Sunday, February 3, 2019

TAURUS at the Seattle AAS Jan 2019!

It's already February.... how time flies! Sorry for the delay in posting about AAS 2019, it was particularly busy (like any AAS is relaxing).  It was TAURUS' third trip to AAS, and it was awesome!  It was great having the gang back together -- Steve, Gerlinder, Oscar, Jordyn, Gaby and Analis.

A few of us met up first at the grad school fair Sunday night before the conference began -- lots of UT pride all around.  Steve missed out on the photo op, but was there in spirit.  Then the first day a bunch of us met up for a special TAURUS dinner at the ONE restaurant in all of downtown Seattle that would take a reservation for eighteen people.  I have no idea what we're going to do in the coming years when TAURUS is even bigger. It's a good problem to have though.

Not only did we get a reunion of our 2018 TAURUS Scholars, but we also welcomed back some of our 2017 and 2016 cohort!  Alex (2017), Pa Chia (2017), Aldo (2017), Isaiah (2016) and Danielle (2016) were all able to join -- it was so great seeing everyone together again!

Needless to say, everyone rocked their posters! I was so proud to see the joy of science on everyone's faces.  I can't wait to see where everyone is headed next.  We'll miss you at UT!  Come back soon. :)

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!