“This is just a disk of gas that, basically, contains stars on which supernova explosions go off,” said Schneider, assistant professor of physics. “There are little clouds where stars form, but then they explode, and they create these big bubbles in the galactic disk that push the gas out afterward.”
Schneider is the first person from Pitt’s Department of Astronomy and the first woman from Pitt to win the Packard Fellowship. She received this national award in October for her groundbreaking code “Chola” – computational hydrodynamics in second builds – used to simulate incredibly complex astronomical events.
In 1988, the Packard Corporation was established Packard Fellowship Award To support “curious” and “enthusiastic” scientists and engineers from the United States. Each year, 50 universities nominate two aspiring professors to compete for the award, and 20 fellows are selected to receive $875,000 in grants over five years.
Schneider’s creations simulate interactions between massive celestial bodies that take millions of years to occur in nature, but using her code, Schneider said she could visualize them from start to finish by simulating them on a supercomputer.
“You can’t notice this. You’re observing many galaxies in different stages of the process,” Schneider said. “But the simulations are how you can actually see everything unfold.”
Arthur Kosovsky, head of physics and astronomy, said Schneider’s code is now working on the world’s fastest supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Kosovsky said the impact of Schneider’s work has historical proportions.
“It is ready to produce the best simulation of galaxies ever,” Kosovsky said.
Schneider found the path she wanted to follow while studying the universe through telescopes and equipment at observation posts.
“When I went for surveillance, I was with someone who had been watching for many years, was very concerned about the weather and was constantly checking his phone,” Schneider said. “Will there be clouds? Will it rain on us? I soon realized that watching was not for me.”
Soon after her time observing galaxies, Schneider began modeling them on computers instead, finding the “control” she lacked when attempting to observe them in nature.
“I realized I really liked the modeling, because sure, things can go wrong, there may be errors in my code, and I can run simulations and it doesn’t go the way I expect, but everything seems to be under my control,” Schneider said.
Robert Cady, a graduate student in physics focusing on high-performance computing, worked closely on Chola along with Schneider and her team. According to Caddy, no previous code in astro-modeling can emulate as efficiently as Cholla due to its ability to harness supercomputer GPUs, making the most of its processing power.
Schneider said Cholla is software that has been adapted to a “new hardware space.”
The program I made [Cholla] It’s designed to take our existing formulas and move them into this new hardware space so we can basically do things faster, and it really worked,” Schneider said.
Helena Ricci, another graduate student working at Chola, said no other program matches Chola’s accuracy. Each image Cholla produces is made of trillions of tiny cells, allowing scientists to closely monitor the patterns.
“What makes Chola so unique is that we are able to simulate an entire galaxy, and the environment around it, because each individual cell in the simulation is exactly the same size,” Ritchie said.
As the first woman to receive this honor in Pitt, Schneider said Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is short on women and minorities at the higher levels. She feels like she’s “pushing the balance of things” by winning the Packard Fellowship.
“At the graduate student level, there are a lot of women, but by the time you reach the rank of established professor, it looks different,” Schneider said. “It’s also worth noting, you know, that … not only are women missing from the field, we’re missing other minority people.”
Ritchie said working with Schneider helped her gain confidence in her work, despite her being in the minority in physics.
“I interacted with people who wanted to be elitist and they discouraged me,” Ritchie said. “I definitely didn’t believe in myself as much as I do now, and I really think a lot of that has to do with Evan being my advisor and kind of a role model.”
Schneider said, above all else, that astronomy is a “team science” and also gave credit to her team for the award.
“Astronomy is a team science, almost everyone works in teams or collaborations,” Schneider said. “The idea of claiming attribution to something yourself isn’t really how the field works.”
According to Kosovsky, the work of Schneider and her team will have a tremendous impact on
future of the field.
“This comes at an important time,” Kosovsky said. “The new James Webb Space Telescope provides unprecedented observations of the first galaxies, and Evan’s simulation will be key to understanding the entire history of galaxy formation in the universe.”