Planetary Movement

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In his first semester as a Ph.D. candidate in the astronomy department at Harvard University, UC Santa Cruz alumnus and cross-country athlete Theron Carmichael is once again breaking personal bests.

Carmichael ran a marathon in his first three months in Cambridge, Massachusetts with other graduate students in the astronomy department. Typically, runners need at least four months to adequately train, but when Carmichael found out his peers were running, he couldn’t opt out.

“I wanted to run a marathon, but I didn’t think it would be so soon,” Carmichael said. “Overall I’m happy with my results. All of the running I had done in the past at UCSC helped with my mentality since I hadn’t prepared very long.”

Carmichael ran the Manchester City Marathon, starting on Elm Street in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Gameface Media
Carmichael ran the Manchester City Marathon, starting on Elm Street in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Gameface Media

Carmichael finished the 26.2-mile race in three hours and 19 minutes with a 6:40 mile pace throughout most of the race. Prior to the marathon, the longest race he had competed in was the 2014 Santa Cruz Turkey Trot 10K, a 6.2-mile run. He hopes the marathon becomes an annual tradition among fellow graduate students in the astronomy department, where his current research involves studying the light from stars within the Milky Way to determine whether there are extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, around them.

He said adjusting to the academic demands of the Ivy League wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be.

“When I got accepted [to Harvard] I thought I’d have a lot of catching up to do. But honestly, I have more free time now,” he said. “The background I had from UCSC helped prepare me for my astronomy courses here at Harvard. And of course, cross country helped with my time management.”

Carmichael’s course load is comparable to senior level astronomy courses he took at UCSC. He’s also required to serve as a teaching assistant for two classes. Classes are finished after the student’s second year, with at least six elective astronomy courses required and one graduate level course in physics or computer science. After those two years, students zone in on their research — something Carmichael is already exploring through his analysis of the Milky Way.

To find whether there are exoplanets around the stars of the Milky Way, he analyzes how the presence of a planet around a star changes starlight collected by telescopes. Carmichael’s key job is to develop a computer code to help him find exoplanets from this starlight and learn more about other solar systems.

He wants to make the process of analyzing a star’s spectrum more accessible to other astronomers so every time someone wants to analyze a star, they don’t have to write a computer code or software from scratch — they can use a version of his.

Carmichael and his fellow researchers use other people’s codes to answer questions like, “Why do other solar systems look different?” or “Why don’t other solar systems have the same number of planets as ours?”

“The main complaints we have are that we don’t get to eat his cookies and cupcakes anymore,” said cross country head coach Jamey Harris of Carmichael’s avid baking. This photo features Constellation French macarons he made to replicate constellations (left to right, top to bottom): Pisces, Virgo, Leo, Scorpius, nothing but space, Orion, and Ursa Major. When asked about how he practices self control when he bakes so often, he said he mostly bakes for others and “basically just tries one cookie to sees how they taste, the rest are to share.” Photo courtesy of Theron Carmichael
“The main complaints we have are that we don’t get to eat his cookies and cupcakes anymore,” said cross country head coach Jamey Harris of Carmichael’s avid baking. This photo features Constellation French macarons he made to replicate constellations (left to right, top to bottom): Pisces, Virgo, Leo, Scorpius, nothing but space, Orion, and Ursa Major. When asked about how he practices self control when he bakes so often, he said he mostly bakes for others and “basically just tries one cookie to sees how they taste, the rest are to share.” Photo courtesy of Theron Carmichael

J. Xavier Prochaska, who taught Carmichael in an advanced astronomy lab at UCSC, was impressed with Carmichael’s confidence and leadership in the lab and skills  he gained through cross country. These skills made it clear to Prochaska that he was serious academically because the lab required significant collaboration with other students. The lab demanded eight hours of physical work in addition to work outside the classroom.

“As I got to know him, I know he went lots of nights with limited sleep and he pushed through it,” Prochaska said. “I know how much of a time commitment being an athlete is, as a former athlete. Since then I’ve been more engaged with athletics at UCSC, including the referendum.”

In early January, the UCSC administration pulled the proposed NCAA referendum models off the spring voting ballot and chose to extend NCAA funding through 2017-18. Prior to that decision, UCSC administration announced it will end its $1 million budget supplement next spring and force the athletic department to attempt to fund itself through student fees.

This came as a shock to Carmichael, who was involved in the referendum during his last year at UCSC and criticized the administration for not standing up for its student-athletes.

“Looking back now, whatever success I had as a student-athlete was weighed as much or more in my education,” Carmichael said. “I think this is true for many of the student-athletes still at UCSC. All of the achievements I’ve seen other student-athletes make — post-bacc’s, grad school, coaching, jobs within one-year of graduating, actually graduating — the voices of UCSC, such as the vice chancellor, don’t see these successes or do not find them worth supporting.”

Though he admits he’s now on the outside looking in on the uncertainty of UCSC athletics, Carmichael hopes to demonstrate that athletics have value beyond sports through his achievements at Harvard.

“Theron is a fantastic role model for our current athletes … He’s exactly what all of our athletes are aspiring to be,” said cross-country head coach Jamey Harris. “He developed both athletically and academically to be a star by his senior year, and he’s gone on to achieve further academic excellence.”