Massanutten Regional Governor's School Teacher and Students Present at National Science Meeting

MRGS Teacher and Students Present Astronomy Research
Posted on 01/25/2017
Russell Kohrs, Savannah Horton, and Dana Jones stand in front of their poster at the AAS meeting Jan 2017

MRGS Teacher and Students Search for
Active Galactic Nuclei
       Groundbreaking Research for NASA    


Russell Kohrs, Environmental Science teacher at the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School (MRGS)  and two of his students, Savannah Horton and Dana Jones, have recently returned from Grapevine, Texas, where they presented a science poster on their year-long search for Active Galactic Nuclei to the members of the American Astronomical Society. (From left:  Russell Kohrs, Savannah Horton, and Dana Jones)

Savannah Horton (Broadway HS) and Dana Jones (Turner Ashby HS) talk about the stars in our skies as if they were rock stars. Galaxies, black holes, quasars,  pulsars, nebulae, accretion disks, reverberation mapping, luminosity, standard candles and other astronomy-related terms  are everyday vocabulary for them. A listener knows that these seniors not only understand what they are explaining, but they are also excited, proud, and almost joyful with their new- found knowledge.  


MRGS Russell Kohrs, Dana Jones & Savannah Horton
From left:  Savannah Horton, Dana Jones, Russell Kohrs


Their stellar research adventure began at the 2016 January meeting of the American Astronomical Society(AAS) in Kissimmee, Florida.  At that meeting, Mr. Kohrs learned he had been selected as one of only eight teachers nationwide to be named a member of the NITARP Class of 2016.  NITARP is the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program.  NASA is, of course, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, is home to an archives of astronomical data and provides support to NASA and other organizations and educational endeavors.  

Mr. Kohrs was selected to be part of four member teacher/mentor  team to work under Dr. Varoujan Gorjian, a research astronomer associated with IPAC.  Russell Kohrs’ teacher group decided that they would use archived data to identify “variable active galactic nuclei (AGN),” which exist 13 billion light years from earth. Each of the four teachers, who were all from different states,  were to involve students in the research process.


NITARP Team Class of 2016
NITARP Class of 2016 Team: Front row, Russell Kohrs, first on left;
Savannah Horton, sixth from left:  Dana Jones, seventh from left;  Kinsey
 Wilk, (CHS/SJHS/VT) eighth from left.     There
 were two 2016 teams.  Mr. Kohrs' team looked for AGN and worked under
 research astronomer,  Dr. Varoujan Gorjian. 

Dana and Savannah began their work last year at the Governor’s School.  Before searching for AGN, they first needed to understand what an AGN is.  Online research and Mr. Kohrs provided background information and supported students’ comprehension. The students explained that most galaxies are comprised of hundreds of millions of stars. These galaxies’ only emissions come from those stars. An AGN, by contrast, emits excess energy that spans the electromagnetic  spectrum and is “anything but normal.”  Most normal and active galaxies have a black hole at their center.  An AGN is “accreting (accumulating) material into its black hole forming an ‘accretion disk,’ a process that creates extreme luminosity.  The students said also that there will be a dusty torus surrounding the accretion disk of an AGN.  

(This NASA article was part of background information for Savannah and Dana and may somewhat clarify AGN: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/mission/232-Active-Galactic-Nuclei-AGN-Supermassive-Black-Holes 

To begin their search for AGN, Dana, Savannah, and Mr. Kohrs accessed archived data available online from IPAC. In June, the students accompanied Mr. Kohrs to Caltech where they learned how to use the databases and archives for research studies. They examined four regions of the universe  monitored by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which records infrared images.  They  “applied various techniques to separate out the foreground stars ‘leaving multiple candidates’  that are likely variable AGN in the background.”  The AGN Team reported  “Twenty-six (26) short-term variable AGN candidates were found after culling from the original data set of almost 9,000…”  Mr. Kohrs explained that a process called reverberation mapping may make it possible for scientists to use AGN  as “standard candles” or distance markers.  Their team’s research of identifying AGN is a step toward that possibility. 

A NASA press release dated January 5, 2017 began: “High School teachers and students doing real astronomy research?  Absolutely!”   The release and accompanying flyer emphasize that each team’s science poster is distributed at the American Astronomical Society winter meeting along with professional scientists’ work. 

The science poster presented by Mr. Kohrs, Dana, Savannah and the other members of their team was  titled Searching for Short-Term Variable Active Galactic Nuclei:  A Vital Step Towards Using AGN as Standard Candles is available online from at least two sources.

Harvard University posted the Abstract from the poster --


Caltech posted the entire poster including the Abstract, Background, Methods, and Results --


Pster created by MRGS

Since Dana and Savannah were young children, both girls have loved astronomy, but neither thought of actually working in the world of astrophysics, which is “a branch of space science that applies the law of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the universe. It has two sibling sciences, astronomy and cosmology, and the lines between them blur “ (www.space.com).

Now, seniors at the Governor’s School who have applied to Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and the University of Virginia, these young ladies plan to turn their childhood hobby and current passion into a lifetime profession. Dana and Savannah both plan to major in astrophysics.   

Savannah and Dana

Savannah (left), who participates in Forensics and Debate at Broadway High School, has the specific career goal of working in Public Relations for NASA.  She wants to “bridge art and science” through writing and speaking about astronomy.

Dana (right), who plays soccer and does set designs for musicals at Turner Ashby High School, wants to work for NASA behind the scenes combining her knowledge of math and astronomy.  She is a very strong math student.

Russell Kohrs’ focus is currently on community outreach related to this research project.   He will be serving as an “Ambassador” for the NITARP program to the community and to fellow educators over the coming two years. During that time, he also hopes to assemble a NITARP alumni research team to continue some of this work using archived data collected by NASA programs. Such uses of its data archives are important for NASA and other government agencies as they further the reach of taxpayer investments in science well beyond their initial intent. Combining this with an educational program is one way that such dollars are being applied to further innovation and science education in our nation.

Link to WHSV TV 3 Interview: