Cannibal galaxies and devastating collisions

Astrophysics grad student Amanda Quirk wins Grad Slam with fast-paced galactic presentation

Amanda Quirk, UCSC's Grad Slam 2022 champion

Amanda Quirk pulled off a feat of galactic proportions at this year’s Grad Slam competition in downtown Santa Cruz. 

She compressed billions of years of galaxies’ history into a  humor-laced three-minute mini-talk, drawing cheers from the audience and winning over the judges with her discussion of galaxy mergers and “galactic cannibalism.”

At the competition held at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Quirk’s presentation, “The Tale of Two Galaxies: Studying How Galaxies Change Over Time,” won $3,000 and the opportunity to compete in the systemwide UC Grad Slam on May 6 in San Francisco.

Next stop for Quirk is Columbia University, where she earned her B.A. in astrophysics in 2017. She will be a teaching post-doc in astronomy for the next three years. 

Grad Slam gives graduate students three minutes to share their research, concisely and compellingly, with a public audience. Currently enrolled graduate students are eligible to participate, with the exception of previous winners.

A community panel of leaders in government and the nonprofit sector judged the event. The audience was invited to vote on its favorite presentation.

Grad Slam has a great track record when it comes to fostering unforgettable presentations. The 2019 winner,  Sarah Kienle, turned the sexual dimophism and foraging differences of male and female elephant seals into comedic gold. The UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam champion of 2017, John Felts, earned top marks for his talk about creating environmentally friendly surfboard foam from the shells of shrimp. 

The competition is always fierce, and the challenge is formidable. How do you cram years of knowledge into an elevator pitch while keeping the audience engaged? 

Spying on stars

But Quirk, in the words of Sonya Newlyn, professional development coordinator for the Department of Graduate Studies, gave “a star performance with a presentation that demonstrated poise, wit, and skillful timing. It was a delight to watch and listen to.”

Quirk is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate,working with Professor Puragra Guha Thakurta, who had high praise for Quirk’s presentation. 

“I am very happy to see her go from one success to another,” said Thakurta, professor and chair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department. “She is a terrific scientist, educator, mentor, and communicator. It has been a privilege to work with her as we explore the mysteries of our neighboring Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies.”

Her presentation began with a vexing problem: “If we were to truly study a galaxy’s life, we would need billions of years to watch it form and grow. Now, that is way longer than I plan on being in graduate school.” 

To figure out how galaxies change over time, astronomers must look for clues that represent “tiny snapshots’’ in their history, Quirk explained.  

“A whole lot can happen to a galaxy in a few billion years, including the energetic deaths of massive stars, the violent burst of star formations, and collisions between galaxies,” she said.

Quirk is especially interested in galaxy mergers or galactic cannibalism—a colorful term for mergers that tear apart smaller galaxies while building up larger ones, a process that changes how galaxies function and behave. 

Her research focuses on the relatively close-to-Earth Triangulum and Andromeda galaxies, which she studies by using data gathered with the help of the Keck II telescope, one of the largest telescopes on Earth, to observe their stars. Keck II is located on Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii.

“Stars are gossips,” Quirk told the crowd. “They give away many of their secrets through their light.”

Quirk compares how fast younger and older stars move and makes note of the differences, especially if one is moving much more quickly than the other.

“If there is a noticeable difference in their speed, it means that something must have happened to the galaxy in the time between when the young and older stars were born," she said. “That something could be a merger.” 

Using this comparative technique, Quirk found that the Andromeda galaxy likely had a major merger at some point in the past 4 billion years. 

“This actually changes what we know about the kinds of mergers that spiral galaxies can survive,” she said.

Quirk explained that spiral galaxies—named for their beautiful spiral structure—are relatively fragile. When one collides with a bigger galaxy, “the spiral pattern can be destroyed, and you get an elliptical galaxy that looks just like a blob.” 

Quirk, spying on the stars in Triangulum, noticed that there was not much difference between the speeds of its older and younger stars, suggesting that so far, Triangulum has been left alone by the smaller galaxies that have passed by recently. But it won’t stay that way forever. Triangulum will collide with Andromeda in billions of years.

She also noted that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is also on a crash course with Andromeda at some point in the far future. 

“We won’t be around to watch that merger but the work I’m doing today gives us a glimpse into the future of our own galactic home,” she said. 

When asked about winning the competition, Quirk said it was an honor, but she mostly wanted to talk about how much she enjoyed the other presentations.  

“Because in the Astronomy Department, I am so used to just hearing about astronomy that I forget all about the amazing research that’s being done on the campus,” she said. “I loved hearing about what other grad students are doing.”

 A strong advocate for students with disabilities

Aside from her scientific prowess, Quirk is known at UCSC for her compassion and common cause with disabled scientists. She has been living for years with chronic pain, which can be incapacitating.

She convened a support group for disabled grad students to come together and talk about their experiences. She also communicates with her department and others across the university. 

“We talk about how to make classrooms more flexible in their structures so students with chronic health issues can honor their bodies instead of just prioritizing classroom learning,” Quirk said.

The group has been a boon for Quirk. 

“It’s been really comforting just to know that I’m not alone in this, and to hear about other students’ experiences,” she said. “It broadened my horizons.”

An impressive field of Grad Slam competitors

Jessica Kendall-Barr, a fifth-year ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D. candidate, was the runner-up award winner with her presentation, “Eavesdropping on the Brain at Sea: A First Glimpse at Sleep in Wild Marine Mammals.”

Melissa Marini Švigelj, a fourth-year education Ph.D candidate, was the People’s Choice winner, getting the audience in her corner with the presentation, “The Limitations and Potentialities of Educational Civil Rights Protections under IDEA for Incarcerated Children.”

The other finalists were Elise Duffau, psychology Ph.D., third year, “The Particularities of Politeness”,  Sara Gonzalez,  ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D., sixth year, “Untangling Giant Kelp: Causes and Consequences of Different Shapes”,  Andrea Paz-Lacavex, coastal science and policy M.S., second year, “SPORA: Rockin’ Kelp Restoration”, Ontario Alexander, musicology Ph.D., 1st year, “Joseph Boulogne: Restoring a legend”, and Amanda Carbajal, molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, track in biomedical science and engineering Ph.D., 4th year, “Leveraging biotechnology and basic science to stay a step ahead of the next global pandemic.”

Watch Quirk’s award-winning performance, and the rest of the memorable ceremony.