Erik Tollerud Spotlight

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Spotlight On: Erik Tollerud

It is not every day one meets an astrophysicist who has a cat named Kepler.  But UCI doctoral student Erik Tollerud is such an individual. The 2012 Fletcher Jones Fellowship recipient has a passion for rescuing homeless felines - big and small - and a love of all things cosmos. When asked how his cat came to have such a unique name Erik explains that, “when he was a kitten he kept doing things like chasing after a set of keys, being scared off by the sound, and then a minute later going after it only to be frightened again.”  Named after the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, Erik’s cat seems to have much of the same instinct for exploration as his two-legged caretaker.

Erik was recently awarded the prestigious Fletcher Jones Fellowship, for his research on “dark matter” and “dark energy” in physics and astronomy.  One of the most prestigious awards of UCI, the Fletcher Jones Fellowship is awarded annually to one graduate student whose academic accomplishments exemplify an “enthusiasm for excellence, vitality, ingenuity and leadership potential.”

When asked what inspires him to study the world of dark matter?  Erik has a ready answer. “One of the things that inspires me to study astronomy is the idea that all the material that we are made of came from the cosmos, to quote the well-respected American astronomer Carl Sagan - ‘We are all star stuff’.”  Erik’s most recent research has centered on looking at the Milky Way’s largest satellite, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).  In a paper accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, Erik shows that LMC-sized satellites are reasonably common.  “Understanding astronomy to me is learning about the immortality of humanity.  In a sense, we can imagine that from stars we came and to stars we will one day return.”

He received n M.S. in Physics and Astronomy from UCI in 2008 and a B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Puget Sound from which he graduated Magna Cum Laude.  Working under the auspices of Professor James Bullock in the School of Physical Sciences, Erik hopes to complete his doctoral thesis, “Dwarf Galaxies in the LCDM” in June of 2012.

In addition to conducting research on dwarf galaxies and other areas of the space frontier, Erik manages to find time to be active in the Associated Graduate Students (AGS) organization.  He serves as an elected member of the AGS Council and has been a member of the Academic Senate. “Meeting new people with such a wide array of interests and specialties has been a rewarding and enriching experience,” notes Erik. “AGS is a great way to find like minded individuals as well as to broaden your horizons and meet individuals across a variety of academic and culturally diverse backgrounds – all with a common thread of wanting to find answers to some unanswered question.”

On those occasions when he is not conducting research, Erik can be found mentoring high school students interested in pursuing careers in science. For Erik, one of the greatest pleasures is hiking - including regular visits to the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii where he simultaneously is able to conduct research for his thesis – and still be connected to nature.