Using the Force: UA Police Officer Completes NASA Project
University of Arizona Police Officer Andrew Lincowski joined planetary scientists at NASA this summer to search for exoplanets that might have the potential to harbor life.

By Raymond Sanchez, NASA Space Grant intern, University Relations - Communications
Sept. 26, 2014


UAPD officer Andrew Lincowski
UAPD officer Andrew Lincowski (Photo: UAPD)

One night on patrol at the Posada San Pedro residence hall on the University of Arizona campus, UA Police Officer Andrew Lincowski found himself stopping to help a student in need. This was not the kind of aid that police officers normally perform: Lincowski was summoned to assist with physics homework.

If this seems unusual for an on-duty officer, that's because it is. Lincowski is also an undergraduate student at the UA studying physics and astronomy, and recently he completed a summer-long internship at NASA.

The possibility of finding life-sustaining planets beyond our solar system has long captured the public's imagination, and the search is intensifying among today's top scientists. This past summer, Lincowski joined leading scientific minds at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in the investigation.

Lincowski traveled to Greenbelt, Maryland, over the summer as a NASA intern. Out of several hundred participants in the internship program, Lincowski was one of only 16 nationwide recipients of the prestigious John Mather Nobel Scholarship, offered by the National Space Grant Foundation. During his stay, he participated in a project affectionately called "Finding the Needles in the Haystacks," otherwise known as the Haystacks Project.

"Haystacks is all about searching for Earth-like, extrasolar planets," says Lincowski. "This work is enabling us to determine what else is out there."

The existence of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, wasn't confirmed until 1988. Since then, more than 1,800 exoplanets have been discovered. The goal of Haystacks is to create high-fidelity models of extrasolar planetary systems to help scientists identify exoplanets and investigate them for signs of life.

"These models will be the inputs for detailed simulations of exoplanet observations with future NASA missions, including ones capable of finding truly Earth-like planets," explains NASA scientist Aki Roberge, principal investigator on the Haystacks Project and a mentor to Lincowski.

Spotting the dim light that corresponds to a far-away exoplanet is a colossal undertaking. One of the most effective ways to determine what an Earth-like planet might look like is to study the properties of our own solar system. Lincowski's role in the Haystacks Project was to create a model of how our solar system would appear if observed from far away.

Lincowski's efforts on Haystacks will inform the development of the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope, a NASA flagship mission planned for launch between 2025 and 2035. ATLAST will scan the stars for signs of life beyond our own solar system, and provide scientists with new insights into the underlying physics governing our universe.

"Andrew did an amazing job on the project this summer, showing great independence and persistence," Roberge says. "I think Andrew is a born scientist. He combines intelligence and discipline with valuable skills in writing and communication."

When he's not preoccupied unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos, Lincowski can be found in uniform, serving protecting his fellow students as an officer in the UA Police Department.

After Lincowski graduated with an accounting degree from the UA in 2006, he began working for a homebuilder. When the housing market crashed, he decided that he'd had enough of accounting and joined the Tucson Police Department. He hopes to one day work for the FBI and investigate financial crimes.

Ultimately, his interest in mathematics and the origins of the universe led him back to the UA in 2011 to begin his studies in physics and astronomy. In the spring of 2012, he transferred from TPD to UAPD.

"I loved it," Lincowski says. "UAPD is different than city or town agencies — they truly partner with the community."

Since then, he has managed to juggle a full academic course load and a demanding career as a campus police officer. He says the role of UAPD is far more diverse than people might realize.

"It's important to educate students and faculty about law and safety," says Lincowski, who also serves as a UAPD liaison to the Posada San Pedro residence hall. "We spend a lot of time on public outreach, and teaching people how to prepare for and deal with emergencies."

Brian Seastone, chief of police at UAPD, calls the department's commitment to community-oriented policing "total engagement."

"At the University, you can go from responding to a fire alarm to talking to a Nobel laureate — it's an incredible place to work," Seastone says. "We don't want officers just going out there and patrolling, we want them getting involved in the campus community.

"We are very fortunate that we have not only Andrew but a number of officers and civilian employees that are going to school, so they can see the student side of campus life and bring it back to UAPD. It makes us a better department."

When considering a drastic career change, Lincowski said it was important to be well rounded, have a financial plan, and be mentally and physically prepared to make the transition.

"You have to jump in with both feet, and be prepared for the long haul," he says. "You can't slack."

After the completion of his studies, Lincowski hopes to attend graduate school and complete a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He'd like to study high-energy physics, the origins of the universe, and the fundamental nature of matter and energy.

"Physics and astronomy are relatively far removed from the normal perception of most people, but everyone's technology is based on physics," Lincowski says. "We are at a point where computing technology is not going to progress much further without understanding and employing quantum mechanics. Advanced physics is required to continue to develop technology, even in biology and medicine."

Lincowski hopes that his efforts will help the public understand the importance of STEM education and increase awareness of scientific advancements.

"They say that civilizations are measured by their art and science," he says. "These things increase the quality of our lives, and move us forward as a species."