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Virginia student makes rare discovery at Green Bank, W.Va.

WOODSTOCK, Va. -- Growing up, Cecilia McGough thought it would be neat to discover something, but she never imagined it would be a pulsar.

"Never in my wildest dreams," she said, when talking about her discovery.

Cecilia, 17, of Woodstock, went to Green Bank, W.Va., for a week during the summer as part of Strasburg High School's Pulsar Search Collaboratory. The group started four years ago when the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia was damaged, but continued to collect data. More than 30 terabytes of drift scan data was gathered, and WVU astronomers chose to include high school students to help search and scan the data for pulsars. PSC serves 33 different schools across the country.

A pulsar is a dying star that rotates and gives off a beam of light, much like a lighthouse. As the beam rotates into the view of the observer, it appears as a pulse of light.

When Cecilia and Strasburg High School earth science teacher Dottie Edwards were attending a training session on data plots during the week at Green Bank, the high school senior said she thought she had found something.

"I was like, 'This could be a pulsar, but there has to be something wrong with it,'" said Cecilia about the night of the discovery. "I didn't want to get excited, but we called a few people and showed it to the astronomers, and they said it might just be one."

Edwards said that leading up to receiving confirmation on the discovery, Cecilia was a "basket case."

"But as soon as the confirmation came up, she was cool as a cucumber," Edwards said. "I'm the one who fell apart and started crying ... I knew it was going to be life-changing."

Cecilia said the discovery of pulsars is important because they can help with things like GPS and improving our timing system.

"Like mother nature's timer," Edwards added.

Cecilia is only the sixth student in the world to discover a pulsar. Hers has a pulse period of 185.549 milliseconds and is about the size of Washington D.C.

"It's intimidating, but also exciting," Cecilia said of the achievement.

But the discovery didn't come without hard work.

Edwards got Cecilia into JMU's Saturday Morning Physics, which took place months before her participation in the PSC, and the program helped her greatly with the mathematics portion of scientific research.

But Cecilia's work isn't stopping anytime soon.

In October, she will be one of 200 students in the world to compete in the International Space Olympics in Russia. There, she will give an oral presentation on her pulsar discovery, and apply her knowledge in physics, mathematics and literature. She said she's nervous, but won't let nerves get in the way of her ultimate goal.

"I want to be an aerospace engineer," she said. "My fingers are crossed for me to get into MIT, but we'll see. Early admission is November 1, so I am definitely looking forward to that."

Cecilia said she's interested in science because it combines two subjects she enjoys: writing and mathematics. However, she also likes that "it explains the world around us and how it works."

Edwards, who never had Cecilia as her own student, sees a bright future ahead."This discovery will open up so many doors, and I knew that it was going to be the ticket to start getting her to the dreams that she wants," she said.


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