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Westminster student returns from summer research in Australia

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Posted on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

NEW WILMINGTON, PA – Westminster College student Madison Huff recently returned from a 10-week summer research program in Australia, where she observed and studied exoplanets at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) near Brisbane on the continent’s east coast.

Huff, a junior chemistry major and astronomy minor, helped capture the first observation of an exoplanet from a new million-dollar observatory, and co-authored a study that improved the measurement precision for over 700 known exoplanets. The study has been submitted for publication in a prominent scientific journal.

“It was an amazing research and travel opportunity. I really enjoyed working with the telescopes and seeing constellations in the southern sky that we can’t see at home,” said Huff.

Huff and three other U.S. undergraduate students worked under Dr. Robert Wittenmyer, associate professor of astrophysics at USQ and one of world’s leading experts on the radial velocity technique.

This technique exploits stars’ wobbling motions to infer the presence of orbiting planets via tiny blue- and red-shifts in the stars’ light. Most importantly, it provides these planets’ masses, revealing whether they are likely to be rocky, gaseous, or something else.

Wittenmyer has spearheaded MINERVA-Australis, an observatory complex on Mount Kent, Australia, which will eventually host six telescopes with fiberoptic links to a world-class spectrograph. Huff was among the first researchers to work at the new facility.

Huff’s research was funded by a $250,000 National Science Foundation International Research Experiences for Students (NSF IRES) grant co-awarded to Dr. Thomas Oberst, associate professor of physics at Westminster College. The IRES program aims to keep the U.S. competitive in international research by training students with scientific experts abroad.

Huff, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Huff of New Wilmington, is a graduate of Wilmington Area High School.

Oberst is currently seeking new students to travel to Australia in the summer of 2019.  For more information, contact him at 724-946-7204 or

ABOVE PHOTO: Madison Huff '20, second from right, and Dr. Thomas Oberst, right, stand with other U.S. students outside the first dome of the MINERVA-Australis telescope array on Mount Kent, Australia.