UNT Graduate Research Spotlight: Trung Ha | College of Science
February 23, 2022

UNT Graduate Research Spotlight: Trung Ha

Meet COS graduate student Trung Ha, who is working with UNT Physics professor Dr. Yuan Li on various research projects in astrophysics. For the past two years, the pair have looked at nearby star-forming regions to study the turbulent nature of young stars in motion to reveal how different phases (stars, dense gas, diffuse gas) of interstellar space are interconnected.

"Trung is one of the best graduate students I have ever known. He started working with me on his first project about stellar kinematics as soon as he started graduate school," said Dr. Li. "I had expected to only see preliminary results in the first year, which would be typical for beginning graduate students. However, within four months, Trung had already completed the project and published a paper in ApJ Letter."

Currently Trung is also working with Dr. Ohad Shemmer, also of the Physics Department, to study a subset of very luminous supermassive black holes (quasars) through spectroscopy to infer their physical properties.

"Both of these projects require the use of computer programming to analyze big amount of data taken from ground and space observatories," said Trung. "However, contrary to one's expectation, I do not operate the telescopes myself, so my laptop alone constitutes my research lab."

Trung, who received an Associate of Science degree from Central Arizona College and a Bachelor of Science degree from University of Rochester before coming to UNT to pursue his PhD, always found space fascinating as a child.

"I was curious about how these bright dots in the night sky were shining, and I was lucky enough to be mentored by dedicated teachers who share my enthusiasm, so year by year I found myself more drawn to the field of astrophysics," he said. "During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to join a research group who were working in computational astrophysics and found it to be a good fit for myself, so I decided to continue pursuing this field in graduate school."

When deciding between continuing his studies or find work as high school physics teacher as an undergrad, Trung ultimately chose the research path at UNT, which is known for its R1 research institution status and expanding astronomy program. Trung has been working under his PhD advisor, Dr. Li, since he came to UNT two years ago.

"Dr. Li has been instrumental in quickly familiarizing me to her field of research, supporting me in academic-related matters as well as outside the classroom," said Trung. "We have frequent one-on-one meetings where I feel welcome to ask any question I have or pitch in my own ideas. Her flexibility allows me to explore avenues that I enjoy in, but at the same time is attentively keeping me on track with the main objective of our project."

"Within a year and a half of graduate school, Trung has already accomplished more than what many students do with their entire Ph.D. thesis," said Dr. Li. "Trung and I are about to start modeling the accretion flows onto supermassive black holes. I am confident he will make great contributions to the discipline, and am excited to see what he discovers in what is sure to be a promising career."

For the star turbulence project with Dr. Li, Trung said that more work can be done with an expanded sample of star-forming regions to confirm the universality of turbulence in the Milky Way. Additionally, since the velocity statistics of stars is an imprint from past interstellar processes, further interpretations of the statistics can reveal the evolutionary history of these star-forming regions, such as the number density of stars, whether there are massive stars in the cluster, or whether supernova activities have taken place there.

While at UNT, Trung has discovered that collaboration is key to any scientific endeavor. "Collaborating with classmates in my courses and with other scientists and graduate students in my research has been extremely helpful in advancing my knowledge of physics and astronomy," he said.

"Dr. Shemmer has also been a great mentor to me," he said. "We have weekly group meetings where I can chat with him as well as with other students about our respective projects. This level of communication has allowed me to expand my knowledge to other areas of astronomy and will help giving me a complete picture of the field as I transition to my PhD thesis project with Dr. Li on simulating the environment around supermassive black holes."

What is the most rewarding part of his research? "Definitely the knowledge that I am adding my tiny bit of contribution to a collective body of knowledge that humanity have built for thousands of years," said Trung. "And of course, for every discovery we make, knowing that I am among the first few people to have ever seen these pattern in nature."