Across the World for ~80 Days

by Calen Henderson

The plan was two weeks. But two became three and weeks stretched to months as I toiled to tailor my application to the requirements of the NSF Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) fellowship. Then in April of this year, several months after submitting the final version, I received the congratulatory email informing me that I’d been awarded the fellowship and would be spending the summer working with a team of my collaborators in Cheongju, South Korea. My name is Calen Henderson, I’m a senior-level PhD student who studies exoplanets, or planets that orbit other stars, and below I’m going to describe an extraordinary summer in the life of an astrophysicist.

First, some background. Prior to 1989, humans knew about the existence of nine planets. They all resided in our Solar System, and Pluto had not yet been demoted. Then, in 1989, our knowledge of other worlds, and with it our own worldview, began to change. To date, astronomers have discovered over one thousand exoplanets that collectively provide insight into how planets form, how common it is for a star to have one or more planets orbiting it (extremely common, it turns out, with our Milky Way Galaxy alone estimated to harbor over 100 billion planets, or one planet per star, on average), and specifically what kinds of planets and planetary architectures are out there. Such findings are the result of using a variety of exoplanet discovery techniques, including transit, radial velocity, and pulsar timing. I specialize in one known as gravitational microlensing, and this method forms the backbone of my PhD research.


The number of known exoplanets has increased dramatically, especially over the past few years due to the launch of the Kepler satellite. These are indeed exciting times to be an astronomer and to study exoplanets!

Normally when you look at a star, whether with your naked eyes or through a telescope, its brightness remains relatively constant as time marches forward. But, all objects in space are moving, with stars passing in front of and behind other stars, and every so often the alignment of the Earth and two distant stars will be so nearly collinear (all three in a straight line) that the gravity of the middle star will bend some of the light rays emitted from the background star so that they reach Earth rather than continuing to traverse through empty space. We see the manifestation of this alignment as a brightening of the background star, and if the intervening star has a planet in orbit around it, it is possible to see additional amplification of the light of the background star due to the gravity of the planet.


The brightness as a function of time for the first microlensing event in which a planet was discovered. The circle in the upper panel shows the star being microlensed, though you can’t see the intervening star whose gravity is actually bending the light. When the circle turns red it denotes the anomaly caused by the additional gravity of planet orbiting the intervening star. This animation was created by Dr. Andrzej Udalski of the OGLE collaboration and was borrowed from Dr. David Bennett’s webpage.

Such an occurrence is rare and unpredictable, and so requires monitoring tens of millions of stars to detect a few thousand microlensing events per year. A single microlensing event refers to a star that has been magnified by the gravity of an intervening star that may or may not host one or more planets. Ultimately this process leads to the discovery of just a handful of planets each year. But wait! There’s less! Not only is detecting a possible planetary signature in a microlensing event an unlikely situation, but sifting through the mountains of data taken by the dozens of telescopes around the world to accurately and precisely determine the physical parameters of the planetary system—how massive the planet is, how far away it is from its host star, et cetera—can often take years. Furthermore, only a small number of people have both the knowledge and the access to the vast amounts of computing power necessary to do so.


Astronomers overcome the extreme rarity of detecting a microlensing event by pointing their telescopes where the density of stars is the highest—toward the central Bulge of our Milky Way Galaxy, marked by the red line.

So far we’ve learned that microlensing is infrequent, difficult, and not very popular. These factors, coupled with the fact that microlensing has not yet discovered as many planets as certain other techniques, often leads to other astronomers viewing microlensing as the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” of exoplanets—the science is made up and the planets don’t really matter. In fact, such an assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Microlensing is unique in that is has unparalleled sensitivity to low-mass planets orbiting their host stars at large distances. Whereas other discovery techniques can easily find a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a star at the distance at which Mercury orbits the Sun, only microlensing can easily find planets with the mass of Earth at the distance of Earth. This is integral for our understanding of how common architectures like our own Solar System are as well as how planets are formed.

Re-enter our hero. One of the premier teams of astronomers in the world with the expertise and ability to analyze microlensing events and look for planets is based at Chungbuk National University in Cheongju, South Korea. They are led by Dr. Cheongho Han, who obtained his PhD in astronomy from OSU and with whom I have closely collaborated for the past two years. Through the NSF GROW fellowship, I was able to spend the summer working with Dr. Han and his group to learn how to analyze microlensing events.


Many consider the entire Korean peninsula to resemble a rabbit. Others, a tiger. I fall in the latter group, and so spent my summer nestled, ferociously, in Korea’s hindquarters.

The primary office in which Dr. Han, his graduate students, and I worked is probably the closest thing to Hollywood’s portrayal of science that I’ve ever witnessed. In this “War Room” there are computers lining two of the walls, with a third hosting a bank of clocks to help keep track of the current time for telescopes at a variety of longitudes. The center of the room is dominated by four huge monitors—the kind measured in feet, not inches—each connected to a different computing cluster, all of which are housed in a separate building due to the loud whirring of the fans that cool them as they radiate extreme amounts of heat while performing billions and billions of calculations.


Several of Dr. Han’s graduate students and I in the “War Room.”

What makes his group’s approach so unique and powerful is its comprehensiveness. Every day we would analyze all ongoing microlensing events in search of anomalies in the magnified brightness of the microlensed star due to the existence of a planet orbiting the intervening star. We would subsequently circulate our findings to the teams of astronomers in charge of the telescopes to encourage more or fewer observations, depending on our estimation of the likelihood of the existence of a planet. Any spare time was spent reanalyzing older microlensing events—perhaps there were additional or improved data, or maybe someone had insight into a different solution that would better describe the data.

In order to competently perform these tasks, there were several skills I needed to learn. To efficaciously utilize the computing clusters, Dr. Han’s team helped me become proficient in what is called parallel computation. Rather than using a single computer to solve a problem you use several in concert, farming out different tasks to each machine to most efficiently complete the computational task. I also brushed up on my complex analysis background. It turns out that microlensing equations can be more readily solved if you use imaginary numbers, a formalism that is the foundation of the best analysis codes in the world. Most importantly, however, was being able to analyze a multitude of microlensing events and the experience gained from it. When a star becomes microlensed by another, intervening star, there is a myriad of ways that the resulting magnification the light of that background star experiences can change as a function of time. In many cases, knowing a lot of math and having a lot of computers at your disposal can only get you so far—being able to intuit a good guess at the solution right off the bat is your most valuable skill.


I was able to do some exploring as well! Here is a view near the peak of Daecheongbong, the tallest peak in Seoraksan National Park.

While Dr. Han and his graduate students imparted a wealth of astrophysics, computer science, and higher-level math to me, some of the most meaningful things I took away had nothing to do with microlensing. They were unremitting in their hospitality and eagerness to help me explore Korean cuisine and culture. Their patience was admirable, particularly since I was the visitor who was able to speak only a few phrases of Korean here and there. And their desire to teach was paralleled only by the vast trove of knowledge, both within and external to science, upon which they were able to draw. I find it appropriate and comforting that my search for other worlds comes hand in hand with learning more about my own.


About Calen Henderson

calen_oryeon_falls_lowresHey! I enjoy playing classical piano music, running, and traveling. I spend my spare time working on a PhD in astronomy at The Ohio State University, trying to discover and characterize exoplanets and gain insight into planet formation. As an Eagle Scout, outreach is also a big component of my life, and I love giving shows at our newly-renovated digital planetarium!


5 Highlights of My Summer REU at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

by Brittney Curtis

REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs are a way for students to get involved in scientific research while in college. They typically take place over the summer at universities and national labs across the United States. Participants get to travel to another location to work on their REU project, and they are provided housing and a small stipend for the duration of the program. Students interested in science that do not have research opportunities at their home college (some small liberal arts colleges, for example) are especially encouraged to apply for REUs.

Last summer I stayed at Ohio State to do research in the Department of Astronomy through a program called the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). You can read about my research experience at SURP here. This summer I traveled to the University of Wisconsin – Madison to participate in the REU program in their astronomy department, and it was a whole different experience. Here are five ways that I made the most of my summer research experience in Madison.


The 2013 UW – Madison Astrophysics REU participants on a field trip to Yerkes Observatory. in Williams Bay, WI

1. Getting to know my fellow REU students

The people I spent the most time with over the summer were the 8 other REU students at UW – Madison. I got to know them on a professional level and a personal level. Most of us shared a working space in the undergraduate computer lab in the astronomy department, so we helped each other with programming problems and unfamiliar concepts at work every day. We were all housed on the same floor of an apartment complex near campus, so we hung out after work as well, watching movies and preparing group meals. The other students were all incredibly friendly, hard-working, and excellent researchers. Astronomy is a small field, so I’m sure our paths will cross again in the future, and I look forward to it.

2. Discovering new ideas in astronomy

My REU project was about the properties of galaxies that are thought to host extensive gas outflows and accretion, a topic that I knew almost nothing about at the start of the program. I had to do a great deal of reading and ask a lot of questions to get up to speed, but in the process I learned a lot of new ideas and methods in astronomy. In retrospect, I’m happy that I got to work on something completely unfamiliar to me, because the REU wouldn’t have been such a huge learning experience for me otherwise.

Starting on a new project also gave me the chance to consistently practice better research habits. I kept a journal of notes about my research methods, and kept track of the hours that I worked. I learned how to program in Python, which is a widely-used programming language in astronomy. All of these new ideas and skills that I learned will help me be a better student and researcher in graduate school and beyond.

3. Exploring the beautiful city of Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is a gorgeous city situated in between two big lakes, called Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. The university is on the lakefront of Mendota, where local residents swim and sail during the warm summer months.


A view of Lake Mendota at dusk from the Washburn Observatory on campus.

On Friday afternoons there were public concerts at the Memorial Terrace overlooking the lake, and every Saturday morning was the Farmer’s Market at the Capital Square featuring local produce and cheeses. I tried Wisconsin cheese curds, both the fresh and the deep-fried variety, and they were delicious. I also spent a lot of time window shopping on State Street, a cute pedestrian street lined with tons of little shops and restaurants, which leads from the university to the Capital Square.


The Memorial Terrace on a Friday afternoon.


Walking down State Street towards the Capital Square.

One of my favorite places to hang out was a coffee shop down the street from our apartment complex called Indie Coffee. I went there on Sunday afternoons to catch up on my summer reading list and eat brunch. They had amazing waffles!


The Red & White Waffle at Indie Coffee.

4.  Participating in public outreach

Outreach is particularly important to me as an aspiring scientist because I think it’s valuable to promote public interest in science and public understanding of science. During my summer in Madison, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a public outreach program called Universe in the Park (UitP).

UitP was created by the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison to teach the public about astronomy. Every summer they go to state parks throughout Wisconsin (where the sky is dark) and give a short presentation about a topic in astronomy, and then they set up telescopes for the public to view astronomical objects. As a UitP volunteer I got to travel to Wildcat Mountain State Park and show campers at the park what Saturn looks like through a telescope. We could see the rings and some of the larger moons very distinctly. I also answered questions about different stars and constellations, and a few questions about my summer research project. Doing public outreach has helped me learn how to better explain scientific ideas to people that don’t have a background in science.

5. Getting to know the scientists at UW – Madison

Everyone in the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison went out of their way to get to know us and make us feel welcome over the summer. My research mentor, Dr. Britt Lundgren, was exceptionally nice and approachable, and I loved working with her. She gave me tons of advice about my research and about my career path, and was always helpful when I ran into problems with my project. The graduate students invited us to their social events and gave us advice about preparing for graduate school, and the other professors and scientists gave us advice about research and the job outlook in astronomy. It gave me a positive outlook on the culture of the field to experience how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I’m very grateful to the Department of Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for hosting me this summer, and for making my experience both fun and a valuable learning experience.


About Brittney Curtis

I am in my fourth year as an undergraduate studying physics and astronomy at The Ohio State University. I grew up in the beautiful coastal mountains of Oregon but moved to the midwest for college. Outside of class, I serve as President of the Society of Physics Students and Vice President of the Astronomical Society at OSU. I also love to read science fiction in my spare time. After I graduate from Ohio State, I plan to work towards a PhD in astronomy. Feel free to contact me by leaving a comment!

The Program This Week Is … Programming

by Eric Suchyta

As we’ve seen throughout previous postings, a day in the life of a physicist can be quite different from one physicist to another, depending on what kind of physics you do.  However, there are a number of skills that are generally useful and applied everyday across various disciplines.  One such craft is computer programming.  If you’re not too familiar with computer programming, the idea is pretty simple.  You write out a specific set of instructions, and then you tell your computer to go do these actions.  Just like humans speak different languages, there are many different programming languages, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.   Programming in each language will look a little different, but at the end of the day they’re all aimed at basically the same thing, helping you tell your computer what to do.

Computer programming is useful to physicists for a variety of reasons.  For one, the problems that physicists attempt to solve are often very sophisticated, maybe so much so that a pen and paper solution alone isn’t even possible.  In such cases we turn to a computer to implement calculations we couldn’t feasibly carry out ourselves.  Also, scientific datasets can be enormous, and often times we need to repeat the same types of analyses over various sets of data.  Humans quickly tire of doing the same task over and over again, but computers love to do this and are much faster at it than we are.  Computer programs are even written to control the instruments themselves when scientists are taking their data.  Some instruments are sufficiently complex that attempting to control each moving part without the aid of computer programs would be utterly impossible.  Take a look below at the picture of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  The LHC accelerates protons to extraordinary energies, and this awe-inspiring detector analyzes what is produced following a collision of these high energy protons.  Notice how puny the person (not me) looks compared to the size of it.  Can you imagine attempting to operate something like this without computer assistance?


One of the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider. Did you notice the person in the center of the picture? Imagine trying to use this detector without any computer aid! Source: CERN

If I tried to share all the ways OSU faculty and students use programming in their lives we would be here for days, so I’ll limit the scope.  Two examples that I find particularly fascinating include biophysicists modeling exactly how DNA functions, and condensed matter physicists moving tiny beads in a controlled way through a magnetic field, which you can watch for yourself in this YouTube video.  For the rest of this post I’ll be sharing my story, focusing on some of the kinds of computer programs I’ve been writing.

My area of specialization is astronomy; I work on a project called The Dark Energy Survey.  If you’ve read the post by Ken Patton, I do the same kind of science he does.  In short, we take lots of images of the sky with an enormous digital camera attached to a telescope, and then analyze the images in order to learn what the Universe is doing on scales roughly 100,000 times larger than the Milky Way.  For a more thorough explanation, I invite you to see our project website or follow this blog written by one of our scientists.  My work for the project has been twofold, writing software for controlling our instruments so that we can efficiently carry out our survey, and writing analysis software that uses our recently acquired data to make meaningful measurements.  In both cases, I’m doing loads of computer programming.  It’d take me a bit too long to adequately describe my analysis software, so I’ll focus on the instrumental side.

We have a very sophisticated camera, and I was responsible for writing applications to control a few of its components.  Today I’ll mention two, called the filter changing mechanism and the hexapod.

The filter changing mechanism does exactly what its name says; it changes filters.  Our camera has six filters to choose from.  Each filter allows the camera to see only one specific color of light, everything else is absorbed.  In astronomy, it is useful to look at the individual colors of the sky as separate images because no two images look the same, and the differences give us clues about what we’re seeing.  I’ve included a picture of the filter changer.  The cartoon version illustrates how it moves the different color filters into the opening, and the frame directly above that is a picture of the real filter changer itself.  To get a sense of how big these filters actually are, look at the next picture comparing the size of this opening to the size of a person.  (Again, I’m not in the picture.)  The scale of our camera is a bit larger than your everyday digital camera to say the least!


Left: Our camera’s filter changer. The different filters let us look at different colors of light.
Right: We have a huge camera. The filters are the size of this opening.

The hexapod is a system of six “legs” for precisely adjusting the focus of our images.  Again, I included a picture of it (in which I don’t appear).  Despite its massive size, it controls movement of the surface atop those legs with extreme accuracy.  This is where we place our camera, so we can make small adjustments to get the most crisp looking images possible.  To see a much smaller hexapod in action, you can watch this YouTube video.  You can see what I’m talking about at 1:43 into the clip.


Our camera’s hexapod. The six “legs” can be finely adjusted to control the focus of an image.

Writing programs for such precise and very expensive equipment seemed a bit of a daunting task at first.  Before starting the project I had only had limited programming experience, and had never written anything in Python, the particular language used throughout the work.  In fact, I had never programmed anything before learning some basics in my undergraduate physics courses.  Yet when all was said and done, writing the programs for the camera turned out to be completely manageable.  The instrument has been tested, and much to my delight, what I wrote works!  I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but when you talk to those with programming experience (myself included), there’s a consensus for noticing a genuine feeling of satisfaction when you successfully run a program that you wrote yourself, even if it’s a very simple program.  This feeling is one of the things I look forward to daily at work.  My experiences have also dispelled any misconceptions that I may have had about computer programming.  I assumed it would have been much harder to get the hang of it than it actually was.  With a little effort, anyone can learn to program and open the door to all the applications it affords.  I wish I had learned sooner!

Want to Learn More about Programming?

Although I was taught a small amount of programming in college, the vast majority of what I have learned is self taught.  Introductory programming help is widely accessible online, and this is how many aspiring scientists get started.  I highly encourage you to go this route if you feel inclined.  Googling “<insert programming language here> beginner tutorial” will bring back endless results.  A few programming languages commonly used today include C++, Java, and PythonHere is one website that I know of which offers interactive tutorials.  Another package which introduces you to programming concepts through 3D graphical movement is called ALICE, and is available for free download.


About Eric Suchyta

michigan_2012_croppedI am entering my fourth year as a PhD student in physics at THE Ohio State University, where I also did my undergraduate degree in physics.  I’m a diehard fan of my local sports teams (Buckeyes, Blue Jackets, Crew, USA soccer), and enjoy playing sports and keeping active in my free time.  I’m into metal music, and I’ve been known to grow a beard every now and then.  I also happen to be an identical twin.  I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.  You can find me on the Twitterverse with handle @eric_suchyta.

Observing the Dark

by Ken Patton

April 2012: I’m headed to the airport early one Wednesday afternoon.  Double check to make sure I have my bags, backpack, and really the one most important thing I need: my passport.  This is going to be my first trip to Chile where the telescope for the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is located.  I’m a graduate student at Ohio State and I’ve been working on software for DES over the previous half year; this trip is intended to be a ‘mock’ observing run to test the software and hardware on our telescope.  And luckily the project is also giving me the first ever opportunity to travel to a destination requiring my passport.  I’m flying into La Serena, a town located about an hour and a half drive from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) where the telescope is located.


Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory


Blanco (DES telescope) is on the left, with various other telescopes.

The Dark Energy Survey is meant to study the nature of dark energy, a form of energy with negative pressure that is causing the universe to expand at an increasingly faster rate over time.  The survey will take images in several different colors over one eighth of the sky, observing over 300 million faint distant galaxies.  From statistical properties of the galaxies we can infer the expansion history of the universe.  For the ‘mock’ observing run, however, our camera is not yet mounted on the actual telescope; this means we are primarily testing the system without the actual ability to image the sky.

As we are still performing a good deal of engineering work we expected many of the components to have minor issues here or there.  However, within the first few days we got derailed by one thing we were not expecting: the cooling system of the telescope dome.  It is somewhat equivalent to air conditioning units but it circulates a mixture of water and antifreeze to cool various components inside the dome.  It’s an established system that is in use many places, so we did not expect to run into issues with it.  This caused a slight panic at first since without the building cooling system we would not be able to cool down the camera for the telescope, which operates at -100 degrees Celsius.

As most experimentalists know, it’s often the little things that have the potential to derail your project.  We began to develop a fallback plan for our tests, but fortunately within a couple of days they were able to getting the cooling system back up and running satisfactorily.  This allowed us to fully test the software by pulling data off the camera, processing it into images, and sending the data back to Fermilab (the national lab near Chicago hosting our data).  Overall the ‘mock’ observing run ended as a success, and it gave us useful information on which systems, such as the building cooling, needed improvements over the next few months before we actually intended to observe the sky.

Data from a single CCD with our ‘star’ projector

Data from a single CCD with our ‘star’ projector


The Blanco telescope inside the dome

Returning to Ohio it was back to the daily grind. Unfortunately, most days in the life of a scientist are not always glamorous. Much of your time is spent building, troubleshooting, and debugging rather than analyzing or collecting data.  But we live for the interesting events.  Final results from an experiment.  Publishing a paper.  Travelling to conferences, meetings, or in some cases, to remote observing locations.

Most of my time prior to and after the ‘mock’ observing run was dedicated to working on software for the telescope.  Before the telescope was being used to observe the sky, a large fraction of the effort in the collaboration was focused on getting all the systems ready.  Nonetheless, we still made time for collaboration meetings to discuss the goals of our dark energy science, mostly through constraining the evolution history of the universe.  To do this we have four different probes of cosmology: supernova, baryon acoustic oscillations, galaxy clusters, and gravitational lensing (you can read more about these probes here:

Then in early September we had first light. Wooooooooo! It was exciting seeing the first few images of the sky come off the camera because of how much work we had put into the project at that point.  In the very first images all of the stars and galaxies looked like large donuts- a sign the system was out of focus.  This is pretty much what we expected since we had not gone through the process of calibration yet; in particular we needed to determine the optimal distance from the correcting lenses in the telescope to the focal plane.  So that night the telescope operators stepped through offsets based on the first images to focus it and voila, stars and galaxies started to appear.  We had real data with which we could begin to do science.

First light!

First light!

Since then we’ve progressed into a phase of ‘science verification’ before the official start of the survey.  In this phase we staff the telescope with regular observing shifts and collect data much like we would for the full survey, but over a much smaller area of the sky with the intention of analyzing the data on a quicker time scale.  A typical observing shift consists of four scientists for DES: two observers (in case one falls asleep!), a software expert (often done remotely), and a run manager.  The run manager is the one who plans the observations for the night.  The observers then actually run the telescope, telling it where to point and verifying the correct images are being taken.  And the software expert is just on call in case system issues arise.

Blanco control room

Blanco control room

Eight months after my ‘mock’ observing run I got to return to the telescope once more for a real observing shift.  It was a bit more intense this time around because the telescope had to be run at night (surprise!) unlike the first trip.  For this trip I mostly operated as an observer while also providing local software support based on my experience with the code.

Outside the Blanco dome in the morning

Outside the Blanco dome in the morning

Dome opened for the night prior to observations around 8 PM

Dome opened for the night prior to observations around 8 PM

During the course of the survey many scientists will travel down to CTIO in order to rotate through week-long observing shifts.  We have not officially started the full survey, but are currently finishing up the phase of science verification.  When this phase is complete we should be able to publish preliminary results confirming our ability to perform the dark energy science we set out over the next five years.  You can follow our progress and see more images here:


About Ken Patton

IMG_0749I am originally a Columbus native, but I did my undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and then worked in Washington D.C. for three years before returning to The Ohio State University to pursue my PhD in Physics.  In my free time I play a lot of soccer, both on recreational teams and in various pick-up games with friends.  I got into astrophysics and cosmology after a professor once told me that if I had an interest in general relativity, condensed matter may not be the right area for me.

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.


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!