With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Monster Quasar. A new study from researchers at the University of Arizona documents the discovery of the most massive quasar known in the early universe, containing a black hole with a mass equivalent to 1.5 billion suns. Quasars are massive and bright objects comprising the disk of matter surrounding and being sucked into a black hole. This quasar is formally known as J1007+2115, but named Poniua’ena in honor of its discovery by telescopes on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea. It is the most distant, and therefore earliest, object known in the universe to host a black hole that is more than 1 billion times the mass of the sun. 

“It's the earliest monster of this kind that we know of," said Jinyi Yang, a postdoctoral research associate at the UA Steward Observatory and lead author of the study, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "The time was too short for it to grow from a small black hole to the enormous size we see."

The size and date of the quasar present a mystery, as astronomers wonder how such a massive black hole could materialize when the universe was still in its infancy. According to study co-author Xiaohui Fan, Regents' Professor and associate head of the UA Department of Astronomy, this discovery presents the largest challenge yet for the theory of black hole formation and growth in the early universe. The study suggests that the quasar would "have had to start out as a ‘seed’ black hole already containing the equivalent mass of 10,000 suns as early as 100 million years after the Big Bang." Researchers found Poniua’ena while searching for the most distant quasars. The team's data indicated the presence of a quasar, and it was finally observed in 2019 by telescopes including the Gemini North telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory, both on Mauna Kea. The Magellan telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile confirmed the existence of Poniua’ena.

Education Innovation. On June 24, the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund awarded $1 million to the A for Arizona Expansion and Innovation Fund, which will support students whose education was disrupted by COVID-19. The funding will be distributed to K-12 schools that submit proposals on "how best to serve their students in the 2020-2021 school year." Schools will have almost four weeks to submit their proposals to A for Arizona. A vetting committee of local and national experts will identify, evaluate and issue micro grants in July. According to A for Arizona founder Emily Anne Gullickson, this capital will support the school leaders and teachers "who create opportunity for our most vulnerable students today are key to achieving the more equitable future our children in Arizona deserve." 

Autism Diagnoses. The University of Arizona's College of Nursing recently became one of the first accredited institutes in the nation to offer an autism diagnosis certificate program. Enabled by a grant from Arizona Complete Care, the program is an additional career track in the school that prepares "pediatric nurse practitioners, psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners and general practice pediatricians to address the increasing health-care challenge of autism." According to program coordinator Gloanna Peek, one of the most important aspects is that the academic component of the program is online, meaning the UA college can recruit clinicians in rural communities that suffer from fewer services and greater need. The major goal of the program, which involves 12 credit hours over three semesters and 180 clinical hours and one graduate level course per semester, is to prepare pediatric clinicians to not only diagnose, but manage autism. The first cohort of six students, which will graduate in August 2020, includes five nurse practitioners and one pediatrician.