Varsha Kulkarni

In a galaxy far away

Astrophysicist studies galaxies billions of light years from Earth

Like most kids, Varsha Kulkarni looked up at the sky and wondered what all those little pinpoints of light were. Unlike most kids, she decided to find out.

“I was in fourth grade when I decided I wanted to be a scientist,” says Kulkarni, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “It wasn’t totally clear to me what kind of science I wanted to do, but astronomy fascinated me the most.”

When she told teachers at her high school in Bombay, India, that she wanted to pursue astrophysics, it was the first time they had encountered a student with that career interest. So they wrote to a famous Indian astrophysicist who suggested that Kulkarni pursue a degree in physics and math to start her path to astronomy.

What I love about astrophysics is there’s so much that is still unknown. Every time you think you solve a problem, it gives rise to new questions. 

Varsha Kulkarni, astrophysics

“So that’s what I did,” she said, earning a degree that combined engineering and physics at the Indian Institute of Technology. “It convinced me that physics was my passion.” She followed that passion further with master’s and doctoral degrees in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, and postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona.

When she arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2000, there was no astrophysics research being done in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. That soon changed. Kulkarni created a research group that has been continuously funded by either NSF or NASA for the past 16 years. Her work focuses on both theory and observation, and she has established an internationally renowned research program at the forefront of modern astrophysics.

Kulkarni studies extragalactic astrophysics, looking at faraway galaxies outside our own — billions of light years away — along with studying the areas between the galaxies. Among her fundamental interests is how chemical elements evolve in galaxies. She and her collaborators have also uncovered, for the first time, several key differences between the chemistry of solid-state interstellar dust grains in our galaxy and those of distant galaxies.

Light from the sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth, while light from the next closest star must travel about four years. The galaxies Kulkarni studies are billions of light years away, with information about them accessible only through the use of powerful telescopes in space and on the ground.

To use those premier research-class telescopes, scientists must compete for time through rigorously reviewed proposals. Kulkarni, who with her collaborators has been awarded more than 3,900 hours of research time, says proposals have a success rate of 10 percent or less for many telescopes. The operational cost of observing time is tens of thousands of dollars per night for large ground-based telescopes, and approximately $100,000 per hour for space telescopes, so the awards of telescope time are equivalent to millions of dollars in equipment grants.

“What I love about astrophysics is there’s so much that is still unknown,” Kulkarni says. “Every time you think you solve a problem, it gives rise to new questions. That just keeps continuing. Even now, although we’ve come a long way since the telescope was invented, there are so many new developments happening.”

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