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UW Students Gain Research Experience at Apache Point, Forward Science Initiative

December 12, 2016
group of people standing in front of observatory
A group of UW physics and astronomy undergraduate and graduate students visited and used the telescope facilities at Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., during mid-October. Students (front, from left) are Logan Jensen, Jordan Turner and Jessica Sutter. Students (back, from left) are Joe Findlay, Will Chick, David Kasper, Daniel Baldwin, Derek Hand and Stephanie Mapes. (Chip Kobulnicky Photo)

Seven University of Wyoming students recently had access to a world-class telescope observatory -- one that they say allows them to conduct research they otherwise could not.

“Access to a facility like this gives someone a chance to get experience much earlier than they otherwise would,” Logan Jensen, a junior from Greybull majoring in astronomy and astrophysics, says of the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M. “WIRO (Wyoming Infrared Observatory) and Apache Point have given me access to world-class instruments. As an undergraduate student, this is uncommon, if not unheard of.”

Jensen was one of seven UW undergraduate or graduate students who traveled to Apache Point Oct. 14-17 to learn how to use the telescopes and other instruments located in the Sacramento Mountains.

In September, UW became a member of the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), which owns and manages Apache Point. ARC, which is operated by New Mexico State University, includes three research telescopes: the 3.5m Telescope, the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope and the 0.5m Small Aperture Telescope (ARCSAT). ARC also hosts New Mexico State University’s 1.0m Telescope.

Chip Kobulnicky, a UW professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, says the university’s relationship with the consortium and access to Apache Point further advance UW’s Science Initiative.

“Out of 215 Carnegie 1 research universities, only 45 have access to a telescope that is big or bigger than the one at Apache Point,” Kobulnicky says. “UW is one of those schools and puts UW in the top 25 percent. That was the goal of the governor’s Science Initiative.”

The UW Science Initiative began in 2014 when Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Legislature challenged the university to develop a plan to address outdated science laboratories at UW and improve the quality of instruction and research in the sciences. A task force, appointed by Mead and informed by UW faculty representatives, developed a transformational vision for UW’s core science programs in botany, zoology and physiology, molecular biology, chemistry, and physics and astronomy.

The developed plan charts a clear course for these science programs to rise to top-tier status in the nation and builds upon Wyoming’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives; the location of the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Wyoming; the construction of the Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility; and the Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering STEM Integration Task Force.

Jessica Sutter, a second-year graduate student from Portland, Ore., is researching galaxies nearby to our own Milky Way, particularly to determine how far away these galaxies are actually located. She says the Apache Point telescope is slightly larger than the WIRO telescope at Jelm Mountain and, therefore, collects more light. This allows for more data and details of planets and stars to be gathered.

“Having one telescope (WIRO) is great. But, every telescope is different,” Sutter says. “Using two telescopes, you have to shift your knowledge on the use of another telescope. Getting experience on two different telescopes allows you to adapt.”

David Kasper, a fourth-year astrophysics graduate student from Waukesha, Wis., had similar sentiments.

“We get to add to our research here in a new way,” he says. “At every level, we have more access to high-level facilities most otherwise would not have.”

At WIRO, student researchers can view visible light through the telescope there, according to Joe Findlay, a postdoctoral student from London, England, majoring in astrophysics. However, the Apache Point telescope allows the students to see invisible or infrared light.

“You need different types of instruments to see all of the different types of light,” Findlay says. “Apache Point allows us to look at infrared light. We don’t have anything like that at WIRO.”

Stephanie Mapes, a first-year graduate student from Buellton, Calif., compared looking through the different telescope lenses at Apache Point as akin to “looking through different sets of sunglasses.”

“More on the human side of it, networking is really good. We have partnerships with other universities,” Mapes says. “It was a good opportunity for us new students to get to know other students in the department we otherwise wouldn’t get to see.”

Derek Hand, a first-year graduate student from Bemidji, Minn., agrees.

“I don’t think I would have met or talked to Joe (Findlay) without going down there,” Hand says of the trip to Apache Point. “Now, we are working on a proposal together.”

Will Chick, a third-year graduate student from Salt Lake City, is studying runaway stars and bow shock nebula. Bow shocks are caused when swift, massive stars -- some traveling at speeds faster than 50,000 miles an hour -- plow through space, causing material to stack up in front of them in the same way that water piles up in front of a ship or a supersonic plane creates a shockwave in front of it.

Unlike WIRO, Click says Apache Point can provide a high level of detail and quality of data of these phenomena.

After attending high school in Greybull, Jensen admits UW was not his first choice. He had his eyes set on the University of Arizona or New Mexico State University. But, he says he would encourage Wyoming high school students to look at the early research opportunities offered to undergraduate students.

“By and large, UW is the best place I could have gone for my area of study,” he says. “If I had gone somewhere else, opportunities would not be out there this early for me. I’d be begging for time at an observatory.”


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