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 GutiƩrrez, 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.