Faculty Spotlight: Andrea Kunder, Ph.D.

Celine Winston, Staff Writer

Andrea Kunder, Ph.D., has taught physics at Saint Martin’s University since 2017. In late August of this year, she won a $187,000 National Science Foundation grant to help support her in her scientific journey. Kunder specializes in astrophysics, which differs from basic physics. 

As defined in the Oxford Dictionary, astrophysics “deals with the physical properties of celestial objects and astronomical phenomena.” This means that astrophysicists study the matter and properties of things in space, such as the planets and galaxies. They really take the phrase reach for the stars to the next level. 

Many of Kunder’s projects have been photometric and spectroscopic surveys. Kunder explained the meanings of these two things, stating: “Photometric surveys means taking pictures of celestial objects, like stars, to measure the intensity of light coming from them (how bright they are) and also their exact positions in the sky. We place different filters on the camera, so we take pictures using red filters, green filters, blue filters, etc., and thereby measure how red, green, or blue a star is. This allows us to find a star’s temperature and helps us learn how much power the star is shining with. Spectroscopic surveys mean taking the light coming from celestial objects and dispersing it with a prism. The resulting spectrum allows us to measure the intensity of light as a function of wavelength. We can see how strong iron and other elements are in the star. We can also tell if the star is moving toward us or away from us.” 

Before going to college at Willamette University, Kunder admits that she knew nothing about astronomy or physics. 

“A friend of mine convinced me to take an astronomy class at Willamette University with her, and this class blew me away. Having been born in Tanzania and graduating from a high school in Papua New Guinea, I grew up feeling fortunate that I was exposed to different ways of life, cultures, and languages.  Exploration is fascinating to me and I feel, it gives me a deeper understanding of humanity. After taking an astronomy class at Willamette University, I felt that space is one of the least explored frontiers.  This greatly excited me, and I felt a deep curiosity to use our laws of physics to uncover different features and phenomena in our Universe,” shared Kunder.

When it comes to her field of study, Kunder enjoys the opportunity to be in charge of her own projects and make her own decisions on how to best solve problems.

“It is never boring to me to make progress in solving problems that don’t have an answer yet.  The favorite part of my work is when I have made enough progress solving a particular problem that I can publish this and make my work available to the public and the astrophysics community.  Having a paper accepted gives me a feeling of great satisfaction and pride and is probably the favorite thing about my work,” said Kunder.

Kunder aspires to use her physics background and career to help Saint Martin’s students succeed in achieving their career goals. Kunder believes “the next generation of scientists are our future” and would love to use her career to impact “the future of the incredible students” at Saint Martin’s. 

Kunder reflected on her awarded grant and shared: “When I received the email that my grant was in the process of being funded by the National Science Foundation, tears welled up, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone without crying. So I forwarded the message to my husband. We were both working from home, and he came right to my home office. I just started crying when I saw him and he gave me a hug.”

Kunder shared that she is “currently working on a method to measure Magnesium (Mg) lines in the RR Lyrae stars residing in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy,” a project never done before.

“I hope that this summer, my research group will travel to the Anglo-Australian Telescope (in Australia) to take new observations in a manner that will allow us to measure the Mg lines. If we can indeed detect Mg in the RR Lyrae stars, we will be able to validate or refute various theories put forth on the formation of the Milky Way Galaxy,” shared Kunder. 

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