Class of 2023: Frances Duey

Frances Duey: Making space her final frontier

Portrait of student Frances Duey (2023)

Favorite CHC class? "Science Communications" with Carol Paty

Favorite study spot? The third-floor, outdoor deck of Tykeson Hall

Graduation walk-up song? “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield

Your biggest supporter? My primary thesis advisor James Shombert

Advice for CHC students? Stick with it. There are pros and cons to whatever you’re doing, and the thesis can seem really overwhelming. But I honestly believe the pros that I have gotten from the Honors College have far outweighed the cons

When Frances Duey was young, she used to tell her mom that she was going to go to Mars. Her mom replied that if she went to Mars, she wouldn’t be able to come back. Duey simply said, “OK.”

Now, Duey will graduate as a physics major in the Clark Honors College, and her research has taken her light years beyond Mars. Her CHC thesis is challenging major theories on the universe and dark matter.

Duey’s primary thesis advisor, Professor James Schombert, says he was struck by her intelligence and tenacity when he first met her in his Honors College Cosmology class.

“My first impression when she started was I was just literally petrified,” Schombert recalls, saying he knew he might be working for Duey in five years.

“She’s very excited about things. She’s incredibly intelligent. She has a knowledge base, and you tell her something once, it’s there,” Schombert says, pointing to his head. “That’s Frances in a nutshell…Meeting her is the best part of my day.”

From watching Star Trek with her family to trading in her Barbies for Legos to hearing her brother’s tales of building rockets at science camp, Duey says she always knew she wanted to be a scientist. “(My parents) have always reminded me I’ve been saying since middle school: ‘This is what I want to do,’” she says. “I just didn’t really see myself doing anything else.”

Her family moved around a lot because of her dad’s job as an anesthesiologist. She was born in Bend, moved to Colorado, Iowa and Washington before returning to Oregon.

Through it all, Duey says she found comfort in the fact that no matter where she was, the science remained the same. She just didn’t know what kind to pursue. In sixth grade, her science teacher introduced her to astronomy.

“I remember voicing that I was kind of nervous about going into this because, I mean, it seemed really hard,” she remembers. “And she was just like, ‘Why are you scared?’”

Hearing that, Duey says, made her “take a step back and be like, ‘You know what? Yeah, you're right. Might as well try.’”

Two years later, when Duey’s parents took her to a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture on astrophysics, she found herself thinking: “How can I not do this?”

Once in high school, Duey took every AP class she could. She loved English courses just as much as her science classes, something that contributed to her decision to apply to the Honors College.

“I didn’t want to lose the writing skills that I had, and I thought the Honors College would be a good way to go about that,” Duey says. “I also just liked the idea of very specific topic courses, too.”

Two weeks before her freshman year at the UO, Duey participated in the North Star Project, a summer program for students interested in the physical sciences that included special courses, labs, and field trips. The program is where Duey met Sara Tosi.

Through the years at UO, Duey and Tosi took classes together and realized they shared a love of physics and astronomy. That’s when Tosi approached Schombert about the possibility of working with him and Duey on projects in the field of astrophysics.

“Sara looks at me; she goes: ‘I am doing a research project with you,’” Schombert recalls. “And then she goes: ‘And Frances is going to do one, too.’ And I said, ‘OK, don’t beat me up.’”

Tosi says Duey has been a significant support system for her. “No matter where I am in the world, no matter what’s happening, if I texted her with even an inconsequential thing, she would drop everything in a heartbeat and be there,” Tosi says.

For her thesis, Duey took archived images from NASA telescopes – including the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the agency’s largest and most versatile pieces of equipment – and made mass models of galaxies to determine whether dark matter exists and how to interpret it.

Dark matter, Duey explains, has been a subject that has vexed scientists for years. In the 1930s, astronomers realized that in order for the universe to produce the amount of gravity needed to keep galaxies together, there must be a certain amount of mass. Only 10 percent of their calculation of that amount of mass is visible in space, so they hypothesized that the rest of the mass was there, but it just wasn’t visible. That’s what astronomers call “dark matter.”

“Our understanding of dark matter, in particular, impacts everything else in physics,” Duey says. “If we have dark matter incorrect, that means we have gravity incorrect…and if we can’t understand gravity, I mean, I don’t even know where that can lead.”

Duey’s research says dark matter may not be as influential on the universe and gravity as astronomers have come to believe. Her research challenges the calculations of mass and gravity made in the 1930s, which is what we base our understanding of the universe on today. These challenges, Duey says, aren’t widely accepted by the astronomy community.

“There’s a lot of money in dark matter research and you can’t be like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’” Duey says. “People spend their entire careers working on this stuff. And I think it would be a hard mouthful for anybody to handle and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, dang it. I was wrong.’”

Stacy McGaugh will be Duey’s graduate school advisor as she pursues a PhD in astronomy at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. McGaugh, who got his bachelor’s degree from MIT, his master’s at Princeton, and his PhD from the University of Michigan in astronomy, says Duey’s research could change the way the world looks at the universe for years to come.

“Frances’s project measures (Hubble’s constant) to unprecedented accuracy,” McGaugh says. “If it confirms that the difference is real, then cosmology will be in for the biggest revision since the turn of the century.”

Since Duey’s thesis has already been published, she’s become the youngest person to publish a value for the expansion rate of the universe, known as Hubble’s constant.

Duey is also examining two more cosmological constants in her research.

“A typical astronomer like me will work their entire career and maybe attack one or two,” Schombert says. “That’s overwhelming. She brought that to the American Astronomical Society meeting, and people were just knocked out of their socks.”

Through it all, Duey says she is grateful for the close-knit community she found at the Honors College and for the opportunities it provided for her.

“The Honors College has definitely helped with my ability to talk about my research,” she says, noting that the experience helped her get over a fear of public speaking and become more comfortable making presentations. “That is something that will definitely be used in grad school and my entire career.”

Duey’s grad school search was grueling and emotional, and she wasn’t sure what her next steps were, but when she got accepted to Case Western, she says she felt excitement instantly replace any doubts.

“I feel like I’m 13 again. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually get to do this’,” Duey says. “I'm not quite there at the dream yet, but it’s one step closer, and it’s a huge step.”

She has a necklace and earrings with gold stars on them that she wears, indicators that Duey hasn’t crossed off being an astronaut on her to-do list.

Tosi says she knows her friend has potential and is predicting nothing but a bright future. “I could see her winning a Nobel Prize or solving some obscure question in astronomy,” Tosi says. “And I can see her being humble about it, which is the most incredible thing about Frances.”

- Story by Julia Boboc, Clark Honors College Communications

- Photo by Ilka Sankari, Clark Honors College Communications