University of Vermont

The Honors College

Isabel Kloumann - Goldwater Scholar

Isabel Kloumann - Goldwater Scholar


Isabel Mette Kloumann, a junior UVM Honors College student from South Burlington, Vermont, has been named a Goldwater Scholar for the 2009-10 academic year. The Goldwater Scholarship program is designed to foster and encourage outstanding students in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering, with up to $7,500 per year for education expenses to sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue careers in these fields. Isabel is one of 278 students selected for the award, from among 1097 highly qualified students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities across the country. Majoring in Physics and Mathematics, with a minor in Spanish, Isabel will use her Goldwater to continue work on a project begun under Professor Joanna Rankin, an astrophysicist in the UVM Physics Department, whose research on pulsars Isabel is continuing with her own set of research questions evolved while serving as Professor Rankin's research associate during her sophomore year.

In her Goldwater project, entitled "Complex Electromagnetic Systems: Neutron Star Radio Frequency Emission," Isabel says that she will be studying with Professor Rankin "the emission phenomena of certain pulsars, and interpreting these phenomena to establish whether or not they are in accordance with neutron star theory." "Pulsars," she explains, "are small city-sized stars that rotate once per second, swinging around their misaligned magnetic pole, from which they emit coherent radio frequencies." For her research, she has been investigating a particular pulsar, B1944+17, for those who would like to look for themselves, she jokes. She herself has had the chance to observe her pulsar up close. After receiving an APLE award from the University, which supports student research done under the mentorship of a faculty member, she traveled to Puerto Rico last summer with Professor Rankin. There she was able to examine her pulsar through the Arecibo Observatory (AO) telescope, one of the most powerful in the world. "I feel fortunate," she says, "to have had the opportunity to...learn to operate the telescope to observe the pulsar and learn how such an incredible instrument works from both an engineering and scientific perspective."

Given that the available computer software to properly analyze her star is limited, Isabel has written and edited several computer programs which have allowed her not only to analyze her star, but to thoroughly document its complex behavior. She has presented her research at the summer 2008 Workshop on 'Low Frequency Pulsar Science' at the Leiden University Lorentz Center in the Netherlands, and will be submitting her findings for publication to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Isabel sees herself as a big picture person when it comes to pulsar theory. And like other big picture theorists, she argues that because of the unpredictability of pulsar behavior, researchers must pay attention to the rich variety of observed phenomena by pinning down the behavior of particular and unique stars, such as the one she is analyzing. One gets a strong impression that Isabel knows what she is talking about. "As a young physicist entering the field of research," she says, "I see that a principle point of concern for my generation's physicists and mathematicians will be to look beyond idealized theoretical systems to the understanding of real world complexity."

It is this 'real world complexity' that has pointed her in the direction of a second research project she will be working on this coming year. She has joined with Professors Chris Danforth and Peter Dodds in UVM's Mathematics and Statistics department to look at a different kind of phenomenon than that in her Goldwater project. Not surprisingly, however, this new venture is one that presents her with perhaps some of the same cosmological intrigue as pulsars. She along with her two mentors have designed a research project where they will be looking at large scale social networks, and specifically at the way emotional contagion spreads through a particular social network, namely, twitter.com. She says, "It is kind of a fun project, and what I like about it is that it is brand new. Chris and Peter haven't been working at it for long so it is great to come in on the ground floor."

"It is well known," she says, "that emotions spread quite easily. If one person smiles at another person, that second person is also likely to smile." Moreover, she says, there is recent research showing "that a person's emotional well being, specifically happiness, can spread beyond direct social connections up to three degrees of separation." But as with the difficulties of mapping radio emissions from pulsars, tracing these chains of emotion through an on line social network like twitter.com will require more than just observing whether someone is smiling or not, particularly when the emotion is contained in short bursts of words on a computer or cell phone screen in frequent 'tweets' between friends, family, co-workers, and others. Hence, she says, the project will make use of large digital data sets collected from weblogs (blogs) and online journals and involve the use of statistical complex systems analysis techniques to study the emotional contagions flowing through them." Making use of the high speed computational capabilities of the Vermont Advanced Computing Center (VACC), Isabel and her mentors will be able to analyze their data to answer the particular questions central to their research.

Isabel expects that the social network research will serve as the foundation for her Honors thesis in Physics and Mathematics next year. For her Goldwater award, Isabel credits Professor Kelvin Chu of the Physics department for mentoring her through the application process. For the past year she has served as his teaching assistant in his Introductory Physics course. In addition to her Goldwater, Isabel has also received a Next Generation Scholar award in 2007, the Academic Programs for Learning and Engagement (APLE) award in 2008, and this year, the Undergraduate Research Endeavors Competitive Award (URECA) which she will use in both her research projects. From 2007, Isabel has worked at the Howard Center for Human Services in Burlington where she has provided respite care for autistic women. Her outside interests are wide ranging. She enjoys Nordic and alpine skiing, biking, sailing, gardening, and animals. After she graduates, Isabel says she plans to go to graduate school, but where yet she doesn't know.

Last modified June 30 2009 02:22 PM