ASU master's degree grad is on top of the world

November 24, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

When she began her Arizona State University career, online student Swati Shrestha was three years into a job in Mussoorie, India at a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills. “It was an incredible experience,” she said, “but it was also difficult to maintain a work-life balance. I wanted to do something that was just for me.” Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Swatio Shrestha on top of a Himalayan peak. Graduating online master’s student Swati Shrestha celebrates at approximately 13,000 feet after ascending Chandrashila Peak in the Himalayas. Download Full Image

Shrestha decided that earning a graduate degree was part of that self-care. She capitalized on a latent passion for literary studies and picked up where she left off with her undergraduate degree; Shrestha is graduating with a Master of Arts in English this December.

Attending online classes allowed her to crisscross the globe several times over during her studies, and to engage in other challenging pursuits – at many different altitudes. “Part of the reason I've taken two and a half years to complete my degree,” Shrestha said, “is because my first summer in the program, I spent 20 days climbing Bandarpunch, a snowpeak in the Indian Himalayas. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I was so grateful to be in a program where I could take the time to disconnect, spend time with friends as we learned to use icepicks and walk in snow boots, and slowly summit a mountain before returning to reality.”

But summiting 20,000-foot peaks wasn’t Shrestha’s only diversion. While simultaneously taking ASU classes, she continued to work as a college admissions counselor, attended conferences in Europe, and visited family in the U.S. states of South Dakota, Massachusetts, Texas and Oregon and in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shrestha capped off her world travels with a pandemic-era move to Bangkok, Thailand, where she now resides.

“I started my degree at 6500 feet," Shrestha joked, "and am ending it at sea-level." 

She continued, “I've learned so much from my master's program over the last two years, and I'm glad to have pursued a further degree.”

We caught up with Shrestha, as she rested between adventures, to ask a few more questions.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I loved reading as a kid, and read widely and voraciously. While researching colleges for my undergraduate degree, I remember absorbing the course descriptions for classes offered at my eventual alma mater, Reed College, and being thrilled that it was possible to study such a variety of topics within the field of English. Many years after I graduated from college, when I started to consider applying to graduate programs, I considered if I might want to pursue a degree in education, or counseling. However, as I looked through different programs, I realized that English was still a true passion of mine. I wanted to complete a graduate degree to be intellectually fulfilled, and I couldn't imagine that with any field other than English.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I took a class on posthumanism with Professor (Mark) Lussier that really stretched the way I considered how English as a field interacted with philosophy, and additionally, challenged how I thought about what it means to be human. I really enjoyed grappling with these big philosophical ideas in conjunction with media texts such as “Metropolis” and “Bladerunner.”

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU offered me the flexibility to complete my master's degree while I continued to work. I really like being a college counselor, but I was also ready to take on a challenge, and do something just for me. Plus, the English studies program at ASU offered a variety of classes in areas that I already knew I was interested in — magical realism, teaching young adult literature — and areas that I wanted to explore further — travel writing, teaching composition.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have honestly been so grateful at how understanding and flexible my professors have been as I've figured out how to be a student in a distance learning mode. My professors were always understanding when I would email them months in advance to inquire about required texts. Living on the side of a mountain, I had to purchase most books online with enough time for them to wend their way across seas and up the hillside to my home. At one point, I realized that I would be on a school hike during the first week of classes, away from any kind of cell service in Govind Pashu National Park in northern India, climbing Kedarkantha Peak with a group of 22 students in grade ten. I contacted Professor (Claudia) Sadowski-Smith who was kind enough to think through the timeline with me, and open the class a few days early so that I could get my work for the first week completed before I left for the wilderness. I was so glad, because “Magical Realism as a Global Genre” was one of the classes I was most excited to take, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Throughout the course, Professor Sadowski-Smith was firm in her high expectations, but fair and flexible at the same time – a teaching approach I hope to emulate.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: You can do it! Education online can feel like a solo slog, but make sure you're reaching out to your professors when you need help and keeping those in your life who care about you in the loop about your highs and lows. Most importantly, stay organized! I started keeping a note on my phone and computer for each class, which became the most helpful way for me to keep myself on track. I set up each note at the beginning of the session, with the course description, course objectives and rubric. Week by week, I include learning objectives, required reading, and assignments and discussions. Being able to check off the work I needed to complete week-by-week was not only satisfying, but also made sure I was on top of my schoolwork.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I was in a lot of places while I completed my degree! For most of it, I was living in Mussoorie, India, and my favorite spot for power studying there was next to our wood-burning stove, covered in blankets. But I've also got a special shout out for Harriet and Oak, a great little coffee shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, where I spent part of a summer quietly sounding out the phonetic alphabet for a linguistics class.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I've been working in college admission counseling for a decade now, and plan to continue working in this important field. However, I have loved being a student again! My degree gives me the confidence that I could pivot to another path in education or academia, if or when I choose to!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would put that money to work creating scholarships to help educate young people in developing countries and in regions of conflict, at all levels of education. Education is life changing. It changes the trajectory not only of a single person, but of their entire family or community. I have worked with students who are the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone college. For their siblings and relatives, they are an example of what is possible. But I also know that coming into a rigorous high school or college education can be really challenging, and constant financial stress can affect academic performance. I would want to support students in developing countries from a young age through to a college education, to help young people become changemakers in their communities.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


Blast from the past: Observatory discovery helps unravel astronomical mystery

November 24, 2020

An international team of astronomers using new observations from the Gemini Observatory have discovered that CK Vulpeculae, first seen as a bright new star in 1670, is approximately five times farther away than previously thought.

This makes the 1670 explosion of CK Vulpeculae much more energetic than previously estimated and puts it into a mysterious class of objects that are too bright to be novae, but too faint to be supernovae. The CK Vulpeculae nebula. The astronomers measured the speeds and changes in positions of the two small reddish arcs about 1/4 of the way up from the bottom and 1/4 of the way down from the top to help determine that the nebula is expanding five times faster than previously thought. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Download Full Image

Almost exactly 350 years ago, the French monk Anthelme Voituret saw a bright new star flare into life in the constellation of Vulpecula. Over the following months, the star became almost as bright as Polaris, known as the North Star, and was monitored by some of the leading astronomers of the day before it faded from view after a year.

The new star eventually gained the name CK Vulpeculae and was long considered to be the first documented example of a nova — a fleeting astronomical event arising from an explosion in a close binary star system in which one member is a white dwarf, a remnant of a sun-like star.

However, a string of recent results has thrown the long-standing classification of CK Vulpeculae as a nova into doubt, including findings recently published in the Astrophysical Journal of the American Astronomical Society with co-author and astrophysicist Sumner Starrfield of Arizona State University.

“The new Gemini observations have shown that they are bipolar lobes and we can use their velocities and improved imaging of their expansion to obtain a new distance of nearly 10,000 light years. This is considerably larger than previously believed,” said Starrfield, who is a Regents Professor with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “At this distance, it was much brighter than we thought and in fact was one of the brightest systems in the galaxy for a short time, exceeded only by that of a supernova.”  

This wide-field view shows the sky around the location of the historical exploding star CK Vulpeculae. The remains of the nova are only very faintly visible at the center of this picture. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.

In 2015, a team of astronomers suggested that CK Vulpeculae’s appearance in 1670 was the result of two normal stars undergoing a cataclysmic collision. Just over three years later, the same astronomers further proposed that one of the stars was in fact a bloated red giant star following their discovery of a radioactive isotope of aluminum in the immediate surroundings of the site of the 1670 explosion.

This chart of the position of a nova (marked in red) that appeared in the year 1670 was recorded by the famous astronomer Hevelius and was published by the Royal Society in England in their journal Philosophical Transactions. Credit: Royal Society

Complicating the picture even further, a separate team of astronomers proposed a different interpretation. In their paper, also published in 2018, they suggested that the sudden brightening in 1670 was the result of the merger between a brown dwarf — a failed star too small to shine via thermonuclear fusion that powers the sun — and a white dwarf.

Now, adding to the ongoing mystery surrounding CK Vulpeculae, new observations from the Gemini Observatory, a program of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, have revealed that this enigmatic astronomical object is much further away and has ejected gas at much higher speeds than previously reported.

The team, led by Dipankar Banerjee of Physical Research Laboratory Ahmedabad, India, Tom Geballe of Gemini Observatory and Nye Evans of Keele University in the United Kingdom, initially planned to use the Gemini Near-Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS) instrument on Gemini North to confirm the 2018 detection of radioactive aluminum at the heart of CK Vulpeculae. After realizing that detecting this in the infrared would be far more difficult than they originally thought, the astronomers improvised and obtained infrared observations across the full extent of CK Vulpeculae, including the two wisps of nebulosity at its outermost edges.

“The key to our discovery was the GNIRS measurements obtained at the outer edges of the nebula,” Geballe said. “The signature of red-shifted and blue-shifted iron atoms detected there shows that the nebula is expanding much more rapidly than previous observations had suggested.”

As lead author and astronomer at the Physical Research Laboratory in India, Banerjee explained, “We did not suspect that this is what we would find. It was exciting when we found some gas traveling at the unexpectedly high speed of about 7 million km/hour. This hinted at a different story about CK Vulpeculae than what had been theorized.”

By measuring both the speed of the nebula’s expansion and how much the outermost wisps had moved during the last 10 years, and accounting for the tilt of the nebula on the night sky, which had been estimated earlier by others, the team determined that CK Vulpeculae lies approximately 10,000 light- years distant from the sun — about five times as far away as previously thought.

That implies that the 1670 explosion was far brighter, releasing roughly 25 times as much energy than previously estimated. This much larger estimate of the amount of energy released means that whatever event caused the sudden appearance of CK Vulpeculae in 1670 was far more violent than a simple nova.

“This brightness seems to rule out the previously believed idea that it was a merger of a star and a brown dwarf. And there seems to be too much mass of gas and dust in the system to be the result of a merger,” Starrfield said. “Our bottom line is we do not know what caused the outburst as yet. We cannot see through the dust to the underlying object which is still hidden.”

This article was written by the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab communications team with contributions from Karin Valentine with ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.