To senior Megan Masterson, astronomy is “curiosity about the world on the largest scales.” That curiosity has driven her studies at Case Western Reserve University in the classroom, in the lab and through outreach efforts.

Masterson, who will graduate from Case Western Reserve University in May with degrees in astronomy and mathematics and physics, will delve even deeper into the subject next year at the University of Cambridge’s Churchill College, thanks to a prestigious Gates-Cambridge Scholarship. Earlier this year, Masterson was named one of 34 students in the United States to earn the scholarship, which emphasizes academic intellectual ability, leadership potential and social commitment.

“I couldn’t have done it without the mentorship that I’ve had at Case [Western Reserve],” she said, noting the instrumental support she received from her advisers and professors, and from Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies Amanda A. McCarthy.

Masterson is the first Case Western Reserve student to win the scholarship since Jason Tabachnik in 2013. Established in 2000 with a $210 million donation by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the scholarship gives students from outside the United Kingdom the opportunity to pursue a fully funded postgraduate degree at the institution.

Starting in October, she will pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge; there, she’s eager to explore certain topics more in-depth than she did as an undergraduate, including work already being done at the college on the earliest galaxies in the universe.

After she completes the program, she plans to return to the United States to work toward a PhD.

Scientific preparation

When Masterson came to Case Western Reserve University, she was torn among three areas of study: physics, mathematics and astronomy. But through her research opportunities and experiences at the university, she’s affirmed her passion for astronomy.

Over two summers, Masterson completed National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs. The first, at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, allowed Masterson to explore her interests in math and physics by working on inverse problems in electrostatics.

Last summer, she again worked through an REU program but at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. While there, she used X-ray data to study a distant merging galaxy cluster 5 billion light-years away.

“The fact that I can study it and understand it blows my mind,” Masterson said.

She has further honed her interest through research at Case Western Reserve. Over one semester, she worked with Steven A. Hauck II, professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences, to study the melting curve of iron silicon at Mercury-like pressures.

For her senior project, Masterson is working with Hauck, Glenn Starkman, Distinguished University Professor and director of the Institute for the Science of Origins, and Bo Li, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, to examine macroscopic dark matter.

“I’ve done a lot of different research, but altogether, the breadth of research that I’ve done has allowed me to see that astronomy really is the field for me,” Masterson said.

Outreach opportunities

Masterson also has helped fuel curiosity about space for others, especially children.

During the summer after her sophomore year, she volunteered at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is near her home. For part of the summer, Masterson ran solar observation sessions on the roof of the museum, which gave visitors the chance to look through a special light-filtering telescope to view the sun—a unique experience children enjoyed, Masterson said.

“I think that’s my favorite part of astronomy—that the public gets so excited about it,” Masterson said. “It’s so much bigger than our lives here, and so to be able to share that with people is just really rewarding.”

Also during the summer, Masterson helped develop a hands-on activity for guests, creating a 3D-printed map showing the structure of the universe. Masterson used the map to develop creative ways to describe the concept of dark matter in a way that even a young child could grasp, comparing it to air—something we can’t see, but know is there based on its interactions.

With social leadership as a main component of the Gates-Cambridge Scholarship, Masterson plans to continue her outreach efforts in England, hopefully contributing to weekly programs offered by the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. She’s also interested in visiting classrooms to teach students about astronomy—something that would help her prepare for a career as a professor.