Ms. Tali Khain, Goldwater Scholarship awardee

Two out of four Barry Goldwater Scholarship winners this year from the University of Michigan are from the same discipline, physics. The two undergraduates from the U-M Physics Department are Ms. Tali Khain and Mr. Noah McNeal.

This scholarship offers up to $7,500 to rising Juniors and Seniors pursuing research careers in science, mathematics or engineering. The scholarship is not only awarded based on academic achievement, but also takes research experience into great consideration. Mr. McNeal participated in the KOTO lab, studying the decay of kaon particles and Ms. Khain has worked with Professor David Gerdes researching trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and the recently predicted hypothetical Planet Nine.

During her research at the University of Michigan, Ms. Khain has worked with Professor Gerdes on studying the TNO orbit clusterings and how an undiscovered planet, dubbed Planet Nine, could explain these clusterings. Many of the TNOs have elliptical orbits, unlike the more circular orbits of the planets and other objects in our solar system. Many elliptical orbits of the most distant TNOs point in the same direction, leading to the conclusion that there might be a large, planet-sized object with an elliptical orbit. This planet’s orbit would point in the opposite direction of the TNOs and would be the cause of their strange, otherwise unexplained behavior.

In her time with Professor Gerdes’ group, Ms. Khain analyzed the dynamics of many TNOs. She then ran simulations, introducing Planet Nine into the model of the solar system, and studied how the planet would affect the simulated orbits. This is one approach to try to find Planet Nine, and Ms. Khain was able to explore another.

Last summer, Ms. Khain was offered an REU at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and worked with Professor Michael E. Brown and Professor Konstantin Batygin. During her time at Caltech, she participated in Brown and Batygin’s approach of simulating the birth of the solar system and how it would evolve in time. By varying initial conditions and factoring in Planet Nine, they look for stable populations of objects that match the behavior of what is observed.

Ms. Khain has been able to work on two different approaches, trying to answer the same question; where is Planet 9? She has a lot of experience to draw on, and so summarizing her experiences for the Goldwater application gave a great opportunity for reflection.

“I have been working towards this for a very long time,” Ms. Khain said, “and for the application I had to write a very condensed version of my research and had to think about what the most important aspects were.”

This summer, Ms. Khain is continuing to work on a few projects within Professor Gerdes’ group and will participate in an applied math REU in Minnesota to further develop her skills and try something new. Ms. Khain plans on applying for graduate school in the fall. She is excited for the future and grateful for the Goldwater Scholarship.

“I am very honored to receive this award,” Ms. Khain said in her final remarks.

Mr. McNeal was not able to be reached for comment at the time of publication.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by
Congress in 1986 to serve as a living memorial to honor the lifetime work of Senator Barry Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

By providing scholarships to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering, the Goldwater Foundation is helping ensure that the U.S. is producing the number of highly-qualified professionals the Nation needs in these critical fields.