Professor David Nice with former EXCEL Scholars Anthony Post ’14 and Joseph Tumulty ’14 in Hugel Science Center at Lafayette College.Thanks to a $14.5 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor David Nice and his team of student researchers at Lafayette College may be one step closer to understanding one of the mysteries of the universe.

Nice is part of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), an international group of physicists exploring the existence of gravitational waves through the observation of pulsar stars.

“The NANOGrav project provides tremendous opportunities for students to experience cutting-edge research and to develop and hone their data analysis skills,” he says.

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The team uses radio telescopes to observe millisecond pulsars — distant, rapidly-rotating stars that emit pulses of radio waves. As pulsar signals travel through space from the pulsar to the Earth, gravitational waves affect their motion and the signals can end up arriving at telescopes a little earlier or a little later than they otherwise would.

Nice and his students gather data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, which can be operated remotely using computers at Lafayette. They then model when the pulses should arrive at the telescope in the absence of gravitational waves and compare that to the actual arrival.

Sarah Henderson ’16 (Moon Township, Pa.), a physics and math double major, and physics majors Hao Lu ’16 (Wuhan, China) and Enia Xhakaj ’17 (Vlore, Albania) are working with Nice through the EXCEL Scholars undergraduate research program. They are focusing on improving the models of radio pulsar emission patterns to achieve higher-precision measurements of pulse arrival times.

Physics major Allison Matthews ’15 (Gorham, Maine) is doing her senior thesis using NANOGrav observations to measure distances and velocities of millisecond pulsars. The goal of her work is to get a better understanding of this specific population of the stars—how they were formed and how they are distributed in the galaxy.

NANOGrav members are located at over a dozen institutions throughout North America, and collaborate with colleagues from around the world.

Funding from the Physics Frontiers Center grant will be split among the group’s members, including California Institute of Technology, Cornell, Franklin and Marshall, Montana State University, Oberlin, Universities Space Research Association and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Texas at Brownsville, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, West Virginia University, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Lafayette’s portion is $675,000.

Lafayette is a highly selective, national liberal arts college in Easton, Pa. with 2,400 students and 215 full-time faculty, offering a wide variety of undergraduate degree programs including engineering.


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Photo courtesy of Lafayette College, photography by Chuck Zovko.
Caption: Professor David Nice with former EXCEL Scholars Anthony Post ’14 and Joseph Tumulty ’14 in Hugel Science Center.
Higher resolution available in Flickr,

Kristine Y. Todaro
Director of Special Projects/Media Relations
Communications Div.
Lafayette College
Easton, Pa. 18042
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