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. :)