Research is more than science; it is an experience

by Tyler Erjavec

In March 2014, I was shocked to receive an acceptance letter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory summer REU program. I had thought applying was a waste of time; how could I get an internship at an institution as prestigious as MIT? Unthinkable. I wasn’t expecting to have the opportunity to work at a school as renowned in physics and innovation. As I was reading the acceptance email, I was unnerved because the font – the font of all things- was intimidating. In the technical-prestigious kind of way. You know the font you think of when you think top secret cold war documents? Yeah. That font.

Three months later I was on a plane to Boston, and then in a taxi to a radio observatory 35 minutes outside of Boston. In the plane, I saw large geodesic domes poking out of the trees and wondered whether that would be my home for the next ten weeks. (Hint: It sure was.) Well, it was my office – the other interns and I didn’t live on observatory lands. We stayed at a little liberal arts college 20 minutes north of the observatory in Nashua, New Hampshire. Every day we piled into four cars that MIT rented for us and commuted down to the observatory.

Geodesic Dome

One of the geodesic domes.

MIT Haystack is situated on about a thousand acres of trails and unspoiled wilderness. It was built jointly by the US Air Force and Lincoln Labs (a MIT branch that does national defense research) in 1964 as a military tracking radar installation. At the time, the space race was in full swing, so tracking satellites was the main reason the observatory existed. Eventually, Haystack built other telescopes for atmospheric science and radio astronomy research. Sixty years later, most of the telescopes and radio dishes are still in use and are churning out groundbreaking science.

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The Millstone Incoherent Scatter Radar; one of the many radar installations on Haystack land.

One of these scientists was my mentor, Dr. Juha Vierinen. During my first three days at the observatory, he was in Brazil at a conference. I got to start learning about the electronic modeling program I would use, FEKO. What does it stand for? Well, say it in your best attempted German: Feldberechnung für Körper mit beliebiger Oberfläche! In English, it stands for “field calculations involving bodies of arbitrary shape” and is a joint CAD and electromagnetic simulation suite meant to model antenna design, performance, and wave propagation.

After a few days of repeating these words (and learning new techniques), Dr. Vierinen returned. My internet stalking yielded a remarkably accurate portrait of him: a blonde “hacker” from Finland. As a mentor, he is supportive and laid back; as a scientist he is extremely gifted in all things math and instrumentation. However, his methods would unnerve any engineer. I believe his motto is “Let’s try this, looks pretty simple.” Throughout the summer, he taught me the art of tapping into my inner MacGyver.

My task was to produce a prototype of a magnetic loop antenna for ionosonde applications. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so here’s a break-down. A magnetic loop antenna is a circular antenna that receives the magnetic portion of a radio wave. An ionosonde is an antenna that probes the ionosphere, a portion of the atmosphere 75-1000 km above the earth’s surface that gets ionized by UV light during the day. When the atmosphere is ionized, certain regions become opaque to specific radio frequencies. This means that radio waves can bounce off of the ionosphere and be reflected down towards Earth. The antennas let us look at the topography of the ionosphere, which is extremely useful to track geomagnetic storms (that can wreak havoc on GPS networks).

Image 1

Juha and our artfully constructed coupling loop.  Yes, it worked.

Unfortunately, most ionosondes are huge and expensive (1,000,000 m3 and over $100 k respectively). The goal of my project was to make a small and cheap antenna; with this innovation, dense networks of thousands of ionosondes could be created and improve the resolution of topographic ionosphere measurements.

Three weeks into the summer, I was sent by Haystack to Seattle for a 5-day atmospheric science conference called CEDAR with three other interns to get a feel for the current state of atmospheric science. I had never seen actual snow-capped mountains in person, so I about died when we landed and I saw Mt. Rainier out of the plane’s windows. I decided then and there that I would go to the mountain. I managed to convince my three fellow interns that it would be a great idea; we rented a car for one day and took a trip 80 miles south. We hiked along the Carbon River and explored. Waterfalls, rushing steel-gray glacier water. It was beautiful. Eventually, we came to a clearing in the river valley where the peak of snow-capped Rainier glared down. I went a little insane and started running around hooting and hollering. My dad is a geologist, and he bred into me a love of geologic curiosities. My fellow interns quickly grew to recognize my rock-lust – every time we went outside, they saw me picking up rocks looking for various mineral species.

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Mt. Rainier poking through the clouds.


A waterfall along the Carbon River in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Along with the 10 college interns, MIT Haystack hosted a 7-week research program for seven Puerto Rican high school students, a mixture of young men and women. These kids were just plain awesome: they were outgoing and broke the ice among the reserved college interns. We organized sightseeing trips to Boston together, went to Hampton beach, and ate giant, basketball-sized sundaes. At least once a week, we’d go play soccer or volleyball. One time we all drove up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and perused the area’s collection of waterfalls. After they left Haystack, our group was quieter and we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We still took trips, but it didn’t come as naturally as when they were with us.

That was probably for the best, because they left two weeks before our program ended. Those 14 days were extremely hectic and crazy, because we were all trying to get data and finish our projects. There were a couple of nights where Juha and I were outside at 11 pm, fending off porcupines and swarms of giant mosquitoes, setting up the antenna and transmitters for first light (the first observation a radar/telescope makes). The last week was extremely exhausting, but also rewarding. We finally used my antenna to get our first ionosphere traces; 11 pm the night before my final presentation – perfect timing. Yeah. Pulling it close like always. While our traces don’t like much, if we were to sweep through various frequencies, we would be able to get profiles similar to those as in this video made by Dr. Vierinen.

Image 3

The two greenish blips are reflections of our radio pulse off the ionosphere.  There are two blips because the radio wave reflected twice.

But at the end, we had to present our research to the entire Haystack staff – about 50 people or so. We had small focus groups with our mentors and a few colleagues the days before that allowed us to practice our talks and to iron out problems. It is always nerve-wracking to present, but in the end I was simply talking about what I had done. I don’t consider it so much presenting, as it is sharing.

Our presentations went off without a hitch and I had to say goodbye to all the faces I had become so acquainted with over the past ten weeks. It seemed as if I had known them for many years, but hardly three months had passed. But as I boarded the plane back, I recounted the summer’s activities and surmised that REUs not only reinforce scientific ability, but also act as a way to experience amazing things and meet amazing people.

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The end product.  The antenna’s various circuitry was located in a plastic tube, whose wires would run about 30 feet off-screen to a shed with the transmitter and other more sensitive electronics.

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Testing the antenna with various amplifiers right outside my office – where all of our equipment was located.


About Tyler Erjavec


I have always had a fascination with the physical sciences, much I owe to my geologist father. This eventually landed me in physics after I repaired an ancient telescope donated to me from a distant relative. Currently I am applying to graduate school with my wife, who also is a physics major. In my free time I enjoy playing with my three cockatiels, rigging an ever more complicated climate control system for my dart frogs, and maintaining an extensive indoor tropical garden.