News at Mason
Class of 2017: She has her head, and future, in the stars
May 19, 2017 / by Damian Cristodero
Jenna Cann is interested in black holes, how they form and the forces they exert on the space around them.
That proposed research and her outstanding work as an astronomy major at George Mason University earned the senior a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
“I got it and didn’t think it was actually happening,” Cann said.
There shouldn’t have been a doubt, said Michael Summers, a professor in George Mason’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, who called Cann “one of the brightest, most talented and hard working undergraduate students I have had in my 27 years of teaching at Mason.”
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program awards are presented to exceptional students in STEM disciplines who are pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees. Students receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, with an additional $12,000 allowance paid to the institution being attended.
Cann, who applied with letters of recommendation from several faculty members, said she will pursue her master’s degree and PhD in physics and astronomy at Mason.
“I’ve had some of the best professors I’ve ever had,” she said of the department.
Cann wasn’t always on track to study astronomy. At Northern Virginia Community College, her love of music made her think of teaching as a profession or of getting into music management.
“But that would make something I love to be stressful,” she said. “But while I was at NOVA taking all these music classes, I was also getting an associate’s degree in math. I found math was something I enjoyed that wasn’t stressful in any way. It wasn’t so personal like music is to me.”
An astronomy class at NOVA and an astronomy lab at Mason helped clinch her decision to pursue the field professionally.
“You have so many pictures from the Hubble [telescope] or the observatory here on campus, and we can see things that are millions of light years away that are so unknown to us,” Cann said. “It’s a new horizon. And when I found out you can put math to it, that it’s not just pretty pictures, it got even more exciting.”
Cann helped Summers with his research about exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our sun), which is the subject of his book written with fellow Mason professor James Trefil. She also worked on a model to explain the effects of gravitational tidal distortion on a planet the size of Jupiter that orbits close to its central star.
The research project, funded by NASA, uses data from the Kepler Space Telescope as a way to understand how a star’s gravity influences the shapes of nearby planets, Summers said.
“I have been enormously impressed with Jenna’s ability to focus and quickly understand the essence of any research questions we’ve discussed,” he said. “She is very hard working and has made more progress in the past three months than a typical graduate student does in a year.”
“The whole department has been supportive,” Cann said. “We have a plan on starting research this summer. We have a trajectory, so I feel pretty good about that.”