Studying space brings publication, international recognition to SUU professor and student

Image courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — Space has been the topic of research at Southern Utah University lately, as both a professor and student have been recognized for their contributions to the subject.

For SUU professor Brandon Wiggins, the birthplace of water in the universe has been the focus of his research. It recently landed him second place for the “Best Scientific Visualization” at an international competition hosted by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

I’m a guy that looks for water in the universe in general,” Wiggins said.

By better understanding the origins of water in the universe and how that water is formed, Wiggins said he hopes to help answer the question of how common life is in the universe.

“As much as half the water in our solar system didn’t come from here, so there is this question about where it all comes from,” Wiggins said in a press release. “Our simulations showed that this story could begin as early as the first stars, at the very beginning of the universe, going supernova. These supernovae spew elements such as oxygen, silicon and carbon into the depths of space. The energy from these blast waves heats surrounding clouds of gas, drives chemical reactions, and causes the very first trace amounts of water to form. So you have this star that is dying, and that death gives rise to these molecules that we know to be life-giving.

Wiggins was the principal investigator on the project, “The First Water in the Universe,” which brought together scientists from SUU, the University of Texas at Austin and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Together, these scientists worked to create a groundbreaking scientific visualization that combines chemistry, cosmology and art to create “visually stunning” representations of complex data sets.

An undated photo of Parker Vesely, a senior at Southern Utah University, who earned a spot in a peer-reviewed journal. | Photo courtesy of SUU, Cedar City News

For the first time, Wiggins said he and the other scientists were able to combine cosmology calculation and plot multiple things in the same 3D space. According to the release, by combining all of the scientific data together in the same space, Wiggins and his team were able to create “beautiful and scientifically useful” data visualizations.

The team’s visualization was showcased at IEEE where it received the second place prize. Thousands attended including representatives from Apple, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and other tech and computing companies.

“They have one of the premier scientific visualization showcases in the world because, for the computing community, data visualization is a really important issue right now,” Wiggins said. “The problem we are trying to address is how do you make big data accessible.”

Wiggins isn’t the only one making waves in the science world, as Parker Vesely, a senior at SUU, earned a coveted spot in the peer-reviewed journal “UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity” for her literature review “Conservative Colonization: An Ethical Analysis of Galactic Expansion.”

Vesely, who is majoring in outdoor recreation, completed this paper for her class Americans in the Outdoors. After Vesely saw a notice announcing that UReCA was accepting submissions for its journal, she decided to submit her paper with the help of professor Kelly Goonan.

UReCA is an undergraduate journal run and led by students. Its overall acceptance rate is 14 percent with a 6.5 percent acceptance rate on humanities pieces.

A classroom conversation about potential colonization on the planet of Mars sparked Vesely’s idea for this paper, and the topic led into a series of questions about environmental rights and ethics. Vesely said her passion for protecting the planet carried over into this paper that focuses on how American society tends not to be energy conscious and the subsequent dangers that mindset presents.

Vesely was able to explain how the question of ethical colonization is more complicated in essence and diverse in argument than it seems.

“I wanted to better understand how ethics we apply to natural landscapes on Earth could be applied to landscapes in space,” she said. “How could we create a home on another planet without destroying it like we are doing with the Earth?”

Vesely has a wide variety of interests including medicine, the outdoors and science fiction. According to a press release, SUU has been a great vessel to accommodate all her tastes. She has completed three internships with the National Park Service and currently works with search and rescue at Bryce Canyon National Park. She is also an advanced EMT and wilderness EMT.

“Parker’s topic of the ethics involved with colonizing Mars was unique,” Goonan said. “She did an excellent job of drawing us away from the simple temptation to fantasize about space travel and extraterrestrial life, and really consider the hard questions related to protecting the natural environment, human rights, and universal quality of life.”

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