Undergraduate Research Program

Erik Solhaug


Major: Physics: Comprehensive; Astronomy
Mentor: Matthew McQuinn (Department of Astronomy)


Current research projects: Predicting Emission from the Extended Gaseous Halos Around Galaxies


Erik is a graduating senior double-majoring in Comprehensive Physics and Astronomy. Since the fall of 2020, he has worked on two research projects with professors Matthew McQuinn and Jessica Werk, both of which pertain to the circumgalactic medium – a diffuse gaseous halo surrounding galaxies. Through these projects, he has gained experience in observational and theoretical astrophysics. He is currently using computer simulations to predict the faint emission of light from these large gas halos and to further understand the way they affect important processes inside galaxies. Some of his personal interests include running, hiking, golfing and generally spending time outdoors.


Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
The circumgalactic medium is an extended gaseous ‘atmosphere’ surrounding galaxies. These halos work as reservoirs feeding gas into the galaxies and essentially drives many of the important processes that happen inside the galaxies, such as star formation. This almost creates a sort of galactic ‘weather’ system that, just like normal weather, can be complicated and difficult to understand. The circumgalactic medium is in a cycle of feedback processes where for example supernova explosions (massive stars collapsing and blowing up) push gas back into the circumgalactic medium. This creates a cycle of recycled gas, and understanding how the circumgalactic medium is involved in this cycle can provide answers to several of the questions that pertains to how galaxies evolve and produce the particles they do.



When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
At the end of the Spring quarter of 2020, I decided to reach out to a professor in the Astronomy Department about doing research. She had been one of the presenters in a series of presentations that were part of a research seminar for undergraduate Physics students. The topic really captured my interest and when I was accepted as a Physics and Astronomy major, I reached out to her about doing research. I started working with her research group the next fall, and although classes and meetings were still online I really enjoyed applying what I had learned in class to real-world data. It was especially motivating to get insight into how an astronomer/physicist does research and get actual hands-on experience – I got to use data from the Hubble Space Telescope! Since my schedule allowed for the extra time-commitment, I eventually reached out to another professor who does research on the same topic and started doing research with him as well. Today, I am still working with both professors and really enjoying this.


What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
Figure out what interests you, talk to professors about their research interests and do not hesitate to ask them during office hours, after class or by email if they have the capacity to support another undergraduate in research. Also, it is helpful to talk to upperclassmen or other students who are involved in research and hear how they reached out for opportunities in your department. Do not stress about getting involved in research and take your time – it is supposed to be fun!