An A&M Consolidated High School graduate is aiming to answer the question of how we got here. 

More specifically, but equally as ambitious, Kaley Brauer wants to understand how the Milky Way formed and to contextualize humanity’s existence on Earth. The astrophysics graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said her interest in science and the universe can be traced back to her high school AP physics class in College Station. 

Brauer, 24, specifically remembers the satisfaction of being able to apply an equation to predict where a launched marble would land given the launch angle and force being applied. After graduating in 2013, she studied physics at Brown University. Now in her second year of graduate school at MIT, Brauer hopes to answer fundamental questions about the universe through her research. 

“[People in the astrophysics field] are very interested in understanding our place in the universe and contextualizing our lives here, our small planet in this one galaxy among billions and billions, and gaining this perspective on what it means to live in the universe when there’s just so much going on,” Brauer said. 

She’s hoping to gain some of that understanding through her research in “galactic archeology.” Like an archaeologist might look at an artifact to understand how a society evolved, Brauer said she is observing “really old stars” in the Milky Way to try to find clues about what happened in the past. 

Using a combination of simulated data she generates through computer models and observations of billions of stars on the outskirts of the Milky Way — where the oldest stars are located — Brauer is attempting to reconstruct how the galaxy was formed. The goal of her thesis project is to create theoretical models of “stellar halo” evolution. 

Brauer explains that the stellar halo is the extended outskirts of the Milky Way. The middle part of the galaxy is where most stars are being formed now, and the stars in the stellar halo are left over from “old galaxy mergers,” she said. 

In theory, Brauer believes those older stars contain a record of how the galaxy formed and properties of the early universe. 

She compares the process of answering these questions as being similar to trying to figure out the recipe for a cake by observing the final product. This would probably involve baking many cakes and comparing them to the original cake to try to match its flavors and appearance. To reconstruct “the recipe for our galaxy,”  Brauer is using computer simulations and data from the Gaia telescope. 

Though she considered working on “more immediate” problems such as renewable energy sources, Brauer said she “just really wanted to learn fundamental truths” about the universe. And while finding the answers to some of these big questions may not be immediately applicable to uses in modern society, Brauer said, it could help create future technologies “that we’re not aware of.” 

“It could be groundbreaking, it could not be,” Brauer said. “That uncertainty is kind of exciting.”

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