SMU's star pupil explains mysteries of space

Austrian astronomist studies the seismology of stars


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Saint Mary's University graduate student Michael Gruberbauer has his feet on the ground, but his mind is on the seismology of stars. (Photo: Scott Riddell)

Take it from someone who studies the seismology of distant points of light. "Stars," Michael Gruberbauer says, "are one of the most important engines for the evolution of the universe."

Gruberbauer, 26, came to Canada in 2009 and is a PhD student at Saint Mary's University. Last spring he received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, giving him $150,000 over three years. He is the only scholar at Saint Mary's and, as the dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research says, Gruberbauer "epitomizes the type of scholar envisioned when the Vanier Canada Scholarship program was created."

Gruberbauer earned his bachelor's and master's of science degrees at the University of Vienna in Austria, his homeland. In an email interview, his former professor Werner Weiss says he proved his aptitude by scoring higher on tests than anyone before or since.

Gruberbauer was invited to assist researchers using Canada's microvariability and oscillation of stars satellite telescope, or MOST, among others. They collected an unprecedented amount of data and were then able to test revolutionary theories. He set himself apart when he began interpreting the data and, "was the first author of the resultant paper ... a very unusual achievement for an undergraduate." said Weiss.

Explaining stellar pulsations

Weiss describes Gruberbauer as a communicator. In his letter of recommendation Weiss describes this as an invaluable skill. In an interview, he demonstrates with his hands, grabbing at my phone to aid in explaining stellar pulsations. Pressure building and releasing in the layers of a star is like the frequencies created by plucking a guitar string. Time is tight but he can talk about his work endlessly. His enthusiasm prevails.

"Once we know the frequencies with which those stars pulsate, you can figure out how big they are, how massive they are, what chemical elements they're made of, and that gives you basically a complete picture of the star." The data gathered helps to determine information about the planets that encircle them.

Even days after the interview, Gruberbauer emails to clarify information. He says that the mass of a star is important in theory, but in practise the diameter is much more important for comparing the light observed when a planet passes between the star and the telescope.

Asked about his decision to go into astronomy, Gruberbauer refers to working as a paramedic during a year of mandatory civil service work in Austria. He describes it as a period of introspection free from worry about school or money. He got to see people at different levels of society and decided on astronomy because he wanted to do "something for the progress of humanity."

Understanding the universe, and helping others understand it, is his way of doing this.



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