Valley Senior Earns Award For Pulsar
Student Places 5th In International Space Olympics In Russia For Find
Posted: December 10, 2012
SHENANDOAH COUNTY - High school senior Cecilia McGough remembers vividly the day in July when she came across something out of the ordinary while going over a data plot from a radio telescope.
McGough, 18, of Woodstock, was participating in a summer astronomy program in West Virginia when she discovered a rare pulsar.
A pulsar is an extremely dense, dying star that can be detected through radiation. The star rotates and gives off a pulse of light.
McGough and her lab partner, DeShang Ray of Maryland, were the sixth student group to ever discover one.
When she first saw the data that showed the pulsar, McGough said she thought it must have been a mistake.
“We looked at it and thought, ‘This might be a pulsar,’ but we weren’t sure,” she said.
When it was confirmed, McGough said it was one of the most exciting things she has experienced. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
The summer program, the Pulsar Search Collaboratory in Green Bank, W.Va., is run by astronomers from West Virginia University. About four years ago, the group started allowing high school students to help scan the telescope data for pulsars.
McGough got started with the program through her home school, Strasburg High. She also attends Massanutten Regional Governor’s School in Mount Jackson for part of the school day.
But the discovery of the pulsar was only the beginning. In October, McGough traveled to Russia to present her discovery and compete with 200 other high school students from around the world in the International Space Olympics.
McGough placed fifth in the astrophysics category for her presentation on the newly discovered pulsar, which is about the size of Washington, D.C.
Hers was the only presentation that centered on a discovery.
The trip marked the first outside the U.S. for McGough.
“It made me want to go again,” she said.
But the trip was more than just an opportunity to travel. It was an opportunity to meet like-minded young people. McGough said she plans to stay in touch with many of the people she met there.
“It was great to be able to connect and interact with students who are going to be future scientists and engineers,” she said.
McGough wants to be an aerospace engineer. She said the discovery, as well as the research she did for her 21-page research paper, “made me want to continue my work with pulsars.”
The study of pulsars is significant because it is a very accurate way of measuring time. It also helps in the nuclear physics field and with GPS technology.
She plans to head to college in the fall and is “keeping my fingers crossed” for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. MIT is one of the most prestigious colleges in the nation.
“I would love to get in, but it’s very competitive,” she said. “I would be so honored if they accepted me.”
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