WHAT THEY LEARNED: Matthew Abruzzo ’17

The astrophysics major simulated galaxy formations to test the efficacy of galaxy merger detection methods.

There are billions of galaxies in our universe, and studying many at once is a daunting task. With his thesis research, Matthew Abruzzo ’17 sought to improve this process. The astrophysics major and scientific computing minor, studied quantitative morphology measures—the means of quantitatively measuring the visual appearances of galaxies—testing how effectively they could detect galaxy mergers, instances of two galaxies coming together to form a larger one.

For his thesis “Quantitative Morphology Measures in Galaxies: Ground-Truthing from Simulations,” Abruzzo observed computer-generated simulations of galaxies, comparing their morphological measures to their simulated histories. Because distant galaxies’ light shows how they appeared in the past, their quantitative measures may not accurately portray the histories of their formation. However, if the measures are adequately revealing, their utility could be tremendous.

“If these measures can effectively identify distant galaxies,” said Abruzzo, “they can be used to automate the detection of all galaxy mergers.”

Abruzzo began his research two years ago as a rising junior at the recommendation of former Assistant Professor of Astronomy Desika Narayanan, who went on to serve as his thesis advisor.

“I really enjoyed the work and became attached to the project,” said Abruzzo, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy at Columbia University. “As I worked on the project over the following summer and following years, the subject of the research took greater shape and ultimately became my thesis.”

What did you learn working on your thesis?

While working on the project that ultimately became my thesis, I learned many transferable skills. These skills include programming, directing research, reading research papers, and how to write a scientific paper. The biggest thing I took away from this project was that I really enjoyed astronomy research. When I began the project, I thought I wanted to attend medical school after college, but I wanted to try out astronomy research. Over the course of the project I realized just how much I preferred astronomy research and I ultimately decided to pursue a career in astronomy research.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

In the course of my thesis research, I found that although the morphological measures do in fact detect distant galaxy mergers, their effectiveness depends heavily on the physical properties of the merging galaxies. This research informs other researchers that the effectiveness of morphological measures warrants more research, and that they should not necessarily be relied upon in large surveys.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.