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Evolution in the Physical Conditions of Star-Forming Regions Throughout Cosmic History


The gas-phase metallicity of the interstellar medium is a powerful probe of the cycle of baryons into and out of galaxies. Constraining the scaling of metallicity with global galaxy properties such as stellar mass (M_*) and star-formation rate (SFR) at multiple epochs provides insight into galaxy growth across cosmic history and the origin of the present-day galaxy population. In this dissertation, I investigate the evolution of the physical conditions of ionized gas in star-forming regions, including metallicity, over the past 12 billion years of cosmic history. This work is contained in five studies that collectively improve our knowledge of galaxy metallicities over the redshift range z=0-3. I present measurements of the mass-metallicity relation at z~2.3 using a novel high-redshift data set from the MOSFIRE Deep Evolution Field (MOSDEF) survey. I further show that there is a relation among M_*, SFR, and metallicity for z~2.3 star-forming galaxies, unambiguously demonstrating the existence of this relation at z>1 for the first time. Knowledge of the physical conditions of line-emitting gas, including the electron density and ionization state, is required for robust estimates of metallicity from strong optical emission lines. I show that the electron density of star-forming regions increases by an order of magnitude from z~0 to z~2.3, and place constraints on the evolution of ionization state. Obtaining unbiased galaxy metallicity estimates additionally requires proper treatment of the various line-emitting sources falling within spectroscopic apertures. I characterize systematic metallicity biases from z~0 global galaxy spectra using a model framework that treats galaxies as ensembles of HII and diffuse ionized gas regions of varying metallicities. The resulting corrections increase the accuracy of the z~0 baseline for evolutionary studies. Finally, I present the first temperature-based metallicity determination at z>2 from a detection of the auroral emission line [OIII]4363. Measurements of auroral lines provide an independent estimate of metallicity that can be used to construct metallicity calibrations appropriate at high redshifts. Observational facilities coming online in the near-future will enable temperature-based metallicity measurements for large samples of high-redshift galaxies, providing unprecedented accuracy in metallicity measurements and a more complete understanding of gas flows and galaxy growth.

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