Discouraged from pursuing science as a young student, today she shows how stars push around mysterious dark matter in galaxies

When Rutgers’ newest astronomy professor was 8 years old, she asked her parents for a telescope for Christmas. It was an easy request for her parents to fulfill – they were happy to encourage their daughter’s scientific curiosity and budding interest in the stars.

Alyson Brooks
Alyson Brooks
Photo: Courtesy Alyson Brooks

But as Alyson Brooks rose through middle school and high school in her home state of Minnesota, she found herself getting talked out of pursuing astronomy.

“Nobody told me, ‘You can’t do this,’” Brooks recalled. “But they said I wouldn’t enjoy it. There’s a perception that science is very isolating and lonely, and that women don’t enjoy it.”

So when she enrolled in Macalester College – a small liberal arts school in Saint Paul – in 1996, Brooks majored in English. She took an introductory astronomy class for science credits and was the top student in her class. The professor encouraged Brooks to join her on a research project.

That’s when Brooks began to discover that her detractors were wrong. Science, and especially astronomy, is incredibly collaborative, interactive and social.

After changing majors and earning her bachelor’s degree in physics with an astronomy emphasis, Brooks pursued graduate study and postdoctoral research. She joined Rutgers in 2013 as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences.

This week, Brooks earned a coveted Sloan Research Fellowship, which recognizes the early successes and future potential of young faculty members by awarding them $50,000 to enhance their nascent research programs. She was one of 126 scientists and scholars to receive the award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Recipients are often in their first appointments to university faculties and typically have more flexibility with Sloan funding than they would with project grants or other more restricted funding sources.

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Brooks specializes in the formation of galaxies, but unlike many astronomers, her primary tool is not a telescope. It is a supercomputer.

She runs some of the most detailed simulations of how galaxies formed, going back to almost the beginning of time – a few million years after the big bang. That’s when the universe was just made up of gas and “this mysterious stuff called dark matter.”

Her simulations, which can take anywhere between three and six months to run on powerful supercomputers at places like NASA’s Ames Research Center, have shown the astronomy community that stars and supernovae are pushing around dark matter. For the first time, this finding accounts for galaxy characteristics that astronomers had observed but couldn’t explain.

Brooks finds herself right at home at Rutgers, where the astronomy and astrophysics faculty focus on galaxies. She is one of three professors who specialize in theoretical simulations. One of her colleagues, Jerry Sellwood, models internal processes like spiral arm formation, a feature seen in galaxies such as our Milky Way. Her other colleague, Rachel Somerville, models huge samples of galaxies. Brooks fits in between, modeling individual galaxies at high resolutions – enough to capture the effects of a supernova.

“We span the range, and it’s a really nice overlap,” she said. She similarly values her colleagues who make observations using telescopes.

“When I run a galaxy test, does it give me the same result that their observations give me?” she asks. “If so, I can try to interpret how the observed galaxy got to be the way it is today.”

Dark matter is still mysterious. Scientists cannot see it, but it affects the properties of things they can see.  That offers Brooks yet another avenue of collaboration at Rutgers – with high energy particle physicists.

“Now that I can explain a lot of these observations through the physics of gas and stars, I’ve become very popular in that community,” she said. “I’ve been working with them to try to better understand astrophysical constraints on their dark matter models.”

Brooks plans to use her Sloan Foundation award to support doctoral research in her lab. And she foresees plenty of opportunities for future research, one of which is to verify her model with more observations.

“It explains things so well, which makes it very believable to me,” she said. “But we need to really confirm that this is happening, and that it’s not just an effect of the simulations. It’s testing the finer bits of the model.”

While Brooks didn’t get far enough as an undergraduate English major to master an author or specialize in a genre, she still enjoys literature.

“I constantly have some book of fiction that I’m reading – as soon as I finish one, I start another the next day.”