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UW Hosts Astronomy Experience for Six Undergraduate Students from Across the Nation


May 30, 2013 — Beginning this week, six undergraduate students from across America have gathered for 10 weeks to delve into studying astronomy at the University of Wyoming. And there’s no easing in. Students were scheduled to gaze at stars through a telescope on their first night.

During their stay, the students will make nightly treks to observe stars at either the Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Jelm Mountain or Red Buttes Observatory along U.S. Highway 287; understand what it means to work in a team environment; learn scientific programming and data analysis; and shore up their public speaking skills.

“This provides students a firsthand understanding of what it means to be a scientist,” says Daniel Dale, a professor and chair of UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This experience will inform them of what they want to do for the rest of their lives.”

The educational program is made possible through a three-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) grant UW secured. The grant is designed to provide early college students -- with minimal research experience and little access to observatories -- the opportunity to learn about astronomy and what skills go into being a scientist.

“These are excellent students, but with not a whole of research experience,” says Dale, who is the grant’s principal investigator. “We look for students with an enthusiasm for research in Wyoming, in particular.”

From across the country

The six students, who arrived on campus May 28, were chosen from a pool of about 200 who applied from across the nation.

Students, their hometown, year in school, major and educational institution are as follows:

Branchburg, N.J. -- Katie Lester, junior, astrophysics, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Dudley, Mass. -- James Chapman, sophomore, math and physics, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass.

Lakewood, Wis. -- Erica Keller, sophomore, astronomy, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

Louisville, Ky. -- Emily Rolen, sophomore, physics and astronomy, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Peoria Ill. -- Eric Topel, physics and math, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

Virginia Beach, Va. -- Jamie Burke, sophomore, astrophysics and classical studies, Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa.

The visiting students had many reasons for their interest in this opportunity, but most mentioned this experience provided ample opportunity to use UW’s observatories and get outdoors in a part of the country most say they have not seen.

“I was looking for an internship that has a lot of observing, which this does,” Keller says. “I want to go into astronomy and research.”

Burke says he has previously been to Wyoming but never stayed for an extended period.

“The outdoor opportunities seem cool,” he says. “You have a nice, high-quality telescope here.  It will be nice to do high-quality research.”

Star search

The group will focus on studying binary stars, or stars that orbit one another, says Chip Kobulnicky, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, and co-principal investigator of the grant. Specifically, the students will attempt to measure the following: how fast these stars orbit around one another; how often massive stars have close companion stars; how close the companion stars are to the massive stars; and the masses of the companion stars.

“Are they massive stars? Are they smaller stars? Or, are they a mix?” Dale says.

These are considered the essential ingredients needed for theories of massive star formation and to predict the number of explosive events -- such as supernova and gamma ray bursts -- throughout the universe, Kobulnicky says.

In addition to gaining observation skills at a major telescope facility, the students will learn how to use common astronomical software to reduce spectroscopic data, and learn time-series analysis and orbital parameter fitting.

Under then-REU program director Ron Canterna, UW operated a similar program from 1987 to 2008, when Canterna retired and the NSF grant expired. The Department of Physics and Astronomy revived the program last year when it was able to secure an NSF-REU grant.

During their stay, the students will receive a weekly stipend of $450, reside in Crane Hall and eat their meals at Washakie Dining Center. To culminate their experience, the students will each create their own research poster, which will be presented at the national meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., next January. In addition to covering their travel to and from Laramie for the summer, the grant also helps to defray their conference costs, Dale says.

“I like how the university is invested in teaching us to become good scientists,” Topel says. “They have seminars scheduled on taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), graduate schools and submitting scientific papers.”

Dale is excited about what UW can offer these students. But, he admits there are reciprocal benefits to UW, too.

Photo:
Six students from colleges and universities across the nation are on campus for the next 10 weeks to study astronomy through an NSF-REU grant. From left are Daniel Dale, professor and chair of UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy; Katie Lester, Erica Keller, Emily Rolen, Jamie Burk, James Chapman and Eric Topel.

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