Aspiring Space Scientists Operate Campus Telescope and Run Space Clubs

Physics majors Michele Woodland, left, and Shanice Kelly work at the new Schueller Astronomical Observatory. Image by K. Webster
Honors physics majors Michele Woodland, left, and Shanice Kelly outside the new Schueller Astronomical Observatory on campus.

By Katharine Webster

While most people have seen their worlds shrink since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shanice Kelly and Michele Woodland have set their sights on the stars and an ever-expanding universe.

The two friends, both aspiring space scientists and Honors College students, work at the new Schueller Astronomical Observatory on South Campus, which they were preparing for its grand opening in April – before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus.

They just got permission from Physics Prof. Silas Laycock to go inside again to make sure everything’s still working. Then they will program the telescope for remote viewing, for researchers and students as well as the public.

As leaders of the UMass Lowell Astronomy Club, they want to share their passion for the stars while raising awareness of the new telescope and its possibilities.

"The new observatory is so important because it will open up so many research and project opportunities for students,” Kelly says.

“During COVID, we want to work on how people can use the telescope at home on their laptops,” Woodland adds. “And it’s just a lot easier for everyone if we don’t have to be at the observatory at 4 a.m.”

They also plan to hold remote viewing nights for members of the UMass Lowell Astronomy Club. Woodland is president, Kelly is vice president, and Laycock is their advisor.

In fact, Kelly and Woodland do a lot together. Both are physics majors. Both work together on research with Physics Prof. Robert Giles. And both plan to pursue Ph.D.s that will lead to careers among the stars: Woodland as an astrophysicist who investigates exoplanets for the possibility of life, and Kelly as a plasma physicist who researches using plasma to power rockets to exoplanets and beyond.

Woodland, who grew up in Shirley, Mass., came to UMass Lowell knowing that she wanted to be an astrophysicist. To that end, she’s also minoring in math. (She has a minor in Spanish, too.)

“I’ve known I wanted to be an astronomer since I was 8 years old, and I’ve never wavered,” she says. “My third grade teacher’s husband was an astronomer, and he told me about what he did, and it sounded really cool, so I just kept learning more and more about it,” she says.

She’s currently taking a class on exoplanets with Asst. Prof. Ofer Cohen, which she’s greatly enjoying.

Now a junior, she approached Laycock during spring of her freshman year to ask if there was a student club for aspiring astronomers. When Laycock said the Astronomy Club had lapsed, she decided to revive it – and then brought Kelly on board as VP this year. In the past, they’ve held viewing nights on the roof of the East Campus garage. They also invite guest speakers – now remotely – and talk about the astronomical news of the day.

Shanice Kelly checks the oscillator in Prof. Robert Giles' lab, where she works on laser research with Michele Woodland Image by Lance Harms
Kelly checks the signal from the oscillator in Physics Prof. Robert Giles' lab, where she and Woodland work together.

Kelly, a first-generation college student who grew up in Jamaica and then Eastham, Mass., got interested in space exploration as an honors student at Cape Cod Community College, where she earned an associate degree in engineering. While there, she wrote her honors thesis on black holes and began to explore plasma physics.

Kelly applied to UMass Lowell as a mechanical engineering major, but early in her first semester, she went to see Giles, then chairman of the Physics Department, to add a minor in physics. Giles asked about her career goals and advised her that if she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in plasma physics, she would have to major in physics. So now she’s double-majoring – and minoring in aerospace studies, too.

As soon as she arrived on campus, Kelly joined the National Society of Black Engineers and quickly took on the role of programs chair. She joined a DifferenceMaker team, too. She began attending Astronomy Club meetings, where she got acquainted with Woodland, and she joined Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, too. This year, she’s the space exploration club’s president.

“Michele and I are really trying to build enthusiasm and let students know about all of the opportunities here in astronomy and aerospace engineering,” Kelly says.

One of those opportunities is an honors seminar, Space Science Mission Design, taught by Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, director of the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology. Students spend the semester designing CubeSat satellites to NASA launch specifications.

“That was an amazing class – I loved that class,” Kelly says. “I designed a CubeSat with a CR-39 nuclear track detector to detect galactic cosmic rays, to get information to use for future space travel.”

After taking the class, Kelly joined the SPACE HAUC student research team, working on a satellite under a NASA grant.

Kelly and Woodland also took Giles’ Math Physics class together in fall 2019. Giles discovered that both women had strong MatLab and computer programming skills, so he invited them to work for him writing MatLab problems for a radar course he was teaching to employees at Raytheon Technologies. That’s when their friendship began to grow, Kelly says.

Then, midway through spring semester, Giles invited them to work with him on a research project: using continuous scanning radar to detect flaws in the fiberglass used to make large, commercial windmill blades.

“A lot of times in manufacturing, there are defects in the fiberglass filaments, but the company doesn’t know about them until the windmills are assembled. It costs them thousands of dollars to install the blades and then have to replace them,” Kelly says.

When the campus shut down due to the pandemic in mid-March, Kelly and Woodland were barred from the lab. But when it reopened in June, both went to work, testing the scanning radar on small objects and writing code to interpret the signals they received. The research will become their honors capstone projects. Kelly also took a graduate class on radar over the summer.

Now, they’re thrilled to go back to work on the telescope – together.

“Shanice is one of my best friends, so it’s awesome to be able to work on all of these awesome projects with her,” Woodland says.