Year: PhD student
Hometown: Gainesville, Virginia
Growing Up a Science Kid: Physics PhD student Ryan Pfeifle, BA Physics ’17, has tinkered in the sciences all his life, but it wasn’t until he got to high school that his strong affinity for astronomy became clear. Pfeifle credits his AP physics teacher for discussing the big bang in such an interesting way that it captured his imagination. He’s been hooked on studying the cosmos ever since. “That day, I knew that astronomy was what really interested me,” he says. “It’s just so fascinating.” He hopes to someday get the opportunity to venture into space and see it for himself.
Generating Some Buzz: Pfeifle was part of a team of Mason researchers, called the Black Hole Galaxy Connection group, who were the talk of the entire science community last fall when they discovered a rare trio of supermassive black holes in a system of merging galaxies a billion light-years away. Pfeifle wrote a paper with Mason astrophysicist Shobita Satyapal, his PhD advisor, and others. The team’s study was published in the Astrophysical Journal and quickly drew global media attention, ranging from CNN to the New York Times.
On Becoming a Household Name within the Science Community: After the black hole story was published in September, media requests were coming in fast and furious, and demands for Pfeifle’s time came from all directions. There was even a British tabloid that credited Pfeifle and the team with discovering the origins of life. “That was the only article in which I wrote to the editor and said, ‘This needs to be fixed’ because it was so wrong,” he says. Pfeifle’s life has slowly returned to normal, and he somehow managed to balance his many school and personal commitments. “It was really such a crazy time.”
The Best Part of the Experience: Pfeifle says what struck him most about the entire experience was seeing firsthand all the enthusiasm that his team’s research generated. “I would log onto Facebook and Twitter and check the comments section,” he says. “Sometimes the comments would make me laugh, sometimes they’d make me mad. But, on the whole, it was really cool to see so many people excited about science.”