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Profiles In Badassery: Dr. Katie Bouman

The scientist behind yesterday’s image of a black hole has a Purdue connection, and rightfully deserves an honorary Profile.

National Science Foundation Holds News Conference On First Results From Event Horizon Telescope Project Photo by National Science Foundation via Getty Images

Yesterday, the Event Horizon Telescope researches and National Science Foundation (which I should mention is directed by former Purdue president, France Córdova) released the first ever image of a black hole. For scientists like me, and probably a good portion of the population, it’s an absolutely stunning image. But I understand that for some, you may wonder why this is such a big deal? I could personally tell you why, but there are some great videos and resources that will do a better job explaining this better than I could:

In order to process all these measurements from across the globe and form the single image we saw yesterday, a complicated and computationally expensive algorithm was needed (so yes, it would have caused MATLAB to crash). That algorithm was developed by MIT graduate, CalTech professor, and West Lafayette native, Dr. Katie Bouman.

As discussed in a Journal & Courier article yesterday, Dr. Bouman is a graduate of West Lafayette High School, and though she attended MIT, she still has a Purdue connection. Her father is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Purdue. Additionally, some of her early work in the sciences began right on Purdue’s campus while she was still in high school:

Charles Bouman said his daughter was doing imaging research with Purdue professors on the West Lafayette campus while she was in high school. He credited Cynthia Stauffacher, a Purdue biology professor and director of the Lafayette Regional Science Fair, for stoking an interest in research “that was already there.”

As already discussed in a few other articles, Dr. Bouman was not an astronomer, as her background is in computer science. However, while working on her PhD at MIT, she led the creation and development of the algorithm needed to produce the first ever image of a black hole. This algorithm was designed to stitch together data collected from various radio telescopes across the globe that collected data on the same day, which in turn would act like a large Earth-sized radio telescope dish.

What Dr. Bouman was able to do is stunning and an inspiration for all of us. It’s absolutely incredible to see someone’s PhD work truly make an impact on the scientific field. Hell, I’ll be lucky if more than 5 people read my PhD dissertation.

Now, I have enough just scientific knowledge that could allow me to stumble into partially explaining how all of this works. However, that certainly would not do it justice. Instead, I think it is best to hear from the researchers themselves, as Dr. Bouman gave a great TED talk a few years ago on how her algorithm works and what they were expecting:

The scientific community has made some great contributions over the last few years, such as the discovery and observation of gravitational waves. But for every big discovery that’s announced, there are thousands of smaller scientific discoveries being made at our universities and national laboratories that can have a big impact on your life (and no, we’re not talking about the ones that the news will misinterpret a report on by telling you that drinking red wine and eating chocolate will give you cancer or make you live passed 200). It’s the kind of research that continues to understand the immediate impacts of man-made climate change, finding a cure for cancer, improving self-driving cars, and maybe creating a microwave-oven with a quiet setting whenever you want a midnight snack.

The combined budgets of NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Health (NIH) are just over $63 billion for FY 2019. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider that the US’s 2019 federal budget is $4.746 trillion, the three major scientific foundations and government institutions that allow for such ground breaking scientific research account for just under 1.5% of the federal budget.

For just 1.5% of our budget, we’re able to fund the great work of Dr. Bouman, along with other great scientists at Purdue, the Big Ten, and beyond. While Dr. Bouman didn’t go to Purdue (I guess I can’t blame her for going to MIT instead), her connections to the university allowed her to cultivate her passion in the STEM fields, and it shows that the impact of Purdue continue into interstellar space.

Congrats to Dr. Bouman, former President Córdova, and all the researchers involved in the Event Horizon Telescope.