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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Isaiah Tristan

This is the fifth and final scholar spotlight of our 2016 TAURUS Scholars.  This week we focus on Isaiah Tristan, a rising junior and astrophysics major at Rice University.  Isaiah's mentor, Dr. Brendan Bowler, sat down with Isaiah to get to know more about his goals, aspirations, and his work on exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars.

Isaiah’s interest in the field of exoplanets stems from a desire to place our solar system in context with other planetary systems and from its close ties to atmospheric sciences here on Earth.  Climatology, meteorology, and atmospheric chemistry— fields first developed for the terrestrial climate— are now being applied to study the atmospheres of other worlds outside our solar system and will play an increasingly larger role in the future.  More broadly, Astronomy has appealed to Isaiah for most of his life because of its ability to empirically address fundamental questions about our origin and existence.  Contributing to the body of scientific knowledge and helping underprivileged students lacking opportunities their peers may have had are a few of his career goals.

Isaiah is a second-generation Latino American.  Born, raised, and educated in Houston, his fascination with astronomy began at a young age despite the smothering light pollution of the metropolis at night.  His spark with astronomy began in third grade during elementary school science classes and later ignited in high school when he purchased a 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.  A long list of inspiring teachers in high school and faculty mentors in college have helped steer him on his current track as an astrophysics major starting his junior year at Rice University.  

This summer Isaiah’s research in exoplanets at UT Austin as part of the TAURUS REU program centers on the origin of free-floating planetary-mass objects.  Over the past decade and especially the last few years, a growing population of apparently isolated planets with masses of about 5 to 15 times that of Jupiter have been uncovered in the solar neighborhood.  These objects may have formed just like stars from the collapse of molecular clouds, or they could represent planets ejected from their birth environments through dynamical interactions with other planets or passing stars.  

Isaiah is investigating a third unexplored possibility: that these vagabond planets may in fact be gravitationally bound to previously unrecognized stars on ultra-wide orbits.  He is searching for and statistically validating co-moving host stars to uncover extreme solar systems with separations spanning thousands of times the Earth-Sun distance.  In the process he is mastering the Python programming language and acquiring tools for professional development both in academia and the private sector.  The summer is now nearly over; having independently re-discovered the previous record-setters, Isaiah has recently uncovered several new and exciting systems that may pose challenges to classic models of star and planet formation. 

Despite reading about problems with inequities in the physical sciences, Isaiah is fortunate that he hasn’t experienced overt setbacks from his background.  But the transition from high school to college was an especially challenging time for him; he felt ill-prepared for much of his new coursework and it seemed as if he had to work harder than most to succeed.  Having now overcome many of these struggles, Isaiah is better equipped to empathize with feelings of unpreparedness and imposter syndrome later in his own life and even among his own students in the future.  

Graduate school in astronomy, teaching at the college level, data analysis in the private sector, and science writing are a few of the career options Isaiah is considering.  Having just finished his second year at Rice, he has plenty of time to decide and now has research experience to help with that process.  We will be fortunate as a field and as a community if he continues on in research or teaching.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Elizabeth Gutiérrez

This is the fourth of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Elizabeth Gutiérrez, who is working with Dr. Ivan Ramirez on stars' orbits in the Milky Way as part of the TAURUS program. Elizabeth is an undergraduate at Villanova University with a passion for astronomy. Here Dr. Ramirez talks about his experience working with and getting to know Elizabeth this summer.

Stars are born in clusters, families of tens of thousands of stars formed at the same time from a common gas cloud. At relatively young age, stars leave the gravitational bounds of their parent clusters and become part of the Milky Way galaxy. Reuniting stellar families is a monumental task for modern astronomy, but one which is critical for understanding how galaxies evolve. Elizabeth Gutiérrez is working on dynamical models of stars’ orbits in the Milky Way, along with information on chemical composition and stellar age, to bring us closer to achieving the ultimate goal of identifying groups of field stars with common origin.

Elizabeth grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her parents emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico in the mid-1980’s in what can be described as a classic American Dream story. Spanish was the main language spoken in Elizabeth’s house; Sunday’s Mass, the rodeo, opening up presents on Noche Buena, and eating rosca de reyes on Three Kings Day are some of the things she remembers experiencing as a child raised in a traditional Mexican-American home. She identifies herself as a Chicana instead of Mexican-American.

At the age of twelve, Elizabeth took a science course that sparked her interest in astronomy. Visiting the Adler Planetarium and watching the original Cosmos series at fifteen reinforced this interest. She remembers visiting the Hubble Space Telescope website and being further inspired by images of the distant universe. Finding beauty in the chaos of nature is nothing short of poetic, she says. In fact, Elizabeth enjoys writing poems inspired by the cosmos. In 2014, she won a prize for a poem she submitted to the AstroPoetry contest on the Astronomers Without Borders blog. In high school, she worked with her female physics and astronomy teacher, Marcella Linahan, who involved her students in research on young stellar objects. Marcella was an important role model for Elizabeth who further inspired her to pursue a career in astronomy.

The early days of school were tough for Elizabeth, who had trouble reading and writing in English. During the Fall of 2014, she began her collegiate education at predominantly white university and quickly began to feel out of place in her classrooms where she would typically be the only student of color. She also felt unprepared in her coursework compared to her classmates and has experienced a hostile environment for people of color within her institution. She confesses to be still working on overcoming these challenges, but she is understanding that with hard work and perseverance she can successfully achieve her goals. She has also come to realize that she does not need to compromise her ethnic identity in order to become a successful scientist.

Professional astronomy today is suffering from issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism. Elizabeth is fully aware of these problems and adds to the list the lack of awareness and stigma associated with mental illness, anxiety, and depression, particularly when triggered by the academic environment, which she experiences herself. Nevertheless, she feels optimistic about the changes that are already taking place to improve these situations, many of which originate from the more important roles that younger scientists in the field are assuming. The recent rise in popularity of online platforms that one can use for support in these matters, such as the Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy group on Facebook, is encouraging to her, as is the fact that an increasing number of professional astronomers are speaking up openly about these issues on social media. She believes that accessibility to role models and mentors, both at the academic and personal levels, is key to the success for aspiring astronomers. Therefore, the more the better.

Both professionally and personally, perseverance is key for Elizabeth. She believes that success can only come after failure. Thus, her advice to young students of color interested in science or astronomy as a career is that they should never doubt in their abilities and understand that failing is part of the process. Also, for her it is very important to honor the sacrifices of your parents. “¡Echale ganas!” her father often tells her, and she lives by that motto.1

Elizabeth is interested in exploring multi-wavelength astronomy in the future, potentially investigating star and planet formation, areas in which she already has significant research experience. For now, her plan is to graduate in 2018 and begin graduate school soon after that, but she is also looking at options for furthering her undergraduate education at a different institution.

1¡Echale ganas!” is an untranslatable expression of encouragement which could be interpreted as “go for it!”.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jennifer Medina Observes at Keck

This post is written by Jennifer Medina, one of our 2016 TAURUS Scholars.  Jennifer had the unique opportunity to go observing at the Keck Telescope in Hawai'i as part of her project at UT Austin with Dr. Andrew Mann.  Here she writes about the experience observing at Keck for the first time.

As part of my TAURUS summer research experience, I visited the Keck Observatory for the first time to learn how astronomers take data with high-end equipment. 

The Visiting Scientist Quarters 

During my visit, I stayed in a facility called the Visiting Scientist Quarters (VSQ) in Waimea, HI, which is where visiting astronomers reside during their observing nights with one of the Keck telescopes. The VSQ was very comfortable and accommodating: They had a kitchen/lounge room where visitors could have their meals, read a magazine, or play a game of pool. During the day when I was not observing, I took to explore the surrounding town of Waimea a little bit and found some nice spots to eat and relax: The facility is located near two shopping centers - both of reasonable walking distance - which have restaurants, a bakery, souvenir stores, and a market. The summit of Mauna Kea is about 14,000 ft above sea level, so I was able to see the observatory on the mountaintop clearly in the morning, until the clouds rolled in during the afternoon. I learned from a local that the mountain is so tall, it develops snowcaps during certain times of the year, which is why it was given the name "White Mountain".

The Observing Experience

In the late evening I took data of binary star systems with Dr. Trent Dupuy and graduate student Megan Ansdell using the Keck 2 telescope's NIRC2, which is an imager designed for infrared and near-infrared wavelengths. 
As mentioned before, the Keck observatory is stationed at about 14,000 ft above sea level, which means there is less atmospheric turbulence and light pollution to affect the data. Because of the high altitudes, however, astronomers take data from a remote operations room located in the VSQ instead of going up to the Keck observatory. This is to avoid any potential accidents that may be caused due to lack of oxygen.

The remote operations room was equipped with desks with a computer and several monitors stationed at each of them where astronomers can collect their data. There were two astronomers who were assisting us with our observations throughout the night: The observing assistant and the support astronomer. The observing assistant was at the Keck observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, and was in charge of slewing the telescope to the coordinates of the systems we were observing. He communicated with us through a webcam which was connected to the largest monitor in the room. The support astronomer was in the room with us, and he mainly assisted with any technical questions we had regarding the computer we were using, or general questions about our observations that night.

Time management was crucial while using the telescopes; Astronomers are allocated a specific time bracket to use the Keck telescopes, so every second was dedicated to either taking data or slewing the telescope to a new patch of sky to take more data. The images we retrieved would pop up on one of the monitors through MAGIQ, and we would record the object name, and any comments about the image on a log sheet for that observing night. We observed from ~9 PM to ~4 AM the following day, which is when some clouds started rolling in on the Keck, and we were no longer able to collect data. 

Overall the trip was a great learning experience. Everyone in Waimea was very friendly and all of the astronomers treated each other politely and with respect. It was a good environment to work in, and I hope to visit again one day. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Jennifer Medina

This is the third of five blog post focused on our 2016 summer scholars.  This week we focus on Jennifer Medina, who is working with Dr. Andrew Mann on exoplanet research in the TAURUS program.  Jennifer is a physics major (and astronomy major) at Florida International University.  Dr. Mann talks here about Jennifer's research focus and career aspirations.

This summer, Jennifer joined us as a TAURUS scholar to help characterize some of the the youngest planets and the stars they orbit. She'll be working to understand the relationship between the orientation of the stellar spin and that of the planetary orbit in infant stars, something that can help us understand how planets change over their lifetimes.

I sat down and spoke with Jennifer about her research interests, path, and future plans.

Jennifer became interested in astronomy and more generally about her path up to now. She grew up in Miami, Florida, and first became interested in astronomy at the age of 13 after taking an Earth-Space science course. Her passion for astronomy and physics only grew with time. By age 16, through further exposure in classes and her own exploration, she had her mind set on studying physics wherever she ended up in college. She later joined Florida International University, where she currently majors in Physics with a minor in astronomy.

Jennifer quickly got involved in research, working on transiting planets at Florida International with Professor Van Hamme. Early in her undergraduate career, she felt that she wasn’t fitting in the mold of an astronomer, making her feel alienated from the rest of the students. After spending some time doing research she felt more confident that her efforts were producing results, and became less worried about fitting into the stereotype of a scientist. She grew to love the free-form of research. The chance to follow her own route to solve a problem and the lack of a concrete path made it very different from classwork, but also extremely appealing. Her results from modeling the orbits of transiting planets is something she has become especially proud of, and is glad to have the chance to continue on a related topic. She advises anyone doing research to be willing to experiment with anything, since it’s often unclear from where the solution will come. A motto that has come in handy often both during her earlier work and for her ongoing TAURUS project.

The TAURUS program was particularly appealing to Jennifer. Florida International has only a few astronomers, so the opportunity to work with a wider range of researchers was particularly attractive. Although she has some past experience with research, in our 9-week program, she hopes to get a better feel for the graduate school experience, and get a more solid idea of what specifically she wants to work on. Furthermore, she welcomes the opportunity to expand her skills with Python and knowledge of exoplanets more generally.

Jennifer plans to attend graduate school in 2017. She hopes to continue with research on exoplanets and their host stars. While right now her goals are to follow an academic path: graduate school to postdoc, to research position or professorships, she welcomes any path forward that keeps her doing research.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Learning by Doing: Bringing Inquiry to Research

TAURUS and UT astronomy undergraduate researchers kick off the Inquiry Activity in Observational Astronomy on July 7, 2016.

The TAURUS team and ten other UT astronomy undergraduate researchers were in for a surprise last Thursday, when they walked into a seminar that had a slightly different feel.  The classroom tables were rearranged into pods, and they were told the next four hours were going to give them a first hand experience in designing investigations, processing data, and learning about a very important concept in astronomy: selection effects.  No lectures.  Instead, learning by doing.

The technique our scholars were exposed to is called inquiry.  It calls on teachers, or instructors, to take a step back and for the students to take a step forward in pushing their own learning experience by posing hard questions, struggling through their own misconceptions, and at the end, drawing conclusions based on what they learned.  After all, this is the authentic scientific experience.  Worksheets, cookbooks and formulae don't define the scientific experience, so why do we use them in the classroom?

Designing an inquiry experience for students is not easy.  You can't just show up in a classroom with a few props and expect students to get it.  Instead, inquiry-based activities take far more preparation than the typical lecture, even though instructors spend far less time talking during the experience itself.  It forces teachers to think critically about what's most important for students to learn.  Then they work backwards from the learning goal to build each part of the activity.

The Design

The team that designed this inquiry activity was made up of four UT astronomy researchers: Dr. Chao-Ling Hung, Dr. Adam McKay, soon-to-be Dr. Aaron Smith, and Prof. Caitlin Casey.  Earlier this year they attended the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators (ISEE) Professional Development Program (PDP) to learn about inquiry design and other pedagogical tools, like ways of making classrooms serve students more equitably and implementing effective assessment techniques.

The ISEE program has successfully run for 15 years out of the University of California - Santa Cruz. ISEE has trained over 600 researchers (graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and professionals) in inquiry techniques, who then go back and design and teach activities in their home communities.  The program started 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.  Recent growth in the ISEE program has allowed astronomers to attend from all over the country, including our team from the University of Texas.

Our group was very fortunate to attended the two ISEE PDP workshops in the Santa Cruz area in Spring 2016 to refine our understanding of inquiry-based techniques, and then to design this activity on selection effects with the help of the ISEE team.  "We learned what inquiry is by putting on a learner's hat and experiencing it for ourselves," Dr. Chao-Ling Hung says of the ISEE Inquiry Institute workshop.  "By the end of this two-day long activity I really appreciated how this can help learners understand the core concept of a lesson while maintaining ownership."

Our UT Austin PDP team at the ISEE Design Institute in April 2016.

After the workshops, it was time to mull over our design for a few weeks before teaching: a luxury most instructors don't get.  It was a very valuable time to reflect on what was most effective and ineffective about our strategy.  Would the students automatically pick up on what's missing from the datasets we give them?  What type of prior knowledge and misconceptions are they bringing to the table?  Is our thinking tool demonstration going to be clear enough, but also not so clear that they give away the "answers?"

Time to Teach Facilitate

Most teachers can sympathize that teaching always seems much easier until you have to do it.  Especially if you care to do it effectively in a hands-on environment.  The primary tool used in inquiry-based activities is called facilitating, which gives the student room to explore and discover phenomena on their own, with only mild assistance provided by instructors.  You set up the problem, and they investigate it.

A comparison of galaxies' redshifts vs. magnitude from two different surveys: what's the difference?

Students choose investigation groups.
Our TAURUS inquiry activity started students off at three stations, looking at and reflecting on plots of the same astronomical phenomena but shown in very different ways.  They were told teams of astronomers did their best to learn all they could about galaxies, star clusters and asteroids, but even when teams had the same amount of observing time, they came back with dramatically different answers.  Why?  This was to form the basis of the students' investigations.

After brainstorming questions about why the plots could be different, students chose their favorite questions to investigate further, forming groups working in each of the three areas, from solar system to the Universe.  Each group received a fixed budget of $1M to design observing campaigns which would help them learn more about the phenomena.  How would changing their observing strategy affect their scientific conclusions?

That was the key lesson, which each of our five groups of three, eventually understood.  Despite the fact that many of these students have experience conducting research in astronomy, very few of them had given much thought (before this activity) to how you design observations to minimize bias.  After a few hours of investigations, students presented their conclusions on posters in groups, and we reviewed the material all together at the very end.
Aaron Smith talking with Meghana Killi and Danielle Rowland
about their investigation into star clusters.

Reaction to the activity was great, with many students remarking that they walked away with a much more deep conceptual understanding of selection bias than when they walked into the classroom.  The plan is to introduce this type of activity into the classroom for UT astronomy majors, or release the designed activity to the larger astronomical community to run elsewhere, so that learning by doing becomes the new norm.

Elizabeth Gutiérrez and Derek Holman discuss properties of asteroids in their investigation.

Luke Stevens, Kaartikey Gupta and Emily Strickland discuss galaxy survey techniques with Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Derek Holman

This is the second of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Derek Holman, who is a student in our TAURUS summer program at UT Austin working on understanding galaxy mergers in rich cluster environments. Derek is an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (the other UT!) where he is a dual major in Mechanical Engineering and Physics.  His advisor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung interviewed Derek for the TAURUS blog. 

CLH: Tell me about yourself. What’s your story?

DH: I was born in Indiana and then moved to Tennessee. I’ve always been interested in things, especially Astronomy. I got a telescope when I was really young, and always try to keep up with that. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of science.

CLH: Do you think your telescope inspired your interest in Astronomy?

DH: Yes, definitely. Even without a telescope, obviously the stars are really beautiful and that allured me initially. And after having the telescope, seeing Jupiter and the Moon for the first time, that kind of latched me on.

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

DH: Of course it’s really shifting ground right now as far as the distant future. I just want to continue my education. My two majors, mechanical engineering and physics, are not exactly the same but both are things I want to follow. I’d say graduate school maybe for Astronomy or Astrophysics. Eventually I want to do research as well as maybe industry jobs. Definitely more school, also some work, and eventually research.

CLH: Can you talk a little bit about your two majors and what do you like about them?

DH: I did mechanical engineering for a couple reasons. I’ve always been taking things apart as a kid and I’ve always been interested in how things work. I really, really like the fact that mechanical engineering is preparing me to take bigger things apart and learning more about how these things work. Physics I added more recently, because I know I’d like to continue my education and get into graduate school. I want to apply them both together as much as possible.

CLH: Why do you want to do TAURUS now, and how would that help you reach your career goals?

DH: I saw TAURUS as exactly what I want. You learn things in school, but it helps a lot to actually see what professionals do and what your job would be like. So, it gives an opportunity to explore and confirm if this is what I want to do, and will help refine my goals in the future.

CLH: In that respect, what would success in TAURUS program look like to you?

DH: Mainly getting experiences but also learning a lot more. In school, especially undergrad, I’m not getting specific knowledge, I’m getting vague [idea], this is how you do this. I feel like, success for me would be a step closer of being specialized in something that I care about. Of course finishing the research would be the goal too but it’s more about learning.

CLH: Do you have any previous research or lab work experience? What do you like and dislike about those experiences?

DH: I don’t have research experiences but I’ve done some lab work. I’ve always been almost better at more hands-on stuff than the book material per se. I like it a lot. Like in the E&M lab, building circuits and building things like that.

CLH: Anything you don’t like about them?

DH:  Hmm… not really. Of course I don’t have too much experience. But if there’s something that’s difficult sometimes it’ll be answering things I don’t know. Because if I just don’t know I don’t know. I have to find it out, be more resourceful and figure out how to get the answers.

CLH: 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?

DH: I think the fact that this is fairly one-on-one is pretty helpful. Whenever someone is telling me “you” something but not just the whole classroom, I’m much more likely to retain and learn from it. More hands-on and also seeing figures, especially someone who made it to describe it, that’d be helpful.

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

DH: I went to a magnet academic middle school and on to academic high school and they really challenged me. But that’s what I need, I need to be challenged. But beyond that, I was challenged by the fact that the college is expensive, it’s very expensive, so I’ve been working through most of it, trying to keep full-time classes and two majors. I think that I’ve been extremely driven by my passion. So this step toward physics, but not just mechanical engineering, has definitely made me more passionate. I do much better whenever I’m passionate about something.

CLH: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of?

DH: Being driven by what I’m passionate about. Definitely this. Also just what I do in college. I work in an observatory, just volunteer work. I really enjoy teaching people who are curious about Astronomy. I’m very proud of that because you can see the look on their face whenever you tell them something, and they think it’s interesting. I like that. In college, I’m proud of college. Nowadays it’s more expected to go to college than the previous generations. But I’m a first generation college student. Being the first one who goes to college in my family, I’m pretty proud of that.

CLH: Can you give some more information about the volunteer work at the observatory?

DH:  It’s put on by my campus physics department, most people who volunteer are physics students. We’ve got a planetarium and also a telescope. Every Sunday night in the fall and spring we have an outreach event and everybody is welcome to come. It’s free. We spend about an hour at the planetarium, and depending on the number of people who come, we also have a lecture. Once it gets dark, we take them out and show things in the telescope. There’s a lot of light pollution in the area, but it’s amazing to see the look on people’s faces who haven’t seen anything through a telescope before, and they see the colors of Jupiter.

Happy July 4th from TAURUS!

The TAURUS crew enjoying the action down at Auditorium Shores for the 4th celebration. :)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Scholar Spotlight: Danielle Rowland

This is the first of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars. This week we focus on Danielle Rowland, who is a student in our TAURUS summer program at UT Austin working on some of the Universe's first galaxies. Her advisor, Prof. Steven Finkelstein talks about his experience recruiting Danielle as is student for the TAURUS program.
I selected Danielle to work with me based on our overlapping interests in cosmology and galaxy evolution, but also because of her unique path through life.  Danielle is a Native American, and contrary to the experiences of many, Danielle spent half of her childhood living on the reservation of her tribe, the Tonawanda Seneca, near Buffalo, NY.  Initially, Danielle grew up in Chicago, but at the age of 10, her parents decided to move their family back to live with their tribe, so that Danielle would grow up engaged in her cultural heritage. She lived on the reservation through high school, at which time she graduated, and started college at NYU.

While astronomy had always been Danielle’s passion, while at NYU she got married and had two kids, and ultimately switched her major to Political Science in the hopes of having more practical job choices after she received her degree.  However, her heart was definitely still in astronomy, and after some time, during which she left NYU, she decided to go back to school to follow her dream of becoming a research astronomer, and now has a little more than a year to go to receive her degree from Columbia University.

We talked about Danielle’s inspiration to pursue a career in astronomy, and it started when she was young, at age five, when she first picked up a book on astronomy. Her interest grew as she used her telescope at home and watched the Nova science documentary series, and grew further when she was encouraged by her 8th grade science teacher.  Danielle is drawn to science because it doesn’t allow for personal opinions to dominate an argument - if you have an idea about a problem, science allows you to search for a definitive answer to a problem and back it up.  She is drawn most to astronomy because it is the story of humanity - astronomy allows us to learn who we are and where we came from, at the most fundamental level.

The pursuit of her dream job, a Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, has not been easy.  Danielle now has four children, aged 3, 5, 11 and 12, and time management is a constantly adjusting ebb and flow of balance between her home life and her work.  She has been able to consistently maintain success by constantly evaluating the needs of all of the areas of her life, both personal and professional, and adjusting her priorities when an area is in need.

To anyone who wants to pursue a career in astronomy, but especially for those who are members of underrepresented groups, Danielle urges you to be persistent, and to be your own advocate.  Danielle has learned this experience repeatedly, and shared a story she had about trying to improve her programming skills by attending some training sessions where she ended up being the only undergraduate student in a room full of advanced astronomers. As the only beginner, she wasn't fully embraced, but was ultimately able to earn their respect for her dedication to learning a new skill.  Of the many options for role models, Danielle was quick to name Einstein, as even though he struggled at times through school, his ideas were so revolutionary, and he was able to work until they came to light.

For the future, Danielle hopes to be involved in discovery, especially in the field of cosmology.  The subject of multiple universes (M-theory to be specific) came up multiple times, and it is clear Danielle has a true fire in her to learn about these fundamental issues in our universe.  She would also like to maintain her ongoing work in public outreach, as she believes that is one of the best ways to make astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community, by making them more aware of scientific progress, and de-mystifying many aspects of our jobs, specifically about math.  With her eagerness for discovery, I fully expect Danielle to reach her goals, and I look forward to learning about the nature of our universe from her future publications!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Week one, CHECK!

After a whirlwind week, our TAURUS cohort is enjoying their weekend unwind... the first week was packed full of activities to not only orient them to their new projects, but also to build an strong sense of community and build the toolbox they'll need for the rest of their summer stay in Austin.

Essential to any first-hand astronomy research experience is programming and fluency with Unix.  So that's what we focused on in our seminar series during this first week.  Some of excellent graduate student Unix ninjas Jeremy Ritter and Jessica Luna came to the rescue to introduce students to Unix and text editors (a bit more advanced than the familiar vi and emacs, thankfully that battle was avoided) and IDL blackbelt Intae Jung and Python guru Emma Yu gave them the run down on programming basics.  It was great to see some presence from UT-based astronomy researchers as well!

Have no fear though, it wasn't all work!  Our TAURUS scholars enjoyed a reception in the grand hall of the UT Tower to welcome them to campus, along with other summer researchers in other programs.  Many got the opportunity to meet students from all over the country, and world!  Enjoy the weekend TAURUS! You deserved it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Opening Day for TAURUS @ UT!

Today was the first day of TAURUS!  We were delighted to welcome five incredible scholars to UT's campus this morning who will spend the next nine weeks in intensive research.  It was a busy day of meeting members of our Department of Astronomy, as well as walking around campus taking care of some practical matters like ID cards and office keys.  The heat almost cut our campus tour short, but we miraculously made it everywhere we needed to go without melting.  After a lunch with graduate students, the TAURUS scholars met with their mentors to talk science and what they would be working on over the next nine weeks.  We'll learn more about what they discover in the weeks to come, but first let's introduce them!  Here they are on top of the RLM building on campus (our physics, math and astronomy building, after checking out the telescope on the roof):

Right to left:

Danielle Rowland, joining us from Columbia University, working with Prof. Steven Finkelstein
Elizabeth Gutiérrez, joining us from Villanova University, working with Dr. Ivan Ramirez
Jennifer Medina, joining us from Florida International University, working with Dr. Andrew Mann
Derek Holman, joining us from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, working with Dr. Chao-Ling Hung
Isaiah Tristan, joining us from Rice University, working with Dr. Brendan Bowler
Me! Prof. Caitlin Casey, TAURUS coordinator.

As if day one wasn't busy enough, the department welcomed them with a special afternoon tea, including an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the 23 UT Austin-based undergraduate researchers doing active astronomy research over the summer.  Tomorrow, science!  Stay tuned.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Welcome to TAURUS!

The heat has set in and most undergrads have fled campus.  This means the UT astronomy department is getting ready to host the inaugural class of TAURUS scholars in Austin!  They’re not here for another month or so, but we’re busy behind the scenes getting things ready.  Computers, living space, work space, seminar schedule, trip to McDonald Observatory, and social events.

The TAURUS program (a somewhat contrived but well-motivated acronym, the “Texas Astronomy: University Research experience for Undergraduate Students") will soon host 5 nation-wide undergraduate scholars who are interested in pursuing careers in astronomy and astrophysics research.  Our scholars are incredibly talented, motivated undergraduates and our goal is to fuel their success through opportunity.  TAURUS is particularly dedicated to serving students from underserved and historically marginalized groups, elevating their voices, and building scientific identity via a strong sense of community.

Over the course of the upcoming summer, TAURUS students will conduct independent research projects with UT-based research mentors, be immersed in a series of seminars and workshops designed to enhance their scientific skillset, help design and conduct observing programs at McDonald Observatory, and practice communication through written and oral presentations.  The network of UT graduate students, postdocs, staff and faculty also aim to guide TAURUS scholars through the graduate school application process to prepare them for top astronomy graduate programs around the country and world.

Now, about our acronym.  TAURUS, of course is reference to the constellation of Taurus the bull, a well-known and ancient constellation in the sky, housing two of the closest star clusters to Earth, both the Hyades and Pleiades, and Messier 1, the Crab Nebula, the best-known supernova known to humans.  But it holds extra relevance to the University of Texas, whose mascot is Bevo, a Texas longhorn steer.  UT is pretty proud of Bevo, and the link to his ancient astronomical counterpart Taurus was too good to pass up.  Now, back to TAURUS preparations!