Astronomer-turned-forensic scientist Allison Loll still studies the Crab nebula
Read the SESE Source version here
While pursuing her Ph.D. in astrophysics at ASU, Allison Loll spent many hours in the lab running simulations, testing theories, and analyzing telescope observations related to her research on the Crab nebula. Loll still spends a good chunk of her day in the lab, but now instead of attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Crab, she is scrutinizing fingerprints in the Phoenix Police Crime Lab.
Although not part of her original career plan, Loll smoothly transitioned from astronomer to forensic scientist by applying her training as an astronomer, which mostly dealt with digital imaging, to fingerprint comparisons. [In CSI/Criminal Minds speak this is referred to as “latent print comparisons.”]
“I truly believe that within 10 years all fingerprint evidence will be digital,” says Loll. “Right now I’d say less than 30% of the prints we work with are digital, with the bulk being black powdered lifts that come to the lab.”
Perhaps not immediately recognized, but certainly critical to her current career success, were the important communication skills she mastered while in the astrophysics program. By presenting scientific research to the astronomical community, serving as a T.A., and giving many public talks about her work, she was able to learn how to effectively convey scientific information in a way that a large variety of people could understand. Loll, who is called to testify as an expert witness about once a week in court, relies heavily on those skills because she often testifies to a jury that has no scientific background on how forensic scientists compare fingerprints.
But courtrooms aren’t the only medium in which she communicates. Loll recently was interviewed by Astronomy magazine for the article “The Crab Nebula’s everlasting mystery” in the March 2011 issue.
“I was fortunate enough to have a NASA Space grant for the summer prior to beginning my grad classes, and at the time I knew I wanted to work on a project that involved stars and/or interstellar dust,” explains Loll, who began under the advisement of Jeff Hester, but finished her Ph.D. under the advisement of Steven Desch.
“I knew Jeff Hester’s work, and he agreed to let me work with him. He suggested that I begin building the mosaics with the recently acquired HST data of the Crab nebula. I was ecstatic to do so, and since there is a wealth of information contained in those images, it was more than enough for me to build a dissertation from.”
Loll completed her grad work in the physics department, being too far along to switch to SESE. Her entire dissertation and research dealt with the Crab Nebula.
Since its light first reached Earth as a supernova in A.D. 1054 (known as SN 1054), the Crab nebula has remained a mystery. Arguably the most studied object in all of astrophysics, the Crab is close enough that it can be examined in detail, but unique enough that it keeps astronomers guessing. Astronomers’ idea of how the nebula became what it is today has changed considerably over the years.
The author of the recent article, striving to re-cap what scientists have learned about the Crab nebula in recent years and how they presently understand it, found Loll to be a valuable resource. In addition to her dissertation work she had also been the P.I. on two successful proposals for observing time at the MMT Observatory where she collected high resolution spectra of the Crab.
“If I am known for anything it is the Hubble Space Telescope mosaics that make up the image of the Crab featured in this magazine article,” says Loll.
This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Loll. She and Desch are currently writing another research paper, this time examining the strange shape of the boundaries between its various components.