Montana State University

MSU alumna wins postdoctoral fellowship to further gravitational wave research

October 17, 2016 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Laura Sampson, who received her doctorate in physics from Montana State University and contributed to last year’s historic first detection of gravitational waves, has been named a 2016 L’Oréal USA “For Women in Science” fellow. Photo Courtesy of L'Oreal USA

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University alumna whose doctoral work at MSU contributed to the groundbreaking discovery of the first detection of gravitational waves has received a prestigious fellowship for her research in the field of gravitational wave astrophysics.

Laura Sampson, who earned her doctorate in 2014 from MSU’s Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science, has been named a 2016 Women in Science Fellow by the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship program.

The award provides Sampson with $60,000 to advance her postdoctoral research and includes visits to the White House, National Academy of Sciences, a New Jersey public school and L’Oréal headquarters.

Sampson is one of five winners of the fellowship, which is awarded to women scientists based on evaluations of their intellectual merit, research potential, scientific excellence and commitment to supporting women and girls in science, according to a press release by the L’Oréal Foundation. The fellowship program also requires that awardees be committed to serving as role models for younger generations. Experienced scientists in the candidates’ respective fields reviewed the applications through a partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which manages the application process.

Sampson, of Boulder, Colorado, is currently pursuing postdoctoral studies at Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, or CIERA.

“This grant will allow me to extend my appointment at Northwestern, giving me time to complete my research program, as well as to continue mentoring students through their degree paths,” Sampson said.

Her research at CIERA focuses on developing data analysis algorithms to learn about the physical processes that lead to the systems that produce gravitational waves in the universe.

“Gravitational wave astronomy allows us to observe systems that don't emit light -- in particular, black holes,” Sampson said. “These observations will help us to learn about how stars evolve and interact, and will help to determine if Einstein's theory of gravity is correct.”

The fellowship will also allow Sampson to work on a music-based outreach program that will incorporate many of the components that were developed and showcased at MSU’s “Celebrating Einstein” event. The event, which was held at MSU in 2013, incorporated music, art and scientific workshops to celebrate the centennial of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the then-impending detection of gravitational waves.

While at MSU, gravitational physicist Neil Cornish, professor in the Department of Physics and director of MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute, served as Sampson’s adviser.

She is a member of the Cornish-led MSU team that last September contributed to the detection of gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of spacetime -- proving Einstein’s theory of relativity and opening the door for a new era of astrophysics. News reports called it “the scientific discovery of the century,” and the story was featured in leading scientific journals and on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The results from the MSU team’s analysis are displayed in the first figure of the discovery paper.

“Work from Laura’s thesis was used in the analysis of the first-ever gravitational wave detection to constrain deviations from Einstein’s theory to less than a few percent,” Cornish said.

Cornish added that he is proud of Sampson’s success and the strides she has made in the field.

“Laura has made significant contributions to the new field of gravitational wave astronomy,” he said. “She is also a very talented science communicator, and I'm sure she will excel in the role of a Women in Science fellow.”

In addition to her research, Sampson said she is passionate about mentoring, particularly for women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. She co-founded and served as president of MSU’s Women in Science and Engineering chapter, which organizes retreats for female graduate students and holds monthly lunches with female faculty and postdoctoral researchers, as well as social networking events.

“Strong mentoring relationships have been shown to be important for both men and women, but are stronger predictors of women's success than men's,” Sampson said. “It has also been shown that developing these relationships is easier between people of the same gender, and so I see it as one of the most obvious things I can do to help young women in STEM.”

Sampson said support from her advisers and the stimulating academic environment in MSU’s gravitational physics group contributed greatly to her education and success.

“We have an outstanding gravitational physics group at MSU, and have for decades,” she said. “The leadership at the university is also dedicated to the advancement of women in STEM and puts resources behind their rhetoric. It's a great place to be a student.”

Over the last 13 years, L'Oréal USA's for Women in Science fellowship program has awarded more than $3 million in grants to 65 postdoctoral women scientists at a critical stage of their career.

Contact: Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542