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Published January 17, 2019
Ask Danny Dale about what is most rewarding as a professor at the University of Wyoming, and he is likely to mention the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. His involvement in REU for UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and his dedication to students have now led him to assist other units on campus with their own endeavors in the program.
REU is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and supports active research participation by undergraduate students at host institutions. An REU site consists of around 10 students who work closely with faculty in research funded by NSF. In short, students are granted the opportunity to assist with current research being done at universities across the country. The program is considered one of the premier internships a student can get as an undergraduate in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field.
Dale’s REU focuses on astronomy and is one of the longest running in the field, he says. Former UW Professor Ron Canterna began the program in 1987, before Dale took over in 2012. That longevity has helped Dale refine the program to eight students and a 10-week period over each summer. His REU also offers several unique opportunities that help prepare students for the current state of scientific research.
UW astronomy faculty members and the students work with UW’s 2.3-meter telescope located 25 miles southwest of Laramie on Jelm Mountain. It’s not just a visit here or there over the course of the program. The group is there every night.
“No one else even comes close to that,” Dale says. “A typical REU will go on a field trip for a weekend to check out a telescope, or maybe they can spend four nights. Not everyone has their own telescope to use and, if they do, they are not dedicating it to the REU program.”
Dale says his REU also is a team-based project that has the whole group directly working with faculty members and their research. Internships in the field sometimes see undergraduates assigned to a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, and working on research previously collected by someone else. That’s not the case at UW, thanks to buy-in from his fellow faculty, according to Dale.
His team approach also helps teach REU participants what science is like today, he says.
“Scientists work on big teams now,” Dale says. “My projects involve research teams with 30-60 people around the world. You get to interact with so many different scientists who have so many different cool ideas. You get to grapple with data sets you couldn’t possibly propose for and get on your own. If you are self-motivated, you get access to things you couldn’t possibly otherwise do.”
Dale attributes the blossoming of his own career to his work in large research groups. He hopes his REU students realize this is how a lot of science is done these days. Dale says he also hopes the students start to think about UW when the time for graduate school rolls around. Many of his current students are alumni from the program.
The REU program is something Dale is clearly passionate about, and others have noticed its success. He has helped other departments inside and outside of UW’s College of Arts and Sciences with their NSF proposals as they look to start their own REU programs.
“Students are my legacy, and REUs are a big part of that,” he says. “It’s a very rewarding experience for the students and myself.”
More information on Dale’s REU program may be found at www.uwyo.edu/physics/reu-info/index.html.