Meet Brian Williams
In this year’s Graduate Student Research Symposium, Brian J. Williams, doctoral student in Physics, shot for the stars! And won first place in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences category for his poster, “Using Supernova Remnants as a Probe of Dust Grains in the Interstellar Medium.”
Williams has been interested in astronomy since he was a child, growing up in Tallahassee, Florida. He says, “It was always the science that interested me more than the stargazing, in fact, I never even used or owned a real telescope growing up!”
His interests led him to Florida State University and an undergraduate degree in Physics. Although he was accepted at other universities, he ultimately chose NC State “. . . primarily [due] to the fact that the research here most closely aligned with the type of research I wanted to be doing.” In fall of 2004, Williams joined the Department of Physics at NC State -- and has been doing research in astrophysics ever since.
Williams considers that, “In a sense, astronomy is always ‘pioneering new territory,’ due to advances in telescope and computer technology.” And although much of the theory behind astrophysics is not new, more detailed results are possible thanks to new astronomical instruments that would have been impossible even ten years ago. The new technology has allowed Williams to improve “. . . on the established theory behind my work, to truly explore uncharted waters in this field.”
The most interesting part of the team’s research has found is that much of the canonical knowledge about dust in the universe is incorrect since it is less present in the interstellar medium (ISM) than was previously thought. The origin of dust in the universe is still unsettled. The common theory is that supernova explosions (the cataclysmic explosions of entire stars) would seed the universe with huge quantities of dust. But Williams’ research has shown that supernovae may be more efficient at destroying dust grains than at creating them.
In his award-winning poster, Williams states that “. . . dust, tiny particles that contain most of the heavier elements in the universe, such as carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron…, can coagulate into larger dust grains, then into asteroids, moons, planets, and the like. Dust grains in the universe are the primary building blocks of planets, solar systems, and even life itself! The carbon in our cells, the iron in our blood, and the oxygen in our atmosphere were all cooked up in an ancient star that existed and died before our Sun and solar system were even formed.”
“Despite this, relatively little is known about dust in the universe. Where does it come from? What is it made of? How much of it is out there? These are some of the questions that I seek to answer in my research. The answers to these fundamental questions about the nature of dust are important to our understanding of our own origins, and on a larger scale, the evolution of the universe as a whole.”
Williams is not new to poster presentations, but the Graduate Student Research Symposium allowed him to create a poster that was “. . . easy to read and understand by anyone, something I believe the judges appreciated. I included cartoon diagrams and lots of pictures, subscribing to the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.”
When he’s not exploring the universe, Williams plays several sports, both recreationally and competitively. For the past few years, he has been most serious about ultimate frisbee, which he plays at both the recreational league level and the competitive club level. And when he gets a few spare weekend hours, he also enjoys working on his house.
Any advice for fellow graduate students? Williams suggests that if “. . .you don't truly enjoy your research, then do something else. . . consider a different field. Research shouldn't just be a job, it should be something you are genuinely passionate about.”
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