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Undergraduate researcher awarded NASA Fellowship to explore mysterious magnetars

WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy Undergraduate student, Anna “Morrigan” Passey was recently awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship grant from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. 


The project, titled “SGR 1935 + 2154 Radio Data Research” was approved for $5,000 in funding which will support Morrigan’s research career, under the guidance of Prof. Sarah Burke-Spolaor, in the fields of magnetars, magnetic reconnection and magnetars as they relate to fast radio bursts.Morrigan Passey

Guiding her research projects and offering overall mentorship to students like Morrigan, Burke-Spolaor continues to inspire young researchers. “She’s very insightful and very good at problem solving, just tackling complex ideas and getting the most out of the information that she receives,” states Morrigan.

A fresh perspective within the scientific field is also appreciated. “I also enjoy her perspective as a woman in STEM, and the advice that I can get from her.”

"It is always impressive when undergraduates take the initiative to develop independent research projects,” says Burke-Spolaor. “We are thankful that NASA has selected this program, and that both Morrigan's drive and ideas are being supported by this grant."

Diving deeper into the mysterious world of magnetars continues to drive Morrigan’s scientific curiosity.  

Magnetars are the young neutron stars with an extremely powerful magnetic field, or highly magnetized. They exude high energy electromagnetic radiation like X-rays and gamma rays. One in particular, SGR 1935, had a massive flare-up in 2020 and Morrigan will be observing data from both before the flare-up and after the flare-up to see if she can uncover insights into the mysterious phenomenon. One of the theories involves magnetic reconnection which occurs when crossed magnetic field lines snap, explosively flinging away nearby particles at high speeds. “Magnetic reconnection, in regards to the sun, happens when magnetic field lines get “tangled” and cause massive energy bursts that we see as solar flares. I’ll be looking at a magnetar, SGR 1935, and trying to see if magnetic reconnection in a magnetar could be the cause,” explain Morrigan.

The Holly Springs, NC native looks back on her early interest in astrophysics. “I saw an IMAX documentary on the Hubble Space Telescope when I was five and then started having conversations about physics with my grandfather.”

After completing her Physics Major and English Minor here at WVU, she plans to go on to graduate school with the goal of becoming a physics professor one day.  In the meantime, she looks forward to getting involved in larger research projects in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and learning to knit in her spare time.


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