National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Katy Tolfree ’99 Returns to Astophysics to Study Galactic Evolution

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 1:53 pm.

Katy Tolfree '99

Katy Tolfree '99

The fifth Bryn Mawr A.B. to win a 2011 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is Katy Tolfree ’99, who has recently returned to academe after an absence of several years to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on the evolution of spiral galaxies.

Tolfree’s path to her scientific discipline was not as direct as those of some of her grad-student peers. When she graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1999, her degree was in classical and Near Eastern archaeology. Sometime during her senior year, she unearthed a submerged passion that shifted her attention from earth to sky: she was bitten by the astrophysics bug when she took a physics course.

“I love archaeology, but during my senior year, I sort of had an epiphany that I had always loved astronomy—but I had never really thought of it as something that was attainable as a career,” she says.

“I guess it was being at Bryn Mawr and seeing all those women who were successful in the sciences that made me realize that I could do that for a living.”

After graduating in 1999, Tolfree took some time off and traveled around Europe. When she returned to the States, she took a second pass at Bryn Mawr. Within two years she had taken enough physics courses to complete a major.

Next, she entered a graduate program in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy. She earned a master’s degree, but decided to take some time off when she started a family. Now that her kids are school-aged, she’s stargazing again.

Tolfree’s branch of theoretical astrophysics aims to propose an account of how galaxies—in particular, spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way—evolved.

“Spiral galaxies make up a large portion of the galaxies we see in the current universe, but it’s sort of a mystery how they form,” Tolfree explains. “We haven’t gotten to the stage where we can theoretically describe what happens in galaxies to match the observation.”

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