Klara Matuszewska ’26 Wins at the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards

By Ryogo Katahira

Klara Matuszewska ’26 won a Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award for 2024. The award is to “recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students” and is selected by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Matuszekska is a physics and astronomy double major from Warsaw, Poland and works in Professor Daniella Bardalez Gagliuffi’s research group. ASN recently sat down with her to discuss her experience in research and astronomy at Amherst College.

“I’m looking for companions to Y dwarfs, which are the coldest brown dwarfs.”

Matuszewska first told us about her research, which was to find candidates for companions to Y dwarfs, the coldest type of brown dwarfs.

Matuszewska’s poster.

Brown dwarfs can be thought of as unborn stars, as they seemed to have formed in the same way as stars, but never accreted enough mass to begin fusing elements. Because of this, brown dwarfs continually cool as time passes, which makes it difficult to distinguish old, cool brown dwarfs from young, cool brown dwarfs. This makes aging brown dwarfs a crucial topic in the field.

However, a brown dwarf with a companion, a secondary object that orbits around the primary brown dwarf, provides the vital information necessary for aging and estimating masses. 

Matuszewska sought possible companions to brown dwarves from images in the infrared spectrum taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The infrared images allow us to see stars that are invisible to human eyes since their wavelengths are very long (objects at colder temperatures have longer wavelengths). Matuszewska went on to come up with three criteria to effectively sort out candidates from 1,000+ objects in each image. She filtered potential companion sources by examining their color, faintness, and whether they were comoving (moving together).

Investigating an object’s color was relatively simple, she said, as one can calculate a color by comparing two images in different filters. Companions to the targets have to be redder than the primaries since companions are less massive and colder, indicating they have a longer wavelength.

Companions are also less bright than the primaries for the same reasons. An issue that arose was that distances to most faint objects were unknown, which is necessary to calculate the brightness. Eventually, Matuszewska succeeded in estimating absolute magnitudes using proper motion (how fast an object moves relative to us) instead of distances, allowing her to compare faintness.

Lastly, objects comoving with a target provide a key clue as Y-dwarfs have uniquely high proper motions since all those discovered are very close to our Earth. Therefore, the companion must move similarly to its primary brown dwarf. Although her images from JWST were only taken at one time, Matuszewska calculated the motion by comparing JWST images to archival images by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Matuszewska said, “the goal of my project is to narrow down companion candidates and follow those up with future JWST observations to fully determine if they’re a companion or not.” 

Matuszewska then tested this method on WISE 0830 + 2837 (W0830), the second coldest brown dwarf discovered. This one was particularly important as it could answer pressing questions about the Y-dwarf population. Ultimately, she found zero candidates, confirming it is solitary. 

“This is sort of a high risk, high reward type of project,” she noted.

“Brown dwarf research is a very new field in astrophysics because now we finally have the capabilities of looking at fainter sources in greater detail.” Establishing a pipeline to detect masses and ages of brown dwarfs is a major contribution for future brown dwarf research.

This work, as mentioned earlier, won the Chambliss Award. To be considered, one must publish an iPoster, an interactive and electronic poster, with an optional audio presentation.

Once AAS selects the finalists, four assigned judges across differing research areas evaluate them in person at the AAS poster session. Matuszewska finally heard back that she had won about a month later. 

Matuszewska presents her work.

She described her surprise at receiving the medal via mail. T`he only things you get by mail are the Chambliss medal or Amazon packages, she joked.

“Outer space was unimaginable.”

Matuszewska first became interested in astronomy thanks to her father. She recalled that she and her father had many conversations on the drive to her international school on the opposite side of Warsaw. One day, things changed.

“​​He started talking about black holes and they sounded so insane to me,” she said. “A lot of things seem common sense in how they work, but, for me, outer space was unimaginable.”

As she pursued astronomy in Poland, she later was confronted with a challenge.

“I really, really wanted to get involved in research. That was my big thing…I tried so hard to find research opportunities in Poland. And there were slim to none opportunities. It was so hard.”

Driven by these lack of opportunities, Matuszewska then moved to the U.S. for her junior and senior years of high school. She started living in an apartment alone as a 17-year-old student, and COVID-19 soon impacted her life in addition to simply living in a different country by herself. Days that she could not even see people at school, go back home, or see her family and friends continued. 

But her parents encouraged her. “My parents are so proud of me. And they’re so supportive. They are just the best.”

She eventually had an opportunity to work with Dr. Steven Levin, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist involved with the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope, through her close physics teacher. 

“As a high school student, I got to use a huge 34-meter radio telescope to record data on Jupiter’s synchrotron radiation. I did that during my senior year of high school, and then I took a gap year to work on it and published a research paper as a first author before even going to Amherst.”

“It is like detective work.”

Her research life also continues at Amherst College; she started working in Bardalez Gagliuffi’s research group in her freshman year.

“I told her I’m okay with just helping out. I don’t need to immediately start on a project because that’s also a lot of work for the professor to figure out as well.”

Matuszewska said that it was initially helpful to “ease into the field” from not knowing anything about brown dwarfs as a college student who had just completed the first physics and astronomy courses. She read many papers and helped with the professor’s proposal for JWST. This experience positively impacted the research she submitted for the AAS.

“When I started working on my own project, I was able to be a lot more independent and actually come up with ideas on what I could do.”

Therefore, getting used to the ideas and tools was not a big problem for her, unlike most people’s initial experience. Instead, her challenge in research was working with data.

“It is like detective work. I only have this limited data and think, what can I do? How can I use this data and make creative ways to extract the most information out of it? That was a really big part of the project.”

She explains this detective work is the primary reason she loves research and astronomy. She also adds, “it feels like you’re discovering new things, even if they’re smaller methods. Even as an undergraduate, I feel like I’m actually contributing to something bigger.”

Matuszewska and other Amhest students at a conference.

A lot of the work Matuszewska accomplished wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Bardalez Gagliuffi.

“I remember I had some meetings with Daniella (Professor Bardalez Gagliuffi) when we just stood in front of the whiteboard and brainstormed. We exchanged ideas, saying, ‘oh, what about this? What about this? This is going to be cool,’ and it was so fun.”

Matuszewska said she could not thank the professor enough for her presence, not only as a teacher, but also as a person. She asked me to put her gratitude and love for the professor in bold.

“She doesn’t just talk to you about your research. She wants to talk to you about who you are as a person, and what you want. She cares so much, and it’s just so sweet. She’s just the best, and I love her.

“I’m going to do what fate brings.”

Matuszewska has taken four astronomy courses at Amherst in addition to physics courses. She thinks the department offers a wide variety of courses with an excellent progression: ASTR 200 (a data science course), ASTR 235 (a theoretical course), plus ASTR 337 and ASTR 341 (observational courses). 

“I’m writing a proposal on a project I’m going to be doing the entire semester for ASTR 341, a class where you do a project based on the data you yourself collected over winter break.”

Besides the proposal, Matuszewska is working on several other projects, including writing a research paper on W0830, applying the candidate pipeline to other brown dwarfs, and researching the atmosphere of W0830. 

Matuszewska is planning to go to graduate school because academia is what she loves. Additionally, her experience as a TA in several physics courses made her realize that she enjoys TAing, which interested her in becoming a professor.

At the same time, Matuszewska expressed that she is still a sophomore and “you never know what the future is going to bring.” She concluded her interview by saying, “I’m going to do what fate brings.”

Matuszewska is a fantastic person that I greatly respect as my TA from PHYS123, a friendly face in the astronomy department, my research lab peer, and more broadly as a student of Amherst College. It is exciting for all of us to see what she accomplishes at Amherst and beyond in whatever path she chooses.