Cailin Plunkett ’23
“I’ve studied the birth of planets and the death of stars, disparate fields united in the novelty of the methods used to study them,” wrote Cailin Plunkett ’23 in her application for a Goldwater Scholarship.
She’s done much of this research with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Kate Follette. In summer 2020, they used a database of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) to investigate how the formation of these planets diverges from the process by which stars are formed. “I loved the analytical dance to corroborate—or rule out—formation theories, which required interaction between astrophysics, statistics, engineering and computer science,” Plunkett wrote.
The following summer took her to Caltech’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) lab. “The gravitational waves that it can detect are really, really small, so that the detectors [are] also finding a whole lot of noise,” she says. Her job was to compare the efficacy of two ways of modeling that random noise and separating it from the meaningful gravitational wave signals, which come from black holes—the remnants of dying stars. This summer, she will travel to the University of Michigan to research a different kind of gravitational wave.
Plunkett has had her eyes on the sky since her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. Using her home computer, she participated in UC Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and her parents, who worked in biotech and forensic chemistry, took her to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows to watch the Perseid meteor shower every year. “I never felt more awe than when I saw a meteor streak by,” she recalled in her Goldwater application. To Plunkett, who has synesthesia, numbers and concepts were literally colorful—she might visualize a multiplication problem, for instance, as “yellow times blue”—so she “grew up seeing the world as the product of dynamic patterns.”
Now a physics and math major at Amherst, Plunkett has been an executive board member of Spectra, a club that encourages first-year students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, to major in physics and astronomy. She won the College’s Porter Prize in astronomy as a first-year. In addition, she wrote, “As a student representative on the Physics and Astronomy Department’s Climate and Community Committee, I work to identify and address systemic barriers to success in the field, within and beyond the department.”
“The support that I’ve gotten at Amherst,” Plunkett says, “has reminded me just how happy I am that I chose a small liberal arts college where I could get these one-on-one mentorship opportunities and interactions with faculty that are so positive, because it’s really given me the courage to chase after an academic career that I knew was not going to be easy, but I feel like I have the tools to do that.”
And what career is she chasing? “I intend to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics and become a professor at a research institution. I hope to conduct research at the intersection of data analysis and theory, studying the most enigmatic objects in the universe: black holes, which are manifestations of fundamental physics we can probe from millions of light-years away.”