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NCSA Student Spotlight: Sarah Habib

Sarah Habib, a junior studying engineering physics at the University of Illinois, joined the INCLUSION (Incubating a New Community of Leaders Using Software, Inclusion, Innovation, Interdisciplinary and OpeN-Science) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and Gravity Group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Summer 2018, a decision that led to her publishing her work in three academic papers.

“Working with the REU-INCLUSION program led to being accepted to work with the Gravity Group,” said Habib. “It was the research experience that I’ve learned the most from. With REU, it was the first time I was expected to tackle a problem with no clear answer, which carried over to my work with the Gravity Group, so I got to see what research was like with both programs.”

“Our goal in the INCLUSION program has been to bring a diverse set of students into research through projects involving open source software,” said Daniel S. Katz, INCLUSION Principal Investigator. “It has been great to see this NSF-supported activity meeting this goal, and to see the personal and professional growth of students such as Sarah.”

Sarah had the unique opportunity to work on an independent project focused on classifying over 100 numerical relativity waveforms—produced with the open-source numerical relativity software, the Einstein Toolkit, on the Blue Waters supercomputer. These waveforms describe the collisions of black holes in astrophysical environments such as core-collapsed globular clusters or in galactic nuclei.

In these dense stellar environments, black hole binaries follow elliptical orbits because their motion is perturbed by nearby objects. Since numerical relativity simulations do not provide a measurement of the orbital eccentricity of a black hole binary, Sarah had to figure out a way to extract this information.

“To do this, I used the ENIGMA waveform model, which is based on analytical approximations of the Einstein field equations and enables a direct measurement of the orbital properties of eccentric black hole mergers. I developed an algorithm that takes a numerical relativity waveform and sifts through a large number of ENIGMA waveforms, created on the fly, until it identifies the optimal combination of orbital parameters that best reproduce the true features of the numerical relativity waveform,” Habib said.

Sarah’s work has since been published in arXiv (see links below). “Getting my work published has been a pretty cool milestone in my time here in college. As a freshman, I thought being published was something that only professors do, so now here I am sitting with three papers published, thanks to the INCLUSION-REU program and the Gravity Group. It has made me more proactive to seek out more research opportunities, so it’s been a really great experience,” Habib said.

“It also made me appreciate the scale of my work,” she said. “I was able to go to the 2018 REU symposium in Alexandria, Virginia to speak about my work and practice discussing it with people who are in the physics field. That was actually the hardest thing that I’ve had to do, communicating it to other people—so that was also a learning experience,” Habib said.

“Sarah’s research productivity is very impressive,” said Eliu Huerta, NCSA Gravity Group Lead. “In less than a year she has participated in three separate research projects, one in which she is the lead author. Her work encompasses original contributions in numerical relativity, gravitational wave astrophysics and computational astrophysics. She is a brilliant young scientist with the sheer talent, determination, and grit to tackle complex problems with innovative approaches, combining theory and computing on the same footing.

“Before coming to NCSA I knew there were physics groups that collaborated with NCSA, but I later learned about student research groups within NCSA that I could join, like this REU. It was the opportunity of being able to work in a computational group that attracted me to NCSA.” Sarah will continue her research as a returning INCLUSION-REU student this summer, and plans to continue her education towards a Ph.D. in physics after she graduates with her Bachelor’s.

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