Physics professor Dr. Jennifer Birriel teaches students skills by involving them in research

Morehead State Professor of Physics Dr. Jennifer Birriel became interested in science at a very young age. Her father was a chemist and he used to read her National Geographic articles when she was six or seven, breaking down complex scientific ideas into language she could understand. Birriel became fascinated with the stars, so her parents bought her a telescope.

Living in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, she was frustrated that she couldn’t see much with her telescope due to light pollution. So, at the age of 14, she started researching light pollution and discovered that it had many harmful effects on animals, humans and the environment. She said it interferes with the mating, feeding and migration habits of birds, insects and animals, wastes energy and contributes to air and water pollution, and can even contribute to rates of certain types of cancer among shift workers.

Birriel said she didn’t professionally immerse herself in light pollution research until she became a mother.

“It wasn’t until I came here and had kids that I started thinking about what else would be negative about blocking objects in the sky,” she said. “So it all had its origins and the fact that I was a parent, and I thought I was leaving a better planet for my son and my daughter, and then I started doing more research. I actually have a background as an astrophysicist, so measuring the brightness of the night sky suits me perfectly.”

Throughout his career, Birriel engaged students in active scientific research. In 2017, Birriel and two research students participated in the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE) experiment. The MSU team was one of more than 60 across the United States that used data collected during that year’s solar eclipse to map solar coronas. Birriel is currently working with a research student to use the data collected during this experiment to explain how the shape of the solar corona varies with distance and to examine the effects of the solar flattening parameter. She and her students are preparing for the next solar eclipse in 2024 when they collect more data and compare it to data from 2017 to see if the shape of the solar coronas has changed.

Birriel students also use laser pointers and fluorescent dyes to learn more about the stellar spectrum of light. One of Birriel’s synthesis students uses a camera and light-sensing devices to map anomalies in light pollution patterns.

Birriel and his students have published their work numerous times and presented their findings at several conferences. Most recently, Birriel was invited to speak at the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Annual Winter Meeting, held virtually Jan. 6-8. Birriel explained how students and researchers can use spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel in the lab to help with complex calculations.

Birriel has conducted research projects with more than ten students at MSU and said she finds it rewarding not only academically but also personally.

“Being able to watch them grow intellectually and have kind of a moment where they’re like, wow, that’s neat and, you know, that means something and I’m actually using what I’ve learned in a textbook to solve a real problem. It’s just seeing that passion grow.

To learn more about Birriel’s research, email him at [email protected]

To explore the programs of the Department of Physics, Earth Sciences, and Space Systems Engineering at Morehead State, visit, email [email protected] or call 606-783-2381.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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