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Strasburg High School senior Cecilia McGough, 17,
Rich Cooley/Northern Virginia Daily
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BY KIM WALTER
Northern Virginia Daily
WOODSTOCK--Growing up, Cecilia McGough thought it would be neat to discover something, but she never imagined it would be a pulsar.
"Never in my wildest dreams," she said, when talking about her discovery.
Cecilia, 17, of Woodstock, went to Green Bank, W.Va., for a week during the summer as part of Strasburg High School's Pulsar Search Collaboratory. The group started four years ago when the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia was damaged, but continued to collect data. More than 30 terabytes of drift scan data was gathered, and WVU astronomers chose to include high school students to help search and scan the data for pulsars. PSC serves 33 different schools across the country.
A pulsar is a dying star that rotates and gives off a beam of light, much like a lighthouse. As the beam rotates into the view of the observer, it appears as a pulse of light.
When Cecilia and Strasburg High School earth science teacher Dottie Edwards were attending a training session on data plots during the week at Green Bank, the high school senior said she thought she had found something.
"I was like, 'This could be a pulsar, but there has to be something wrong with it,'" said Cecilia about the night of the discovery. "I didn't want to get excited, but we called a few people and showed it to the astronomers, and they said it might just be one."
Edwards said that leading up to receiving confirmation on the discovery, Cecilia was a "basket case."
"But as soon as the confirmation came up, she was cool as a cucumber," Edwards said. "I'm the one who fell apart and started crying. I knew it was going to be life-changing."
Cecilia said the discovery of pulsars is important because they can help with things like GPS and improving our timing system.
"Like mother nature's timer," Edwards added.
Cecilia is only the sixth student in the world to discover a pulsar. Hers has a pulse period of 185.549 milliseconds and is about the size of Washington, D.C.
"It's intimidating, but also exciting," Cecilia said of the achievement.
But the discovery didn't come without hard work.
Edwards got Cecilia into JMU's Saturday Morning Physics, which took place months before her participation in the PSC, and the program helped her greatly with the mathematics portion of scientific research.