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!

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2 thoughts on “My Summer Doing Undergraduate Research in Astronomy

  1. Hi Brittney. If you had to pick just one piece of advice to give to a high school student thinking about going in to physics or astronomy, what would it be?

  2. Pingback: 5 Highlights of My Summer REU at the University of Wisconsin – Madison | A day in the life...

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