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.

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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.

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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.

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The Memorial Terrace on a Friday afternoon.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!