and will be travelling to the international science fair, ISEF in May 2017, in Los Angeles.

The award was presented by Niamh Kavanagh of the Tyndall Institute, who was the winner of the 2016 IOP Ireland Rosse Medal for postgraduate communication.

Cormac noted that he was curious about astronomy from an early age. During his transition year he took part in a week-long programme at University College Cork, which lead on to a three-month summer studentship working with Dr Paul Callanan.

Cormac has been working with Dr Jorick Vink of the Armagh Observatory and Dr Venu Kalari of the Universidad de Chile on novel methods for detecting uncharacterised massive stars in Local Group galaxies. Cormac presented a conference talk on his work at the 2016 Irish National Astronomy Meeting last August, which was supported by the Royal Astronomical Society. In October of last year, he began collaborating with Professor José Groh of Trinity College Dublin on the atmospheric modelling of massive stars using the multidimensional radiative transfer code CMFGEN.

The method uses openly available catalogue photometric data to identify high-significance massive star candidates via a data mining and modelling pipeline. A preliminary case study of the Small Magellanic Cloud identified 26 candidates, and a spectroscopic follow-up survey of seven of these shows a 100% significance rate in detecting stars of OB spectral type.

More than 50,000 people attended the three-day event, keeping volunteers at the IOP Ireland stand exceptionally busy as they engaged with students and members of the public of all ages.

Many of the exhibits at the stand were focused on aspects of light with special diffraction grating IOP glasses to view a range of light sources. A dedicated crew of volunteers from the Irish Association of Physicists in Medicine provided a collection of exhibits in this area including radiation uses in medical physics. Much of the equipment was on loan from physics departments in Ireland, including a new laser exhibit from Dublin City University which was purchased using funding from the IOP Walton Fund.

Alongside the hands-on exhibits, thousands of visitors picked up a range of literature on many areas of physics, from photonics and CERN to courses and careers.