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APSU student astrophysicist presents at national conference

By: Colby Wilson February 22, 2024

APSU astrophysicist Li Loy presents at the national AGU conference.
APSU astrophysicist Li Loy presents at the national AGU conference. 

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — When Li Loy first set foot on Austin Peay State University’s campus in 2018, they couldn’t have imagined the journey ahead. Beginning as a music major, Loy soon realized performance wasn’t the right path and pivoted to psychology. However, after a few chance events, they discovered a passion for astronomy and astrophysics that led them all the way to presenting research at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference.

After switching majors to psychology, Loy needed to take a science elective and decided on an introductory astronomy course.

“It was eye-opening,” they said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I love this stuff.’” Loy became enamored with astronomy and celestial phenomena and promptly switched majors again, this time to astrophysics.

Mentored by astronomy professor Dr. Allyn Smith, Loy dove headfirst into research, a rarity for undergraduates at large universities but common at smaller schools like Austin. As part of a seminar series, Loy was assigned to study Research Experiences for Undergrads (REU) and later apply to one. REUs provide summer research internships for students like Loy to gain hands-on experience at major research institutions across the country. 

Loy was accepted for the REU at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. There, they joined a heliophysics project under Dr. Alphonse Sterling of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, studying miniature solar eruptions and their connections to solar wind. Loy examined ultraviolet imagery of the sun, pinpointing small-scale outflow events and tracing them back to even smaller “inconspicuous” mini-filament eruptions.

Though a still-burgeoning sliver of solar research, Loy’s research offers a lot of intrigue and importance.

“If there are things happening so small that we can’t see them on the sun, then who’s to say that it’s not one of the sources of solar wind?” Loy asked.

Their research also exemplified how smaller events can trigger larger visible happenings, suggesting an entire realm of solar phenomena existing below current observational thresholds.

Once back at Austin Peay, Loy submitted their REU work to the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting. Loy was accepted to present a poster on their findings at the gathering of over 25,000 scientists. 

In December 2023, they traveled to San Francisco to share research alongside their REU colleagues and Sterling at the AGU Conference. As one of Austin Peay’s more experienced student presenters, Loy was familiar with the ebb and flow of presenting at a large conference and said the experience was welcoming.

“It honestly feels like grandparents looking at a preschooler’s drawing,” they said. “It doesn’t feel patronizing because I know they started at the same place, and they’re trying to help me get better.”

Rather than grilling them with questions, veteran researchers offered feedback to help Loy improve and expand their work. Several mentioned software like Java Advanced Imaging for enhanced solar imaging, opening new possibilities for future research.

“I didn’t even know that there was stuff that could see the mini-filaments that we were looking for,” Loy said.

After visiting multiple conferences over the course of their collegiate career, Loy has been able to distill the experience down to its most important elements.

“It’s the experience,” they said. “Don’t go, present your poster and just leave. You want to mingle, talk to other people [and] check out the vendors. There are internship and grad school opportunities, and even if you’re not going to talk to people about their posters, it’s so important to just be open to seeing what other people are doing and researching.”

With their experience at AGU now under their belt, Loy remains focused on research and graduate school aspirations. Their plan is to continue finding new REU opportunities after researching variable stars at Austin Peay and heliophysics at UAH. No matter the specifics, this music major turned astrophysicist has clearly found a calling among the stars.