Sunday, September 1, 2019

TAURUS and REU Research Symposium 2019

This is long overdue, but so happy to share with you some of the pictures from the final research symposium of the 2019 TAURUS Scholars, and for the first year also UT Astronomy's REU program participants!  It was so incredible having so many scholars in town over the summer, working hard on research, preparing their research notes for publication and making beautiful posters as rough drafts for the winter AAS meeting which will be in Honolulu this year!

Because our group was so big, and we wanted to hold one joint TAURUS+REU end-of-summer extravaganza, we opted for poster presentations rather than talks as we have done in years past.  Each scholar introduced themselves in a short poster "pop" presentation and a poster session was held immediately afterward.  We had such a good turn-out and such wonderful conversations about everyone's scientific achievements!  Overall, the format worked really well and led to more interaction, so we'll be sure to use this model going forward.

After the poster session, we had some big group shots out on the roof of the 13th floor.  They look great, even though it was one of the HOTTEST days of the year, but that's how we roll here in Texas. :)

Can't wait to see everyone soon in Honolulu! Let's keep in touch!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Nolan Elauria

The last TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of 2019 is here and it's all about Nolan Elauria.  Nolan joins us from CalPoly San Luis Obispo, where he is currently a senior working towards a physics major. Nolan has done some research in biophysics at his home institute modeling the spread of crop disease, and is now gaining some experiences in the world of astrophysics. Nolan’s project aims to identify young stars by looking for rotation in thousands of time series lightcurves from the Kepler Satellite, and then search them for transiting exoplanets.  Nolan's research mentor, Dr. Aaron Rizzuto, sat down with Nolan recently to learn more.

AR: What led to chose your major and what do you like about it?

NE: I have been aiming at doing a physics major since middle school, where I was inspired by a really great teacher who got me thinking about how things work. The same interest in how things work and breaking things down into models carried through into my college studies. The puzzle solving experienc
e is something I really like, and the process-based learning often featured in physics really suits me.

AR: What led you to apply for the TAURUS program?

NE: I new I wanted to do a summer research project in a physics area, and astronomy and astrophysics was something I was interested in since I started college. Given that I was already exploring other areas of physics with research projects at my home institution, TAURUS seemed like a great move in the astronomy direction. I really wanted direct working experience in the field, so when the opportunities arose I applied to astro research summer programs, including TAURUS. I also wanted a somewhat more open ended and less directed research experience, to see how I would do in a self-sufficient working envirnment, and that seemed like a possibility with TAURUS.

AR: Who have been some inspiring mentors/role models in your life?

NE: The professors I got to work with at my home institution have really helped me build my interest in physics and science.  Dr. Stamatis Vokos and Dr. Oleg Kogan are the two professors I’ve worked closely with prior to TAURUS over the last three years, and talking to them about my experience and goals as an undergrad has been very helpful for pointing me in the right direction and keeping me aiming high.

AR: What does it mean to you to be a scientist?

NE: I’m not sure yet, I think I need more experience in the field to be able to give a specific answer to that. But generally, I think it’s to keep exploring things that you are curious about, and to always look for find new things and questions to ask.

AR: What advice would you give to high school or early undergraduate students who are interested in the science career path?

NE: Beyond a certain point it doesn’t really matter as much what grades you are getting, it matters what you do and what you’ve been a part of. Building experiences is very important.

AR: What are some of your interests outside of school and astronomy?

NE: Movies and music are the two interest that I keep going back to. I listen to lots of music and I play guitar. My parents pushed me to take guitar classes when I was 8, and I learned for a few years then stopped and forgot everything. In senior year of high school I got back into it and have been enjoying it since. I think that because these activities are not as structured and more creative they are a good alternative to the subjects that I am studying in College. I’m also on a sketch comedy team at my home institution. So really anything creative and very different from science is what I gravitate to when I’m not studying or working.

AR: What are your longer term career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

NE: I don’t really have an answer for that. I’m at a point right now where I’m not sure where I’ll be even two years in the future. But that’s not a bad thing, and I don’t find it discouraging. I’ve been working hard to get to this point for a long time and can take whatever path interests me from here, and the possibilities are all exciting.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Ariel Mora

The penultimate TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of 2019 focuses on Ariel Mora, a rising junior at Bennington College.

Ariel Mora is studying physics and astronomy in the Bennington College. Ariel has been active in research on binary stars, and he is excited about learning radio astronomy this summer working with Dr. Ya-Lin Wu. Ariel’s project focuses on determining the mass of a potentially substellar object by the Keplerian rotation in its accretion disk.  Ya-Lin recently sat down with Ariel to learn more about his passions and future goals!

YLW: What inspired you to study and pursue a career in astronomy or science in general?

AM: My physics and astronomy classes in college have been very inspiring, and have been a lot of fun for me. I also enjoyed working with my mentor in my past internship at Maria Mitchell Observatory in Massachusetts. I carried out observations of a binary star on my own, and utilized photometry to determine the rotation period.

YLW: What most excites you about doing research?

AM: What has been really exciting is having the chance to study new things that people haven't studied before and using my data to make my own conclusions.

YLW: What are your hobbies and favorite pastimes?

AM: I enjoy activities such as boxing. I created a boxing club at my college and recruited new members to join.

YLW: What values, experiences, and/or perspectives do you feel you'll bring to your next research project after TAURUS?

AM: I can bring an interest of learning. I enjoy trying to understand new ideas. I hope my experience can help in my future research. I am also lookin
g forward to more internships as I still have two years left in college.

YLW: Who have been the inspiring mentors, teachers, or role models in your life?

AM: My high school physics teacher really inspired me to continue in the field of STEM. My professor in college is really excited about his astronomy and physics classes, which also makes me excited. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Lina Florez

Our sixth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight is on Lina Florez, who comes to the TAURUS program from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she will soon be starting her final year. At UT Austin, Lina is working with Dr. David Wilson, using data from the Very Large Telescope to characterise a newly-discovered binary system.

Having grown up watching science documentaries, Lina first became interested in a career in science during high school due to really enjoying her physics classes. Her school encouraged her to seek out opportunities for links with universities, and Lina found her first summer research position at the University of Illinois while still in high school. With the help of the research advisor, Lina was able to secure sponsorship to attend that university as an undergraduate.

“In the beginning science was really intimidating to me,” she says, “but what I find interesting is there’s a lot that we don’t know, and I’d love to be a part of trying to understand that.” Lina has acted on that interest, undertaking multiple research projects at every stage of her education despite having to work three jobs to support herself through university. 

In addition to her work on a rare white dwarf-brown dwarf binary system at UT, Lina has developed instrumentation for the South Pole Telescope at the University of Illinois, worked on sky subtraction algorithms for the Subaru Telescope at Princeton and analyzed observations of quasars. Lina particularly enjoys the computational side of research: “I really like learning how to use my computer to analyze all of these huge sets of data and try to understand what’s going on.” These varied projects have given Lina an interest in, and understanding of, a broad range of areas within astronomy. She cites exoplanets and quasars as particular favourites. 

After her time at UT, Lina plans to apply for grad school to carry on working in astronomical research. Looking to the future, she sees programs like TAURUS helping to make the astronomical community more diverse. “When I started out I didn’t see anyone who looked like me who wanted to do what I wanted to do,” she notes, so the opportunity to work with a diverse group has been important. “I want to try and see more people like me in astronomy, so I go out of my way to tell people why I care about it so much.” 

Lina cites the advocates and mentors she has worked with as vital for helping her get to where she is now, and encourages students from similar backgrounds to do the same: “Try to reach out to people as soon as you can,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without their help. Also try to develop skill sets like coding, which are useful and will make you feel more comfortable when doing research. And try your best at school!”

Thus far Lina’s project at UT Austin is going very well, and she will be presenting her work at the AAS meeting in Hawaii next January. Come and see her there if you need a grad student!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Miguel Gutierrez

This is the fifth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer. Dr. Ben Tofflemire sat down with his mentee Miguel Gutierrez to learn more about his motivation for studying astronomy. At UT he is working on the evolution of very young stars.

Miguel Gutierrez joins the TAURUS program from the Florida Institute of Technology where he is a rising senior working towards a double degree in Astronomy/Astrophysics and Mathematical Sciences. Miguel has been active in particle and plasma physics research at his home institution but is excited for the opportunity to try on research as a full time job this summer. Miguel’s project focuses on determining how young stars interact with their protoplanetary by analyzing high-spectral-resolution, near-infrared spectra. 

BT: What led to chose your major and what do you like about it?

MG: One of the things that drew me to Florida Tech was that they offer a degree in Astronomy and Astrophysics, which is rare. I was always interested in studying space and stuff and knew that I wanted to pursue those interests in college, rather than getting a degree in Physics and waiting until graduate school to do real astronomy. Plus, the department is great and I’ve really enjoyed the Astronomy courses they offer. The Math double major has also been cool because I get a lot more of the background in statistics and math theory that has made my physics and astronomy courses a lot easier. 

BT: What led you to apply for the TAURUS program?

MG: I was interested in doing some kind of research internship to see how I liked doing full time research, mainly as a way to figure out what career path is best for me after I graduate. I searched for anything I could find that was astronomy and astrophysics related and came across TAURUS. It sounded fun and seemed really cool so I applied to it and got in, and I was really excited about it! 

BT: Who have been some inspiring mentors/role models in your life?

MG: Recently, two of my professors at Florida Tech, Dr. Perez (UT Alum) and Dr. Caballero, have both been really inspirational and incredibly helpful. It’s not all the time that you get to have role models that are minorities, especially in this field, so it’s been super great to see really successful people that I’ve been able to relate to on that level. Dr. Perez is my academic advisor and I’ve taken two of his classes, which have been two of my favorite classes. He’s a really good professor. It’s just really cool to have someone that cares about teaching and is super passionate about the subjects he teaches. It really makes a difference, since I walk out of every lecture excited a little bit more about science. 

BT: What advice would you give to high school or early undergraduate students who are interested in the science career path?

MG: Don’t be discouraged if it gets hard. I feel like a lot of people tend to cut themselves short and say, “oh I could never study that,” or “I could never do that,” because at some point they had a bad experience with a class or a person. But if you try hard enough at something, you can always do it. The way people get good at things is by doing them a lot. Math is a good example. I’m only good at math because I’ve taken so many classes. I’m not great at mental math, so if we were basing it purely on that, then I’m bad at math, right, so if it’s is something that you like, then go for it. Don’t let the difficulty of it scare you.

BT: What are some of your interests outside of school and astronomy?

MG: I definitely play a lot of video games, not as much as I would like to actually, which is a surprising thing to say, you don’t hear that a lot, but I really enjoy them. I like a lot of different types of games, but the ones that resonate the most with me are the ones that are really story intensive. I like watching movies too. I like pretty much everything, from Marvel movies to indie movies. I’m interested to see Midsommar, because it’s by the same director of Hereditary, which was one of my favorite movies of last year. I’ve also recently picked up the guitar. I really like music. I’ve been in band since 5th grade, and I really want to keep that going on the side to distract me from work in a way that feels more constructive than video games. 


At the program’s halfway point, Miguel had made great progress and will produce some exciting results by the end of the Summer.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Research Pro-Tip #2: How to start writing a Scientific Article

This is the second research Pro-Tip of the summer, talking about how to approach the monumental task of writing your results up in a report.  Specifically, we're talking about publication of a Research Note of the American Astronomical Society, which is a little less monstrous than a refereed scientific paper, but a lot of the same concepts apply.

Not sure how to get started on that paper/article/research note? Have no fear!  Today I want to give you some tips on how to get started with writing.

Scientific writing tends to be a bit more dense than creative writing and a bit closer to journalism-type writing.  There’s no right way or wrong way to write scientifically, which can make starting quite difficult and nebulous.  The first tip I’ll give is to start by reading other papers similar to those you might anticipate writing.  If these were long-format journal articles, I’d point you to the papers you’ve been reading as references to understand paper structure, the types of calculations that are discussed, and what’s left out of the discussion.  In the case of research notes, it’s more useful to have example research notes than complete papers, so below is a list of some research notes published in the last year (**the first two were works published by Aimee Schechter and Laney Wicker, two recent UT undergraduates!).

Schechter & Casey (2018)**
Wicker & Casey (2019)**
Abramson (2018)
Zink et al. (2019)
Pasham & Wevers (2019)
Dingler & Cuntz (2019)
Konar & Chahal (2019)
Beichman et al. (2019)

I encourage you to READ them.  This doesn’t mean you’ll understand every concept presented in each note because 1000 words isn’t a lot of room to explain your whole field.  Instead, as you read, try to diagram the similarities and differences between these articles.  Do they all start out in a similar way with a broad statement about their area of research?  What might that statement look like for the research you’ve been doing?  Take a stab at jotting down a few ideas even if you don’t know if you have it exactly right.  Try to go through the entire note while noticing the pattern of presenting data, describing a figure, and then drawing conclusions.  Are there key phrases that are used by many of the notes above? In what ways was the structure of these notes similar?  Did any of the differences surprise you?  The key to success with scientific writing is to emulate others until you get the hang of it yourself (often this takes years and years!).

Next, I’d encourage you to keep in mind: perfect is the enemy of good.  A lot of students struggle to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for fear that what they write won’t be correct and will need to be re-written.  That is not only a super common feeling, but one that doesn’t really go away even after you’ve been doing this for years!  But sitting in that fear is not what will get the job done.  In order to practice writing, I encourage you to each take a period of the day (maybe 30 minutes this week, ramping up to 1 hour next week) to free-associate about your work.  This means keeping your fingers moving on the keyboard, writing out sentences, no matter what — even if what you have to say isn’t perfectly worded, grammatically correct, or eloquent.  You're just putting words on the page.  Revising a paper or research note with existing text is SO MUCH easier than working with a blank page.  Just. Keep. Writing.

Once you have words on a page — celebrate!!  And then send them to your advisor. Even if you’d feel embarrassed to do so! I promise they do not have to be perfect for them to read it over.  It’s not a book report where you’ll be graded on quality.  Your supervisor will just be thrilled that you wrote stuff down, and they will be extremely helpful in the revision process, helping you cite relevant papers, helping with the logical flow, etc.  Often they don’t know how to help you best until there’s a working draft in-hand, which can often lead to more fruitful discoveries in the revision process, but that crucial first step belongs to you!

Last thing I’ll mention today is the mechanics of writing a research note.  If you visit the submission info page here:
You’ll see that you can submit research notes either as Microsoft Word documents or in LaTeX (or Overleaf which is a form of LaTeX).  What’s LaTeX?!  It’s the word processor of choice for astronomers (and physicists), which is more like coding up a PDF document than designing it in a fancy graphical user interface.  Working in LaTeX can be intimidating, but if you’re eager to learn how it works I’d like to point you to some tutorials:
And here’s a link to overleaf, which is how lots of papers and notes are written these days, online, so you don’t have to bother with installing everything on your local machine:
You can prepare your research note in Word, LaTeX or Overleaf, but I would encourage you to talk to your advisor first it before committing!  But in the meantime, don’t hesitate to get started in WHATEVER word processor you’re most comfortable using.  The important thing is to just keep writing!!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Oscar Chávez Ortiz

Our fourth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer is all about Oscar Chávez Ortiz, an astronomy and physics student at UC Berkeley. This summer he's working with Dr. Micaela Bagley on studying galaxies in the local Universe that might serve as good analogues to the first galaxies that formed 13 billion years ago. Dr. Bagley sat down with Oscar to learn more about his journey to UT.

Oscar A. Chávez Ortiz joins us from UC Berkeley, where he will be finishing his last semester this fall. Oscar remembers being interested in astronomy ever since elementary school, when he would go straight to the Space and Science section of his school book fairs and read everything he could find. At Berkeley, Oscar has worked on projects involving modeling Supernova 1987A and creating composite spectra of galaxies observed as part of the MOSDEF survey. He’s excited to spend the summer as a TAURUS scholar, discovering what it’s like to do research without having to simultaneously balance classes and other commitments. 

MB: What interests or excites you about science?

OCO: I like how science in general is about discovering how things work and how each piece connects to the bigger picture. With each topic, there’s always something to explore to a deeper level. It’s exciting to work with bits and pieces of information, like clues that you can tie back together. That was always me, when I see something happening I want to know what’s causing it and to understand the “why”.  This is one of the things that draws me to science in general and astronomy in particular, trying to tackle questions like “How did galaxies form?” all the way up to “How did the whole universe come to be?”

MB: What does it mean to you to be a scientist?

OCO: There are some big, well-known names in science: Bohr, Planck, Einstein, and many others. They’ve all done great work and made big contributions to their fields, but I don’t think science is a sole genius coming up with breakthroughs. I think science is more like the quote from Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” You start with a puzzle, you take it a little bit further, expanding on what previous people have done and gradually building up to the bigger picture. We’re always collaborating because we have to, space is so big! It’s mind boggling just how much is out there, how could any one person study it all by themselves? Collaboration is definitely key and is what it means to me in becoming a scientist. 

MB: Where would you like to take your passion for astronomy? Where would you like your career to go? 

OCO: I would like to work towards a teaching position at a university or community college. I often hear from friends outside of STEM fields that their math or science classes made them leave STEM fields. This kinda saddens me because I think that everyone has the ability to do what we’re doing. All it takes is having professors who can make the topics fun and accessible and the learning experience collaborative and inclusive for people to strive. When teaching isn’t the main focus, its natural that the teaching suffers and by consequence the students suffer. I really want to become a professor that supports my students and puts them in a good position regardless of the path they take; be it STEM or otherwise. And another reason I would like to become a professor is that there is not a lot of representation for Latinos in astronomy. There are very few people I feel I can look up to. I often have a hard time relating to the other students at Berkeley, and I don’t think they can relate to me, especially given my undocumented status. When we talk about our experiences, I think they can understand and empathize, but it’s completely different to actually feel what I feel, what I’ve felt essentially all my life. I’m missing a community, a network. I want to give a younger version of me a role model to look up to. I want to be able to show them that this is possible and that you are not alone. 

MB: What do you like to do when you’re not astronomying? 

OCO: I love soccer. I’m a huge soccer fan. I’ve played it ever since I was 7, and I used to train every second of every day. After high school I sort of stopped playing while I figured out what kind of commitment college would be. It was honestly a weird transition for me since soccer had been a big part of my life. But, while at Berkeley, I was able to get back to it. I’ve started my own teams to play in Berkeley’s intramural league multiple times. I also like watching movies, playing video games, and exploring new places and experiences. School and research are of course important, but they can’t be everything. We all need ways to let off steam and relax, and to find meaning and community outside of work.