According to Data USA, only about 250 people annually graduate with majors in astrophysics. To compare, more than 800,000 students graduate with business degrees, each year; followed by health care-related studies, engineering and political science.
In just a couple years, Class of 2017 Bald Eagle Area High School graduate Phoebe McClincy will be one of the those astrophysicists.
The Milesburg native said she plans to leave Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, and minors in physics and mathematics, to then ideally study at California Institute of Technology to earn her doctorate with the hopes of becoming a college professor. After all, McClincy is also part of the Penn State Millennium Scholars Program designed for high-achieving students in STEM studies who plan to pursue their education and make a positive impact on their field of study. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
For those who may not understand what astrophysics is, it’s the study of how objects interact in space. McClincy, just a college sophomore, is focused less on the astronomy side of things, and more on theory and processes that occur in space.
“I actually originally went into meteorology, but have wanted to get into astro since I was like 13,” she said. “I got the opportunity to go to a NASA museum in Virginia (Wallops Flight Facility) and remember loving it and knew I really wanted to be a part of it. In high school, I got discouraged because I didn’t think I had what it took, so I got into meteorology and hated it. I thought I’d give astrophysics a shot, so I switched and I love it!”
She’s been working since November of 2017 with a California-based research group called LIGO — Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Under direction of Penn State associate physics, astronomy and astrophysics professor Chad Hanna, McClincy studies the movement of black holes in space, specifically binary systems that, when colliding, release a ripple of gravitational energy called a gravitational wave.
This concept, McClincy added, stems back to the theory of relativity. Gravitational waves were first detected in 2015 – 100 years after Albert Einstein developed the theory.
Her job specifically is to work on the observational and theory side of things. McClincy has participated in research about dark matter. She said dark matter makes up about 85 percent of matter in the known universe, but no one yet knows exactly what that matter is. Her lab has a theory that it’s a special black hole established at the dawn of the universe – an idea that McClincy said is not widely accepted.
But that has helped take her to present at conferences across the country, including the APS conference earlier this year at Stanford University. She’ll also attend another APS conference this spring in Denver.
When asked what her response is to the naysayers who don’t think her work matters, she said: “I’d say physics is one of the most important sciences because most other sciences stem on physics and innovation is the backbone of science. If we don’t keep furthering physics, we won’t understand how things move and how they work – even if that’s looking at black holes. They’re so powerful that one day, if we figure out how to do it, maybe we can harness their power for our own use. I really want people to understand that we’re not just messing around at a computer crunching numbers.”