Standing Out in a Crowd

by Andrea Albert

Hi there, I’m Andrea Albert and here’s a look into my life as a physics graduate student.  I’m entering my fourth and final year at OSU and will be defending–successfully, I hope!–my PhD thesis in the spring.  Since graduation is right around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about my post-graduation research options.

I am a member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (Fermi LAT) collaboration, which is an international group of ~400 scientists who maintain and analyze data from the LAT.  The LAT is a telescope in space that is surveying gamma rays.  Gamma rays are super energetic photons, or light particles, that come from the most violent, extreme processes in the universe like spinning neutron star jets and supernovae!  Our data is publicly available so anyone–even you!–can download and analyze Fermi LAT data.

As a high-energy physicist, I am no stranger to working in large collaborations.  The Fermi LAT collaboration is small compared to the teams that discovered the Higgs Boson–CMS and ATLAS.  There are thousands of physicists on those experiments.  In my case, I work closely with about a dozen collaboration members whom I almost never see.  They are in Sweden, Italy, or California so we mostly communicate via email or group conference calls.  In that sort of environment it is very easy to just sit back and listen, which is pretty much what I did for my first year and a half of graduate school.  I absorbed a lot of information, but few people in the collaboration knew who I was.

In the spring of 2011 I was almost done with classes and had started my own research project.  As I progressed, my advisers encouraged me to give frequent updates at our collaboration conference calls.  At first I was intimidated to be presenting my results to a group of more experienced physicists.  Would I come across as a complete moron who had no idea what she was doing?  Thankfully this was fundamental research and I quickly realized that we were all investigating the unknown together.  My colleagues are great about giving me tips of things to look at or details about the instrument to keep in mind.

Over the past year and a half my visibility within the collaboration has grown.   Now I have collaboration members asking for my advice, too!  A few weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., for our annual collaboration meeting.  I had a great time finally meeting several colleagues whom I had worked with via email or over the phone, but had not met face-to-face.  I was also given the opportunity to present a status update on my research to the entire collaboration.  This was awesome and I was so thankful they were confident in asking me instead of my adviser.  Since I had made myself so visible within the collaboration, it was obvious to everyone that I had done the majority of the work on my current analysis and so it made sense for me to give the update.

Also, while I was at the collaboration meeting, I started asking around about potential postdoctoral research position openings at other institutions.  Much to my surprise, several professors told me they were impressed by my work and wanted to help me get a position at their institution or where ever I wanted to go.  Now I know I will have strong letters of recommendation from scientists besides my adviser, which is really important for postdoctoral applications.

Physicists have a reputation for being somewhat anti-social, but even physicists need to network and create good professional relationships with the people who are going to help them get to the next level.  I think this applies for any aspiring scientist, even one who’s still in high school because you will need recommendation letters for college applications.  Recommendation letters from people who have seen you in action count more than from someone who can only say “well he/she got a really good grade in my class”.   All of my major opportunities that have helped shape me into the scientist I am today would not have been possible without my mentors along the way helping to open doors for me.  Of course those doors would have shut quickly if I had not stepped up and proved myself to be an excellent scientist too.

I’m excited about finishing up my thesis and moving on to a new institution to do research as a postdoc.  It looks like I will have choices regarding where I end up and will be working with great people who want to work with me as well.  It would have been easy to just sit in the background in the Fermi LAT collaboration, but I am so glad my advisers encouraged me to make myself visible because it has led me to develop several strong professional relationships with the physicists I work with.

Here I am (back row, fifth person from the right) at the 2011 Fermi Summer School.  The two week summer school is held annually by the Fermi Collaboration and introduces new members to research using Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

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About Andrea Albert

I grew up as an Air Force brat and have lived all over the United States.  I went to an all-girls high school in Connecticut called Miss Porter’s School where I had fantastic science teachers who encouraged my interest in physics.  I received my B.S. in Astrophysics and Religious Studies from Rice University in Houston, Texas.  I got involved in research right away in college and have always loved it more than class work.  I came to Ohio State early to do research the summer before classes started and have been with my group ever since.  My advisers are Richard Hughes and Brian Winer and we search for gamma rays from dark matter interactions in the galaxy.  So far we have only seen dark matter through its gravitational influence, and many physicists these days are trying to find a difference kind of signal, like gamma rays.  Besides research, I have also been in an a capella group, am an active member of the Graduate Women in Physics group, and have performed dozens of physics outreach shows around Columbus.

My Summer Doing Undergraduate Research in Astronomy

by Brittney Curtis

I’m a third-year undergraduate at Ohio State University, with a double major in physics and astronomy and astrophysics. Instead of taking classes or working a boring summer job like a lot of my friends, I got to spend this past summer studying the shapes and colors of beautiful warped disk galaxies in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics as a participant of SURP (the Summer Undergraduate Research Program). I was one of four students who was selected to spend ten weeks working with a faculty advisor on an individual research project that will eventually become an undergraduate thesis.One of the best things about SURP was that it fully immersed the four of us into the culture of the research community. Much like the professors and graduate students in the department, I spent about 40 hours per week in the office – just like a full-time job. You get to hear bits and pieces about your professors’ research during lecture a few times a week, but spending a whole summer just down the hall from them as they make breakthroughs and publish papers is entirely different. I could see and hear real science being done all around me, as professors dissected new theories from recently-published scientific papers and students just slightly older than me gave presentations about supernovae or black holes they had just discovered. Just this summer, one of the graduate students that worked right down the hall from me was featured in the New York Times for helping to discover a couple of planets with a very small telescope.One thing was more exciting than watching the expert astrophysicists at work; each of us had our own little slice of science to explore throughout the course of the summer. My project focused on the colors of galaxies that have warped disks. Warped disk galaxies are interesting because the mechanism that causes them to stay warped for such a long time is currently unknown. If the galaxies are more blue, which means they have younger stars, that might mean that something (a nearby galaxy that we can see or else something invisible to us, like dark matter) is actively sustaining the warp and causing new stars to be born. On the other hand, if the galaxies are more yellow and they have older stars, it could mean that the warp is self-sustaining.
I learned that it’s easiest to visually detect warps in galaxies that we see edge-on from Earth. Here you can see the long s-shaped warp in the disk of the galaxy, which you couldn’t see if you were looking at the galaxy from above.  Image Credit: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope
To investigate this question, I downloaded information about nearly a million galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. I analyzed the data to try to find an algorithm that could pick out the warped galaxies from the normal galaxies based on their shapes. Along the way I learned more about computer programming than I ever did in class. I also got to spend hours looking through pictures of galaxies and learning which parameters to use to define their shapes and positions in the sky, and I had many conversations with my wonderful advisor, Dr. Barbara Ryden, about our data and the methods we used. Some of the steps in my project were rather difficult, but I was always able to find someone in the department that was willing to help or give advice. I’m not quite finished with my research project, so I’m going to continue working on it later this year and publish my results next year.The three other students in the program were all classmates of mine (and are now great friends). Adam, Zach, Jacob, and I shared a tiny office with four desks and we ate lunch together almost every day. If any of us were stuck on a section of code or forgot certain syntax, we asked each other for help and worked together to solve the problem. On a typical day, we spent 5 or 6 hours in the office working on code, and we took a few breaks from our computers to attend research lectures by local or visiting professors. These lectures covered diverse topics from the structure of the large-scale universe to neutrino detection in Antarctica and the construction of large telescopes. In addition to these occasional lectures, we attended the “Astronomy Coffee”  meeting that was hosted by our department every morning. At Astronomy Coffee, professors and students gathered to drink coffee and discuss the newest astrophysics research.Between helping each other out on our projects and listening to lectures about hot topics in astrophysics, we learned much more about astronomy than just the facts pertaining to our own project. We quickly learned that real science isn’t at all like what it seems in the classroom, but instead it’s more challenging and much more fun! I feel that participating in SURP has given me the most accurate view of what it’s like to be a scientist, much more than my classes. The most important thing I took away from my experience is that I truly enjoy the challenge of scientific research and I’m more sure than ever that I want to devote my career to it.
This picture was taken on the final day of SURP, just after we had given presentations about our summer research to a group of professors and graduate students. I’m on the far right, standing in front of my advisor.

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About Brittney Curtis

I grew up on the northwest coast of Oregon but I came to Ohio for college to study physics and astronomy. I am the first member of my family to attend college. I’m an honors student at Ohio State University and I intend to graduate in 2014 with two degrees, one B.S. in physics and another in astronomy and astrophysics. After graduation I plan to attend graduate school and work towards my Ph.D, although I haven’t decided yet if I’ll pursue physics or astronomy. Feel free to contact me by leaving a comment on this post!