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Look to the Stars

UNLV scientist searches for new information and for ways to explain a complex subject to the everyday folk.

People  |  Mar 28, 2018  |  By Shane Bevell
Portrait Zhaohuan Zhu

Zhaohuan Zhu, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, has been named a 2017 Sloan Research Fellow
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

UNLV astrophysicist Zhaohuan Zhu not only studies stars to better understand our universe, but also is a ‘rising star’ himself in UNLV’s department of physics and astronomy.

In less than two years, he has garnered prestigious accolades, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Award and the 2017 Sloan Research Fellow award.

One reason: The professor is advancing knowledge in the complex field of computational astrophysics while making his research findings understandable to fellow scientists, his students, and the public. Explaining complicated information to such a range of audiences is anything but easy.

Computational astrophysics is a relatively new field. Zhu’s niche is constructing realistic numerical models to explain observations. This field has emerged as new imaging/observation technologies have led to an explosion of observation data, which are in need of interpretation.

“To get deeper insights out of these observations, we need realistic numerical simulations,” Zhu said. “In some sense, it is a bit like atmospheric science. You need to build global atmospheric simulations to understand our weather pattern.”

His research focuses on using computer simulations to study the origin of Earth and other planets. Not surprisingly, the availability of resources at UNLV’s National Supercomputing Institute was one reason Zhu chose to join the UNLV faculty.

Planet Formation

Astronomers are now convinced that many, if not most, stars are accompanied by planets, according to Zhu. Astronomers are interested in learning how planets form, and whether or not our solar system is representative of other systems in the universe.

“It is believed that planets formed from a disk of material around the young sun; this disk is long gone for our solar system, but still present around other young stars,” Zhu said.

In his NSF project, Zhu will use national supercomputers to model how such disks form and change under the effects of radiation from the star and from magnetic fields in space. These computer simulations can be compared with observations obtained from space missions and ground-based telescopes to reveal the secrets of how Earth formed billions of years ago.

To make the subject easier to understand, Zhu has embraced new technologies.

Through an interactive programming software, he is teaching a computational physics class in a form that mixes lectures and lab practices, so that students can learn the theory, practice programming, and get feedback all in one class.

He is taking his teaching beyond the classroom by working with University Libraries to create visualizations of the numerical simulation data in the Lied Library’s virtual reality lab. He will take students to the lab to play with their simulation data from their midterm project. This collaboration reflects the University Library’s new role in demonstrating digital products and providing new experiences for students and the public in the digital era.

Zhu also has plans for a series of educational efforts aimed toward the general public and students and researchers working in the field. For example, he hopes to work with educators at national museums and supercomputer centers to generate visualizations to help the public better understand physics and astronomy concepts. Already, he has created a simulation for the planetarium show “Incoming!” at the California Academy of Sciences. That animation was selected as a finalist in the annual NSF visualization challenge.

Next Generation Leader

Most recently, Zhu was awarded the NSF Early Career Award, which is the NSF's most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The five-year, $593,489 grant was awarded to Zhu for his research on understanding how the planetary system forms using numerical simulations as well as increasing the literacy of scientific computing.

Last year, Zhu was named a 2017 Sloan Research Fellow, the first UNLV scientist to earn the award for early career scholars considered “the next generation of scientific leaders.”

Zhu received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and was a postdoctoral researcher and Hubble Fellow at Princeton University.

Lee Hartmann, Zhu’s doctoral advisor recognized his potential. “Zhaohuan was my first graduate student that I took on when I moved to the University of Michigan,” Hartmann said. “I knew he had the potential to become a very special researcher early on because of his skills and his extremely hard work. Plus, Zhaohuan always seemed happy, which is important if one is to have a productive, successful career.”