Thursday, June 22, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Adrianna Perez

We are thrilled to share with you the first of our 2017 TAURUS Scholar Spotlights!  Adrianna Perez is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she majors in Physics.  Adrianna participated in the Banneker-Aztlán Institute last summer working with Dr. Jill Naiman and Prof. Jorge Moreno and joins us for TAURUS this summer.  Adrianna is also a CAMPARE and Cal-bridge Scholar.  She was interviewed by her research mentor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

CLH: Can you tell me about yourself? What is your story?

AP: I’m from California, live in Bellflower. Basically my whole life in Bellflower, went to Bellflower high school, graduated from there. Right out of the high school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hill as a first generation college student with already my Physics major declared, although I was still unsure whether that was what I wanted to do. I took Physics in high school, and I did really well in it and I thought it was fun, so I went with that :). I was like, OK, I like Physics, so I feel like that’s a good place to start.

So I went to Dominguez Hills, start taking my Physics classes there, and really started to like it. The problems were harder at first. So I was a little, oh no, what if I can’t do this. But I just kept working at it, got better at it, and really started to like it. And then, just space was cool, so that’s how the Astronomy part came in. But we don’t have an Astronomy department at my school, so I wasn’t really exposed to it. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Moreno came to my school and gave a talk about his galaxy mergers, that I learned about research in Astronomy. And he mentioned the Banneker-Aztlán Institute, and I was really interested. So after his talk, I spoke to him. He encouraged me to apply. So I did that and got accepted, and then went to Harvard, and really liked it. Now I’m positive that I really want to be in Astronomy.

CLH: Can you share a little bit about of your future and career goals?

AP: I think a lot about becoming a professor, but I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. After that, maybe do a postdoc, and after that, get into academia, or try to be a faculty member. I feel like I might go down that path, but I’m still open to the possibilities. You don’t necessarily have to go to academia, there are other options. But I feel like, that is where I will end up.

CLH: So what brings you to the TAURUS program, and how do you think the TAURUS program will help you to reach your career goals?

AP: I was interested in TAURUS because at AAS, Dr. Moreno was telling me that Caitlin was gonna be here and the TAURUS people were going to be here. So we had a joint lunch with them, the Banneker-Aztlán people had lunch with the TAURUS people. I got to speak with the previous scholars and I asked how they liked it, and they were all really happy and excited and tell me all these great things. So I’m like, wow that sounds really good. Especially because I really liked Banneker and I wanted to be in something that’s similar. Because I know some REU can feel more competitive, and lonely. You’re just in the office, working by yourself and nobody wants to help you. So I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I wanted to be in a place that would feel similar to the one I was already in. And the previous scholars spoke very well of it. I met Caitlin there, and spoke with her. She said, sure, go apply! So I applied. I heard the program had a goal of diversity and inclusion and I really liked that. That’s up and coming in Astronomy, people are trying to change that. So I would like to be in part of the program where that is included.

CLH: So how would success in this TAURUS program look like to you?

AP: I hope to make many new friends. And I hope to get somewhat far in the research, and just to be able to answer that question now. And I want to give a good talk at the end! :) I want to have a nice talk with nice pictures, and explain myself well. I used to have a pretty big fear of public speaking. So I want to be able to communicate, and give a presentation without running off the stage. :)

CLH: I heard from Dr. Moreno that you gave an extremely good talk at the final presentation last year. Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. I worked really hard. We had a speech class once every week. But I would go a bit earlier, that way, I will practice before everybody else would come to, just to get comfortable saying it on stage. I can handle speaking in front of a couple people, but when the group gets bigger than five, then it’s like, oh no! 

CLH: Yeah, the community here would definitely help and provide feedback, and you can give an even better talk in the end.

AP: Yeah, I hope to top my previous talk, and that would be a success to me.

CLH: Just to change the gear a bit. How do you learn best (e.g., hands-on experience, reading literature about a topic, verbal explanations, process diagrams, etc.)? What is the most useful kind of assistance your mentor can provide?

AP: I think I learn the best from reading and listening. So I can read something and if I don’t understand it right away and get some kind of verbal clarification, that would be good. Sometimes drawing pictures helps a lot. But I don’t know if I would consider myself a hands-on person. Because I normally don’t like to build, or do things from my hands, I feel uncoordinated. :) So that doesn’t work too much.

Something I like is smaller celebrations. Even if it’s like a small goal, like I read half the paper, or I got a plot to work. These small things are what make me feel good. Yes! It might not be something big or fancy, but it’s progress, and I feel that’s worth celebrating.

CLH: Can you talk about what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

AP: I’ve already briefly mentioned the public speaking one. I feel like it’s my biggest obstacle. Because I can get really shy, nervous, and anxious sometimes, and withdraw into myself, don’t talk to anyone and go out much. When you need any help, you should be able to ask. If you don’t ask, then nothing will happen. That’s the biggest obstacle is to come out and say I need help.

CLH: What are you most proud of?

AP: I am proud that I can make little movies. Something that makes me proud is that I make little bunch of snapshots, and compile them up into a little movie. I think it’s really cool.

CLH: If there are other freshman or sophomore students who are interested in following your path, what advice would you give to them?

AP: I feel like I was lucky that Dr. Moreno came to my school, especially because it is small. But for other places, I feel like you would at least want to look into places you would be interested in doing research. If somebody is interested in going to Harvard or here at UT Austin, then I’d say try to get in contact with somebody here or I would put them in contact, introduce them to somebody. Let them talk about what that student’s research or career goals are. And hopefully, they will get a better idea if that’s what they want to do or not.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TAURUS @ Python 101

Jackie Champagne leads the TAURUS python workshop.
Week one is now in the history books!  Last week, our TAURUS scholars saw an intense week of orientation, logistics, meeting with their supervisors, launching their projects, and possibly most important of all, they started to learn python.  Python is now one of the most useful programming languages for astronomers with the dawn of astropy a few years ago.  Because it's free, fairly user friendly and used by many professions, many young astronomers are choosing python over other programming languages that have been favored in the past.

Learning a new language is always hard.  Especially if it's your first programming language, python can feel overwhelming!  Definitely when you're installing it off the bat and asking the python path to just work without any headaches.  With the help of our graduate student experts -- Jackie Champagne and Sam Factor -- python was successfully installed on the TAURUS workbooks and we were ready to go for python 101!

Jackie Champagne, our local python champion, led three independent tutorial sessions on python in the first week of TAURUS to make sure the students were off to a good start.  She designed the material especially for folks just starting out in astronomy research with important tasks like reading in data files and plotting data points and histograms.  Our sessions were filled with great questions and were also well attended by other UT astronomers who might've wanted to learn python themselves.  Dare I say there were a few faculty members in attendance?

Well done TAURUS scholars on a fantastic first week and onward to eight more weeks of glorious science with your newfound programming skills!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Welcome 2017 TAURUS Scholars!

TAURUS 2017 Scholars with Prof. Casey atop RLM with a panoramic
view of Austin.
Today the crew at UT was thrilled to welcome the second class of TAURUS scholars to the department!  It's amazing to think it's been a full year since we welcomed the inaugural class; we've come so far and it's a great feeling to be back where we started with an entirely new class of scholars.  I'm sure the 2017 class will help take the program even farther, growing in new directions we haven't anticipated.

Like last year, selecting scholars was a process taken very seriously by the faculty and researchers at UT.  The demand for summer research positions is incredibly high in astronomy, and there were many deserving students who we could not select to become a part of our program.  This is where our mission statement comes to mind -- that we aim to elevate and amplify the voices of students who excel, work incredibly hard, and aspire to be the future face of astrophysics, and our commitment to those from traditionally underserved backgrounds works towards a future ideal of a more equitable scientific community for all of us.

This year's scholars include (as pictured from left to right):
Pa Chia Thao, Mt Holyoke College
Aldo Sepulveda, UT San Antonio
Jonathon Brown, MIT
Adrianna Perez, Cal State Dominguez Hills
Andrew Cancino, Missouri State University
Alexander Fortenberry, University of the Virgin Islands

In the coming weeks, we'll get to know these scholars closer with in-depth profiles! But in the meantime, you get to learn about their first day on the job.

As usual, the first day of TAURUS was packed full with activity after activity: from "orientation" and an overview of the department to a brief tour of RLM and the roof (see picture!) to a few marches across campus to retrieve the illusive UT ID cards, we covered a lot of the basic logistics today.  There was also some fun, with a department meet-and-greet complete with a suite of 72 cupcakes to satisfy the afternoon sweet-craving.  The cupcakes gave us a great excuse to mingle, and let the TAURUS folks get to know the local experts: the UT Austin undergraduate researchers.  Tomorrow, let the science begin!

Monday, January 16, 2017

A warm 2016 TAURUS reunion at the 229th meeting of the AAS

2016 TAURUS Scholars in the AAS 229 Exhibition Hall.
Those of us at UT Austin didn't have to travel far to attend the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2017. It was held in Grapevine, TX, just outside of Dallas a quick three hours drive up the road. Every winter at the start of the new year, the AAS seems like the ultimate gathering place and an opportunity to look towards the future of astronomy in the US by meeting all of the young people who will make it happen.

Our 2016 TAURUS Scholars are among that group that will move this field forward into the future. AAS 229 was the first time the Scholars were reunited after their summer in Austin ended in August 2016. With posters in hand and networking skills polished off, TAURUS Scholars left an awesome impression on all they interacted with, from meet-and-greets, dinners, talks, and poster sessions. In many ways this served as a launching-off point, for Scholars to network with prospective employers and graduate schools, while also mingling with peers from other summer programs, including sister programs at Harvard University, the Banneker Institute and the Aztlan Institute.

We are so proud to have had a stellar first class of TAURUS Scholars, and to Elizabeth, Isaiah, Derek, Jennifer and Danielle:  we're eager to see where life takes you! Keep in touch!

Elizabeth explains solar twins.

Isaiah explaining his search for wide-separation planets.

Danielle explaining the IMF.

TAURUS, Banneker and Aztlán lunchtime meetup at AAS.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The TAURUS experience in One Image

The following post is written by 2016 TAURUS Scholar, Isaiah Tristan.  Isaiah spent the summer working with Dr. Brendan Bowler on the detection of host stars for free floating (or wide-orbit) planets.  Now a week out from the program's finish, Isaiah speaks here about a challenge put forth to the TAURUS scholars on day 1 of their program: to come up with a logo or icon that represented their experience and identity.  Isaiah discusses the process of coming up with the logo together, joining a simple bull with the image of a telescope.

While we were trying to create a logo, we each had our own ideas of what it should be. Some of us wanted planets, while others wanted stars or galaxies, and no matter how much we edited, we could not find something that we were all happy with. However, at McDonald Observatory, we all caught ourselves looking out towards the clear, night sky that we had only dreamed of before. Perhaps it was then, when we could hear the dome slowly rotating in the dark, that we found the common ground between us.

A telescope is something we all use, regardless of our interests or specialization in astronomy. It is a perfect representation of what brings us together, both in research and in the reason we became astronomers. It is the tool that aids us in our quest to solve mysteries, many which we have not even discovered, and it helps us to be closer to the heavenly bodies we curiously reached out for. It also acts as a medium between us and the rest of the world, as it lets us share what is out there in our vast universe with others. Telescopes will always be part of our history, and they are a part of the future we hope to build.

The bull represents us, people who were given an opportunity by you and the University of Texas to look out through the telescope and see our hopes and dreams up close.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A tearful TAURUS goodbye!

The TAURUS students and Caitlin Casey (aka "research mom") on the last day of the 2016 TAURUS program.

The start of this week around the UT Astronomy Department is a little more quiet than it has been. We said goodbye to our 2016 TAURUS cohort at the end of last week.  The nine weeks passed by far to quickly for everyone.  Though it was a tearful day, it was also a day of great celebration.  The TAURUS Scholars have each accomplished so much in their time at UT Austin, and we had the opportunity to celebrate their hard work at our inaugural TAURUS Symposium!

Each of our scholars presented their work in a ten minute talk to a packed lecture room, fielding tough questions from the audience and occasionally cracking a joke.  Here are they are pictured in action:

Danielle Rowland, An Investigation of the Initial Mass Function, worked with Steve Finkelstein

Derek Holman, Galaxy Mergers in Overdense Environments, worked with Chao-Ling Hung

Jennifer Medina, Calculating Rotational Velocities of Planet-Hosting Young Stars, worked with Andrew Mann

Elizabeth Gutiérrez, The Dynamical Modeling of Solar Twins, worked with Ivan Ramirez

Isaiah Tristan, Potential Host Stars of for Free-Floating Planets, worked with Brendan Bowler

 The talks were phenomenal, and the supervisors agreed -- the scholars blew them away in terms of the progress they made and how much they had learned in nine short weeks.  Thankfully this isn't the last time us at UT will see them in action!  All of our scholars are preparing to attend the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which this year will be held in Grapevine, TX.  We can't wait for the reunion, and an opportunity for the TAURUS scholars to network with other undergraduate astronomy researchers and potential graduate schools.

It is also important to reflect on the entire year of planning TAURUS that led up to the symposium day: from the first murmurs of starting a pilot REU program last fall, we gained some steam through a small internal grant (many thanks to the Cox Endowment Fund!) and a slew of folks who have dedicated countless hours of their time and resources to ensure the TAURUS scholars had a rewarding experience.  All of the following members of the Astronomy Department/ McDonald Observatory played some role in the success of TAURUS, so we would like to acknowledge their commitments here (bold/underlined names are those who dedicated quite a bit of time):

Taft Armandroff, Brendan Bowler, Mike Boylan-Kolchin, Brandon Bozek, Caitlin Casey, Anita Cochran, Harriet Dinerstein, Joanne Duffy, Trent Dupuy, Lara Eakins, Mike Endl, Cyndi Froning, Keely Finkelstein, Steven Finkelstein, Kristen Hogan, Chao-Ling Hung, Briana Indahl, Shardha Jogee, Intae Jung, Adam Kraus, Rebecca Larson, Hanshin Lee, Rachael Livermore, Jessica Luna,  Andrew Mann, Sinclaire Manning, Raquel Martinez, Jacob McLane, Adam McKay, Kristen McQuinn, Eva Noyola, Kelly Quinney, Ivan Ramirez, Jeremy Ritter, Aaron Rizzuto, Anthony Seekatz, Sydney Sherman, Jeff Silverman, Aaron Smith, Chris Sneden, Estela Sosa, Emma Yu.

We are eager to continue the program in the years to come, pending additional support. The program  has not only benefited the scholars themselves, but also built a sense of summer community for the astronomy department at UT Austin and McDonald Observatory which is incredibly valuable.

Monday, August 8, 2016

TAURUS at McDonald Observatory

This past week was busy for our TAURUS cohort; we set off first thing on Wednesday morning for McDonald Observatory in West Texas, a healthy seven hour drive from Austin.  On board were Danielle, Derek, Jennifer, Elizabeth and Isaiah, along with two UT Austin undergraduate students, Meghana Killi and Anna McGilvray.  Also along for the ride were McDonald veteran, Dr. Adam McKay, science advisor Dr. Brendan Bowler, and TAURUS director, Prof. Caitlin Casey.

Despite the long journey, excitement was in the air as this was the first trip to an observatory for many on-board.  It would also be the first opportunity for many to take a glance at a truly dark night sky.  McDonald Observatory sits in a rather special spot in the continental United States, just north of Big Bend National Park, an internationally recognized dark sky preserve, making it great for astronomical observations in the optical.  This is one of the reasons the site was chosen for the observatory back in 1939.  Now McDonald Observatory hosts three major telescopes: the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope, the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope, and the 11m Hobby Eberly Telescope, along with a few smaller telescopes, including the McDonald 30" Telescope.  Over the course of their visit, the TAURUS scholars would soon become experts in using both the 30" and the 2.7m Smith Telescope.

The evening of our first night on the mountain was spent cramped into the control room of the 30" telescope.  Adam quickly jumped into gear training everyone in its use, including showing them the telescope control system, how to issue commands, and how to take exposures.  Excitement was up as TAURUS scholars snapped a number of shots of famous landmarks in the sky, like the Ring and Dumbbell Nebulas.  The students also helped Adam complete his own science program, targeting bright comets in our solar system in different filters, meant to measure emission in CH and other molecules.  Miraculously, most students stayed up well past mid-night, despite waking up the same morning early to leave Austin!

The next three nights got a bit more serious.  Not only were TAURUS students still operating the 30" telescope, of which they were already expert users, but they had control of the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope.  Our first night on the 2.7m was dedicated to imaging, using the DIAFI instrument, of some nearby galaxies in different filters.  This imaging would help Anna, and her advisor Dr. Kristen McQuinn, analyze the star formation rates in dwarf galaxies, and also help us understand the DIAFI instrument performance more precisely than was previously known.  The data turned out great, and with a New Moon, the skies were very dark for this imaging project!

The next two nights, we were using the Robert G. Tull Coude spectrograph to take spectra of comets, as well as obtain data for one of our TAURUS scholars, Isaiah Tristan.  Isaiah and his supervisor, Brendan, were looking to constrain the motions of stars in our galaxy -- stars they think could be host to planets on very wide orbits, >1000 AU.  They've already identified these mysterious planets, that are potentially free-floating, but now aim to figure out whether or not they belong to any stars nearby.  After reducing their data, Isaiah and Brendan will surely let us know what they find out!

On Friday we were also lucky enough to get a tour of the 11m Hobby Eberly Telescope, which is currently undergoing the final stages of an overhaul to get ready for the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX) project.  As one of the largest telescopes on Earth in one of the most compact domes on Earth, we were thoroughly impressed!

While it's always a challenge to stay up all night, even for astronomers, the night sky was too alluring.  Many hours were spent on the 2.7m catwalk staring at the most beautiful sky most of us had ever seen.  The Milky Way pops out after 30 seconds of dark adaption, and within 10 minutes, clusters, galaxies, and the Milky Way's dust lanes are revealed in stunning detail.  With a tripod in hand, we even got a few great night shots.

After a few all-nighters, TAURUS students were happy to get back to Austin Sunday night, reflecting on what a unique visit they had, and how they are now, all, expert observational astronomers.