Finding a galaxy far, far away

By Aleksa Radenovic

A member of Youngstown State University’s faculty has used the world-renowned NASA space telescope the Hubble — and hopes to use the James Webb telescope — to contribute to astronomical discoveries.

Patrick Durrell, professor of physics and astronomy and director of Ward Beecher Planetarium, has used the Hubble for many years and took part in numerous observational research projects.

Patrick Durrell is a YSU physics and astronomy professor.

Durrell said using the Hubble, he and his team discovered a new galaxy during the Virgo Intra-Cluster Star project

“On the Hubble project we studied a small part of a cluster to look for orphaned stars,” Durrell said. “And, just by accident, I looked at the images and discovered a dwarfed galaxy.”

Durrell is part of an international team waiting for time on the James Webb Space Telescope proposal. 

Durrell said the James Webb is more precise with taking images than the Hubble and would help tremendously on his next project.

“I am collaborating with a group of astronomers from Austria, Germany and France to take a closer look at a galaxy we wrote a paper on,” Durrell said. “I said ‘I think we need James Webb to do this.’”

Durrell said throughout his career he has used many telescopes to conduct research, but since he came to YSU, the Hubble telescope has been his number one tool. 

“I’ve been heavily involved in working with the Hubble Space Telescope for my research,” Durrell said. “I’ve been a co-investigator in about nine different projects with scientists from around the world to analyze Hubble images.” 

What started off as an interest in science grew into passion and profession. Durrell said he developed a curiosity for science from a young age and knew he wanted to become an astronomer.

“As a kid, I had a telescope and I would go outside and use it,” Durrell said. “Early on, I was bitten by the science-bug and knew what I wanted to do.”

Durrell, originally from Canada, said many teachers in his early life helped him walk the path of science, but there was one person who inspired him the most — Carl Sagan. Sagan played a vital role in the American space program and was a consultant for NASA in the 1950s.

“The original ‘Cosmos’ came out with Carl Sagan as the narrator and I was floored,” Durrell said. “It was a wonderfully done 1980 program series talking about astronomy.”

After graduating from high school, Durrell earned his bachelor’s degree in astronomy at the University of Victoria, Canada. Durrell said because of the strong astronomy program, he was mentored by various professors. But in order to reach his goals, he needed to continue his education.

“The big idea of becoming a great astronomer means you have to go to grad school,” Durrell said. “I went to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario to do my Master’s degree and Ph.D. in 1996.”

For the next eight years, he worked as a teacher and researcher at nationally recognized universities in the U.S. and Canada before coming to YSU.

“I was at [Pennsylvania State University] main campus for a few years, Vancouver and University of Waterloo in Ontario,” Durrell said. “Then in 2004, YSU was looking for someone with my qualifications and here I am, 18 years later.”

Durrell has connections with scientists all over the world, making YSU’s astronomy program well equipped to help students get to top graduate programs in the country.

Durrell said he encourages his physics and astronomy students to search out graduate degrees and form connections like he has. 

“The idea of our program is to prepare students, if they so choose, for graduate schools,” Durrell said. “I had students go to [Pennsylvania State University] and University of New Mexico.”