Derek Hand and Andreea Petric at the Institute for Astronomy, University Park of Science and Technology, UH Hilo campus

Derek Hand, a budding scientist double majoring in physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, has helped make an astonishing discovery about merging galaxies.

After receiving a bachelor of science in astronomy last fall, the UH Hilo senior is now finishing up his second baccalaureate degree, this one in physics. He is a NASA Space Grant Fellow who joined forces with astronomer Andreea Petric when she was a science fellow at Gemini Observatories. She now serves as resident astronomer with the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi-Telescope.

Together, student and mentor have been working to analyze data that will advance humanity’s knowledge about merging galaxies and the growth of the central black holes they encompass. While conducting analysis of their observations, Petric and Hand made a surprising discovery that, once verified, will be a new contribution to science.

They found that Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), or as Petric describes, “super massive black holes that are eating,” can have a dramatic impact on the matter from which galaxies make their stars. This is surprising because the transfer of energy ranges from the very small physical scale to the very vast galaxy-wide scale.

Derek Hand on Mauna Kea

Derek Hand on the summit of Maunakea. Courtesy photo.


The mentorship of Petric has been invaluable to Hand’s start as a serious scientist. Petric, a member of the physics and astronomy faculty at UH Hilo, received her doctor of philosophy from Columbia University and was a postdoctoral fellow at California Institute of Technology, where she worked on infrared and millimeter observations of interacting galaxies and galaxies hosting Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN).

In order to make their recent discovery about AGN, Petric and Hand collaborated with scientists from the University of Virginia, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, the Institute for Astronomy at UH Mānoa, and groups in France and Japan. Working together, they used multiple data sets to study the properties of the molecular gas in Luminous Infrared Galaxies.

Petric and Hand are currently using different methods and data from other sources and telescopes to verify the discovery. Once that is done, they have a plan in-the-works to write and publish a paper on their findings.

Applied learning

All of this may not have been possible without the opportunities provided at UH Hilo where students can apply their knowledge gained in the classroom to real life experience.

Hand, who hails from Minnesota says, “I came to Hawaiʻi because the (UH Hilo) astronomy and physics department does have its own observatory.”

Said Hand, “I wanted to work with real data, with real people, working on real research, that’s where I learn the best,”.

For the full story, see the UH Hilo Stories article.

A UH Hilo Stories article by Lara Hughes, a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.