Friday, October 26, 2018

TAURUS October Reunions!

We had some awesome, unexpected TAURUS reunions happening in Austin and San Antonio this October!  It started with Jordyn (2018), Oscar (2018), and Aldo's (2017) participation in the SURE program, a prospective graduate student recruiting event at UT Austin at the beginning of the month. SURE is a new program started in UT's College of Nature Science, and this year focused on the physical sciences.  Oscar and Aldo presented their work as talks, and Jordyn and Aldo presented a poster.  Aldo actually won the `best poster' award for the entire SURE program.  Congratulations Aldo, and well done everyone!  The trio headed over to Rice University the very next day for a similar graduate recruiting visit program, the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Just a week later, Oscar came back to UT to present his research from UTSA in the TAURS symposium, a Texas-wide organized symposium for undergraduate astronomy research.  His talk was stellar!  At the same time, another group of TAURUS alumni gathered at the SACNAS meeting in San Antonio, including Jennifer (2016), Isaiah (2016), Aldo (2017), and Jordyn (2018).  And there Aldo won yet another poster presenter award, woot! So happy to see the TAURUS community growing and supporting each other in their great research!

So excited to see some of y'all in January in Seattle for the AAS. :)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

TAURUS Symposium

On August 10th we hosted the third annual TAURUS Scholars' Symposium! The 2018 class of TAURUS Scholars presented their research to the entire department before departing back to their home universities.  It was a fun but tearful day saying goodbye to this group.  There were lots of adventures had over the course of the summer!  The scholars all gave phenomenal talks.  Check out their titles and some pictures from the celebrations.

Steve Anusie — “Mini-MUSCLES"
Howard University
Mentored by Cyndi Froning

Oscar Cantua — “The Old, The Red, and the Dusty"
University of Texas at San Antonio
Mentored by Jorge Zavala

Gerlinder Difo Cheri — “The Search for Disintegrating Planets Orbiting White Dwarfs"
University of the Virgin Islands
Mentored by Andrew Vanderburg

Analis Lawrence — “Through Thick, Thin and Halo: Galactic Kinematics of Exoplanet Host Stars with Gaia"
Florida International University / University of Florida
Mentored by Brendan Bowler

Jordyn Mascareñas-Wells — “Spotting Young Stars in the Age of Precision Distance Measurements"
University of Oregon
Mentored by Aaron Rizzuto

Gabriella Sanchez — “Using high-ionization lines in low-mass galaxies to calibrate a new metallicity diagnostic"
University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Mentored by Justin Spilker

We wish our scholars the best of luck in the upcoming semester, and we're excited to see y'all again soon at AAS 2019 in Seattle!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Scholar Spotlight: Jordyn Mascareñas-Wells

The last scholar spotlight of the year is here!  Jordyn Mascareñas-Wells is a rising junior majoring in mathematics and physics at the University of Oregon.  She recently sat down with her research mentor, Dr. Aaron Rizzuto, about her experiences.

AR: What inspired you to pursue a career in Astronomy? 

JMW: As a senior in high school, I discovered my passion for science. I spent the summer before my Freshman year of college as an intern at the Nonlinear Mechanics and Dynamics Research Institute at Sandia National Laboratories and went into college with an interest in studying material science. After working in a condensed matter laboratory under the Material Science Institute at UO, I decided that the field wasn’t for me. At the beginning of my Sophomore year, I took an elective course offered through the physics department on Stellar Astrophysics, as UO doesn’t offer any sort of Astronomy degree or classes. Instantly, I felt intrigued to learn more about the topic, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was excited to get to class every day and attended office hours regularly in order to answer the many questions I had. I had such a hunger for knowledge on the topic and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the Astronomy in order to feed that hunger.

AR: Can you share a bit more about yourself and what draws you to science? 

JMW: I grew up in Rio Rancho, New Mexico as an only child. I enjoy sports, hiking, horseback riding, escape rooms, and cooking. My father is an electrical engineer and has always fueled my interest in STEM. As a first-generation college student from a small town, he has instilled in me the value of hard work and will to succeed that have helped him achieve all he has today. Having the ability to understand how the world around us operates and why things are the way they are is an invaluable asset and one of the primary motivations for my pursuit of a career in STEM.

AR: What mentors, teachers or role models have been the most inspiring? 

JMW: My father has been a huge role model in my life and has stimulated my interest in science. I also have a graduate student mentor at UO who has encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree, something I would have never considered before as I had this stigma in my mind that only the most brilliant and perfect people go on to get doctoral degrees.

AR: What advice would you give to students of color interested in following your path? 

JMW: STEM fields can be lonely and unwelcoming places for individuals from minority groups. As long as you follow your heart and remind yourself about what drew you to the field in the first place, nothing will stop you from achieving your goals and accomplishing your dreams. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t limit yourself from fear of failure.

Monday, August 6, 2018

TAURUS learning through inquiry: Exoplanet Survey Design Challenge

This piece was written by Raquel Martinez, one of UT's graduate students who helps pair up graduate student mentors for each TAURUS Scholar.  This year Raquel led a team of UT grad students in the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators (ISEE) Professional Development Program (PDP), which teaches folks how to design educational experiences around how people learn.  This employs the inquiry technique.  Raquel describes the TAURUS inquiry experience here.

UT graduate students Sinclaire Manning (left) and Sam Factor (right) leading 
investigations on astrometry and the radial velocity method.
Every year during the TAURUS program we take a day to expose our scholars to the process of learning through inquiry. A learning experience designed with an inquiry-based approach does not look like the typical college class most are used to—it is not dominated by lectures and the participants are empowered to be in charge of their own learning. This year’s topic: exoplanet detection methods! 

The process of inquiry requires instructors (or “facilitators”) to essentially remove themselves from the learning experience as much as possible so that the students gain more ownership of the material they learn. The students pose questions they are most interested in investigating, ultimately answering those question over the course of the activity. It’s no accident that this strategy seems similar to the actions researchers perform. An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is engaging with authentic STEM practices (i.e., generating research questions, explaining results based on evidence) in addition to our core concept of detection methods.

Even though the facilitators intervene minimally during the inquiry activity does not mean they haven’t thought long and hard about how students learn or what the most important aspects of exoplanet detection methods are. The design process started many months ago at the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators (ISEE) Professional Development Program (PDP). Graduate students Raquel Martinez (Design Team Lead), Sinclaire Manning, and Sam Factor attended two workshops to design this year’s TAURUS inquiry activity and learn about effective inquiry design and using equitable and inclusive practices in the classroom. The design team knew that the TAURUS scholars and UT undergraduate researchers would all have varying astronomy backgrounds coming into the activity and designed it intentionally for everyone to productively participate and ultimately achieve the desired learning outcome.

ISEE has been training graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and professionals in inquiry techniques since 2001. ISEE PDP participants attend two multi-day workshops to collaboratively design an activity which will subsequently be taught in ISEE-affiliated educational programs or courses. PDP participants first learn about inquiry by going through an inquiry activity themselves. Once they have a better idea of what inquiry actually is after the first workshop, the team then focuses on designing their activities at the next workshop. The program originated as part of UCSC’s Center for Adaptive Optics, but has grown to include not just astronomers, but biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and optometrists. This is the 3rdyear that the TAURUS program has been an ISEE PDP venue.

The “Exoplanet Survey Design Challenge” started off with the participants reflecting on plots of results from exoplanet surveys that used different detection methods and considering what science questions the exoplanet hunters were trying to answer.

(Left): The current census of known exoplanets on a planet mass vs. semi-major axis plot with colors indicating that the exoplanet was discovered using a different detection method. What science questions were astronomers trying to answer with their surveys? (Right): Students reviewing the science questions they raised.
After this initial brainstorming session and learning a little bit more details about the astrometry and radial velocity detection methods, the students embarked on the culminating final investigation. The participants were divided into teams of three and tasked with proposing their own exoplanet survey. Each group chose a science goal their survey would attempt to achieve, like finding exoplanets in the habitable zone of their host stars or Jupiter-mass exoplanets orbiting very far away from their hosts, then made survey design choices (i.e., spectrograph sensitivity, CCD spatial resolution) that would help them achieve this goal.

The key lesson that the students came to understood was that astronomers intentionally design their surveys with science goals in mind. These science goals require their surveys to probe a specific mass vs. semi-major axis parameter space and thus informs the types of instruments they can use and the detection methods that are required. After presenting their exoplanet survey proposals, the day concluded with a quick summary of everything that the students had learned and how what they did connected to astronomy research and is broadly applicable to other disciplines.

Our TAURUS scholars and UT undergraduate researchers present their exoplanet mission proposals. Viyang Shah, Steve Anusie, and Jordan Mascareñas-Wells (left) proposed a radial velocity mission to detect exoplanets in the habitable zones of M dwarf stars. Gerlinder Difo Cheri, Aimee Schechter, and Oscar Canuta (middle) also proposed a radial velocity mission but to detect specifically Jupiter-mass planets in the habitable zones of M dwarf stars. Gabby Sanchez, Analis Lawrence, and Jack Berry (right) proposed an astrometry mission to detect Jupiter-mass planets orbiting ~5 au away from M dwarf stars.
The activity participants really enjoyed their day telling us they liked the freedom they had to ask and answer their own questions while also not having to already be an astronomy expert. Additionally, many loved how they got to work as a team and benefit from each other’s knowledge to create a proposal for what could actually be a real research project. Sounds like another successful TAURUS inquiry activity in the books!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

TAURUS at McDonald Observatory!

TAURUS had an epic adventure this past weekend, traveling the seven hours (by car) from Austin to McDonald Observatory in West Texas.  We were scheduled for two nights of observing on the 2.7m Harlan Smith Telescope using the Coudé spectrograph, but this was also an opportunity for our scholars to take in the sites, the dark night sky, and visit some other telescopes while partaking in a professional astronomical observing run.

We arrived Friday evening on the mountain and got our bearings, walking the grounds and taking in the night sky.  Unfortunately the moon was out and so were some clouds!  The scholars retired early after watching some movies, prepping for the next day.

We toured the Hobby Eberly Telescope (HET) on Saturday afternoon, seeing the primary mirror first hand.  Jordyn also tested out the azimuthal mount by swinging it around a few times!

The team was eagerly anticipating the first night of observations on the 2.7m.  As we watched the sunset, we got a special treat.  Anita Cochran, the observatory Assistant Director and TAURUS team observer, set up the telescope so we could view Jupiter through the eye piece!  It was like a textbook image (see below!).  Everyone took turns "driving" the telescope through the night.  Oscar, Jordyn and Patrick took the trophy home for Saturday though, because they finished it out with Anita at sunrise.  Everyone else didn't make it quite as far...

Sunday saw a brief tour of the historic 1939 2.1m Otto Struve telescope, and then excitement brewed because the moon was rising later that night... and it payed off, because everyone spent the hour after sunset being dazzled by the dark skies and the Milky Way.  But soon, Anita enticed us all to come inside and see Saturn through the eye piece -- another textbook image! Incredible!

Even though the drive was long (very long), the trip was spectacular and well worth it!  We hope to see the TAURUS scholars back here soon!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Scholar Spotlight: Analis Lawrence

The fifth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer focuses on Analis Lawrence, who recently graduated from Florida International University with a major in Physics and minors in Astronomy and Mathematics.  She will be attending the University of Florida as a graduate student in the Physics Department in the fall of 2018.  This summer Analis is working with Prof. Brendan Bowler on the galactic kinematics of exoplanet host stars using Gaia as part of the TAURUS research program at The University of Texas at Austin. He sat down with Analis recently for this interview.

BB: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy or science in general?  What draws you to science in the first place?

AL: A general passion for learning inspired me to pursue a career in astrophysics. But I have been most enchanted by reading and hearing about Albert Einstein’s work and his thought experiments on gravity, space, and time. I’ve been interested in science since a young age but not physics and astronomy until later in my academic career when I started going to schools that were STEM-focused.  Exposure to physics for me came once I took a high school physics course, and later in college, when I got involved with the astronomy club at the Florida International University.  I also became interested in astronomy through documentaries. 

BB: Please tell me more about yourself. What do you do for fun?

AL: For fun, I enjoy endurance running, playing and watching tennis, and painting when I have the time. My normal routine is a six-mile run in the mornings, which I do a few times each week.  I also enjoy spending time with my friends and my loved ones.

BB: In your opinion, what qualities makes astronomy so unique and compelling?

AL: What makes astrophysics so compelling to me is our insignificant size in the universe, yet how much space and time there is to explore.  It’s easy to forget until you look up. I like that astronomy ponders big questions that are truly amazing, from the origins of the universe to the nature of black holes to the question “Are we alone?”  What I find most appealing is space-time physics and cosmology from a theoretical perspective, which is the direction I aim to pursue in graduate school.  I’m looking forward to exploring the theoretical astrophysics groups at UF.

BB: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to share— for example, something that’s happened along your academic or personal trajectory?

AL: I am most grateful for two REU’s at the University of Chicago. During the summer of 2016, I calibrated a photomultiplier tube for a liquid Xenon detector for their dark matter group with advisors Luca Grandi and Richard Saldanha. And the summer after, with Hsiao-Wen Chen, I carried out a statistical modeling study on highly ionized oxygen in star-forming galaxy halos. I then compared my model to observations of low-redshift galaxies from Hubble.

BB: What mentors, teachers, or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?

AL: All of my teachers, coaches, parents, and family have been inspiring in my life.   My most influential mentors have been in college, especially the particle physics and astrophysics professors at FIU.  My mentor at FIU was Dr. Boeglin who studies nuclear physics. And Dr. Webb’s astronomy lectures and star parties first got me interested in the field as early as freshman year.

Documentaries and books by theoretical physicist Brian Greene have been especially captivating, and I have loved listening to his World Science Festival discussions with scientists and philosophers.  I appreciate the way he’s able to simplify complex concepts for the public.  All of these helped inspire me to change my major. 

My high school physics teacher Mr. Smith also jumpstarted my interest in physics. He gave me an appreciation for critical thinking and brought much energy and enthusiasm to learning physics.

BB: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges? 

AL: Attending schools in an underprivileged area has made me a hard worker and has taught me to try to think outside of the box, or to better realize that there is no box. Other schools tended to have more, enhanced resources for learning, and students there may have been introduced to physics earlier in their careers.  But I was fortunate to attend schools with great STEM programs and teachers who exposed me to new opportunities and an interdisciplinary education.  

BB: You’ll be heading to the University of Florida for graduate school next month— congratulations!  What are you most looking forward to at UF?

AL: I am mostly looking forward to meeting the faculty in the astrophysics theory group and the possibility to explore the different research opportunities, including LIGO.  I’m also looking forward to TA-ing and meeting my fellow grad students.

BB: What advice would you give to high school and undergraduate students of color interested in following your path?

AL: Keep your curiosity alive and be yourself.  Always work hard.

BB: What are your future and long-term career goals?

AL: I hope to become a professor. My interests are in space-time, black holes, and cosmology. Somewhere along the line, I want to help fix the minority and gender gap in physics education and careers.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Scholar Spotlight: Gerlinder Difo Cheri

The fourth TAURUS scholar spotlight of the summer focuses on Gerlinder Difo Cheri, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands. Gerlinder is working with Andrew Vanderburg this summer, searching for evidence of planetary destruction around the burned out remnants of stars like our Sun.

This summer, Gerlinder Difo Cheri joins us at the University of Texas at Austin from more than two thousand miles away in the US Virgin Islands. Coming to UT Austin poses both challenges and opportunities by virtue of the university’s sheer size: the number of students at UT Austin (about 51,000) is a bit more than half the total population of the US Virgin Islands (100,000). This summer, Gerlinder is making the most of the opportunities and resources in pursuit of his goals and ambitions.

Gerlinder grew up on a steady diet of science and technology related media. He recalls being inspired at an early age by scientists he saw on television, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, who “just went out and solved things.” Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy seemed natural to him. “How can you not be interested in astronomy?” he asks. These science and engineering role models drove him to enroll at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and begin studying computer science.

Once he arrived, Gerlinder found the professors at UVI to be valuable role models as well. Before enrolling there, his role models were scientists and engineers (fictional or otherwise) he saw on television, ranging from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Tony Stark. But when he arrived at UVI, for the first time he met people who lived on his island and were pursuing his passion. Gerlinder found it indispensable to ask his professors about the challenges and struggles they faced.

Despite Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy, he was unable to dive in when he first enrolled at the UVI because at the time, the school did not offer any astronomy courses. Therefore, when the University of the Virgin Islands offered their first astronomy class ever, Gerlinder was excited to sign up. From there, Gerlinder took a leap and applied to be a TAURUS scholar at UT, which brought him here.

“The future of astronomy is beautiful and expansive,” Gerlinder says. He sees and values how astronomy can capture the public imagination, like how his imagination was captured as a child learning about science and technology from communicators on television, but recognizes that initiative is required to overcome barriers. When asked what advice he might give to a younger student in a similar position to himself, Gerlinder says “You have to actively search for what you want to do, and don’t just wait for it to fall into your lap.” If you take the first step, you might just find yourself studying the stars.