Tuesday, August 22, 2017

TAURUS Scholars' Symposium 2017

The 2017 TAURUS Scholars' Symposium was held on Friday August 11, the last day of this summer's nine week program.  The room was packed with members of the astronomy department and McDonald Observatory staff, eager to hear about the scholars' work over the past several weeks.  The symposium is a great time for the UT astronomy community to celebrate the accomplishments of TAURUS scholars with their mentors and share the great science which has consumed their summers.

The program of talks was:

Star Formation in Merging Galaxies using FIRE
Adrianna Perez, California State University Dominguez Hills
Mentor: Chao-Ling Hung

Kepler Meets Bayes: Dynamical Mass of the Exoplanet Host Star HR8799
Aldo Sepulveda, University of Texas San Antonio
Mentor: Brendan Bowler

Investigating Lensed Galaxy Structure
Alexander Fortenberry, University of the Virgin Islands
Mentor: Rachael Livermore

How well can we really measure the substellar boundary?
Andrew Cancino, Missouri State University
Mentor: Trent Dupuy

Probing Into the Atmosphere of the Young Exoplanet K2-25b
Pa Chia Thao, Mt Holyoke College
Mentor: Andrew Mann

Categorizing Candidate Galaxy Protoclusters with Planck
Jonathon Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mentor: Caitlin Casey

After the talks we celebrated with refreshments as we wished our TAURUS scholars well on their journeys back to their home universities!  But this isn't goodbye, because we will all see the TAURUS scholars again soon at the 2018 winter meeting of the AAS in National Harbor, Maryland this coming January!

Here are some great shots of the 2017 TAURUS send-off:
The reception after the talks!

TAURUS Scholars with Director Caitlin Casey.

The silly group shot. :)

TAURUS Scholars with their Grad Mentors!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The TAURUS 2017 McDonald Adventure!

This post was written by UT graduate student Briana Indahl who co-led the TAURUS 2017 trip to McDonald Observatory with fellow graduate student Sam Factor.  Here Briana describes the TAURUS adventure in West Texas!

Our adventure out to McDonald Observatory began early in the morning on July 31st. The crew consisted of or 6 TAURUS scholars Johnathan Brown, Aldo Sepulveda, Pa Chia Thao, Alexander Fortenberry, Andrew Cancino, Adrianna Perez,  and one UT undergrad Logan Pearce. The trip was led by experienced McDonald observers and UT graduate students Briana Indahl and Sam Factor. After loading up our bags, cameras, tripods, and snacks we set off on our 7 hour journey west. Despite an unexpected pitstop in Fredricksburg, TX for some freshly picked peaches and homemade jams we made it to the observatory just in time for dinner.

We kept ourselves busy the first evening in order to adjust to night schedule for our first night of real observing the following evening. After our first dinner in the Astrononer’s Lodge we headed over to the 10 meter Hobby Eberly Telescope (HET) for a behind the scenes tour. While getting a birds eye view of the telescope from the catwalk we learned about how this complex telescope works and its new upgrades. We also got to see the HET’s new instrument, called VIRUS, which is currently being built and installed. We learned VIRUS is made up of 156 individual spectrographs being used simultaneously as a giant instrument to conduct the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). Luckily we were there just in time to also get to see one the the mirror segments get polished!

Once the sun went down we headed over to the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope. UT graduate student Zach Vanderbosch was observing that night and he gave us a tour as well as taught us about how he is trying to understand pulsating white dwarfs through time series observations. We spent the rest of the night star gazing at the beautifully clear sky and learning how to take astro photographs through Sam’s 8in telescope we set up outside. Aldo was especially excited because this was his first time seeing the Milky Way!

The next 3 nights were our nights to observe with the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope. We observed with an instrument called the Mitchell Spectrograph (also known as the VIRUS Prototype instrument). Our primary science goal was to observe standard stars with the Mitchell Spectrograph simultaneously with VIRUS on the HET. Since the Michell Spectrograph has been used for many years it is very well calibrated. These simultaneous observations will allow the team using VIRUS to study dark energy to better understand their observations.

Despite some bad weather the first couple of nights, the students got to learn how to use the telescope, take calibration data, set up targets for observing, and take data. We weren’t able to observe simultaneously with the HET the first couple of nights due to weather but we did get some observations of some fun targets such as Saturn during some pockets of clear weather. The students quickly became experts in knowing how to monitor weather and make the sometimes tough judgement calls as to when to close the telescope to protect it from bad weather conditions. This is an essential skill to observing that can only be learned from these types of experiences. When we couldn’t observe we spent some time learning about the instrument but also playing games like Spaceteam and werewolf.

To get our spirits up after a couple of nights of bad weather we took an afternoon road trip to the nearby town of Marfa, TX. Marfa is a small but unique West Texas town filled with mysteries, myths, and a ton of art. After checking out some Donald Judd works at the Chianti Foundation and channeling our inner Beyoncé at Marfa’s famous Food Shark we ventured back to the observatory. On our way back we meandered down a long dirt road behind the historic Prude Ranch and found the one of the giant radio telescopes that is part of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).

After the sun when down we walked up to the 2.7m dome for our last night of observing. Luckily the storm clouds cleared and the humidity dropped and we finally got an entire night to observe! The students, now very familiar with the telescope and the observing software, lead the set up and observations of the standard stars. We continuously called the HET observing staff to coordinate our observations and the night was a success!

The students also got to observe on the 30in telescope that night. Since UT undergrad Logan Pearce had used the telescope once before she got to train the TAURUS students how to use it. They observed a few classic astronomical objects such as the Ring Nebula and the Eagle Nebula.

Despite being tired after a long night of observing, after closing the telescope for the night, we spent another hour in the crisp morning air on the catwalk of the 2.7m and watched the sun rise over the HET in the distance. This made for the perfect end to our McDonald Observatory adventure.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Jonathon Brown

This is the sixth and final scholar spotlight of 2017.  This week, our TAURUS director, Caitlin Casey, sat down with her mentee in the TAURUS program, Jonathon Brown, a rising junior at MIT majoring in physics, about his journey and interest in astronomy in astrophysics.  Jonathon is working with Prof. Casey on understanding the physical nature of candidate galaxy clusters identified by the Planck satellite.

CC: Tell us a bit about yourself.  What’s your story?

JB: Hi, my name is Jonathon and I grew up in Monroe, Michigan, which is between Toledo and Detroit.  I lived in Tennessee for seven years as a kid, but moved back to Michigan when I was seven.  I have two younger sisters who are now 16 and 19.  My family has had a difficult time dealing with the death of my father when I was a junior in high school, but we’re trying to persevere through that.  I’ve been at MIT for two years now studying physics.

CC: What draws you to science and inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy (or physics)?

JB:  I’ve always been interested in astronomy, often looking up at the stars as a kid and wondering how they work and where they come from.  As I progressed through school I realized that I had an affinity for math and science.  It just made sense to me!  I started to ask myself questions about how things work, why they move a certain way, and what the math and science was behind it.  After learning some calculus, everything started to make sense and I found that really eye-opening.  I decided I wanted to know more about how things came to be, so that’s how I chose to study physics.

CC: What are you most proud of?

JB: To be honest, probably getting to MIT.  I know that having a degree from MIT will open up doors I never knew of before; I’ll have quite a few opportunities I wouldn’t have had before, especially as a first-generation college student.  It’s also important for me to be a role model to my sisters, showing them that we can change our lives, and things don’t always have to be the way they might have been in the past. 

CC: What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve faced as an undergraduate?  What have you learned from that challenge?

JB: Hardest thing for me has been coming to terms with how people change, especially in the context of dealing with family tragedy.  My dad’s death has been hard on everyone and it has changed my family’s dynamics in a way that has been difficult to deal with during college.  Juggling my studies with that dynamic has been difficult.  Sometimes my peers will say “let’s try to get through this homework set,” but my mind will be elsewhere.  I feel as though I always have to perform really well, despite dealing with extra pressures in my life that some of the other students don’t have.  It’s a challenge.

CC: Have you learned anything from these challenges that could be helpful to other students in similar positions?

JB: Always take care of yourself first.  It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re worried about something else happening in your life, but ultimately you’re in charge of you.  Eat right, get sleep, and seek out help when you need it.  Don’t let the things you can control slip away.

CC: What mentors, teachers or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?

JB:  My dad was a major role model for me.  He taught me quite a lot and was always very supportive in my learning.  Some of my teachers in high school were also very encouraging and pushed me to be more ambitious with my college plans, shifting focus first from community colleges to state universities, and dream colleges like MIT.  And now I’m there.  At MIT, one mentor of mine, who is a staff researcher, has been helping me figure out what I might like to pursue for research.  I really appreciate his effort to help me navigate my time as an undergraduate. 

CC: Where to next?  Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?

JB:  I’m eager to finish up my undergraduate degree at MIT and pursue graduate school in either astronomy or astrophysics, general physics, or Earth and planetary science.  I’m not sure which yet, though.  Going through an experience like TAURUS has been helpful to get exposure to research.  I’ve realized sometimes I struggle too much independently and I’m reserved about asking for help, but I see now that that’s a natural part about learning how to do research.  I’m learning a lot of python and getting a good idea of what doing astronomy research is like, which I’m eager to pursue in graduate school.

CC: Any advice for students who might like to participate in the TAURUS program in the future?

JB: Definitely apply! You won’t know what research feels like unless you come here.  More generally, I encourage you to reach out to people in the field and let them know what your interests are and seek out lots of advice.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Aldo Sepulveda

This week’s TAURUS interview is with Aldo Sepulveda, an undergraduate student from the University of Texas San Antonio.  Aldo is working with Dr. Brendan Bowler to determine the orbits and host star masses of directly imaged exoplanets.

BB: Can you talk how you first became interested in physics and astronomy?

AS: I’ve always enjoyed math and science.  As a child, those were always my favorite subjects in school.  During my first semester at UTSA we were required to take AIS (Academic Inquiry and Scholarship) and that’s where I was reconnected with the part of myself that really liked science and math.  My experience in that course inspired me to want to pursue a career in science as a life goal.  Astronomy and physics are simply the areas of science that fascinate me the most.

BB: In your TAURUS application you had mentioned your interest in exoplanets.  Can you talk about how that came about?

AS: Earlier this year Dr. Nancy Levenson from the Space Telescope Science Institute gave a talk at UTSA all about the James Webb Space Telescope and all the cool science it will accomplish.  I talked with her a bit about exoplanets and she told me about all the things JWST could clarify, like models of planetary atmospheres.  So it’s because of that experience that exoplanets in particular were in my head.

BB: Have you experienced any challenges during your education, and if so how have you overcome them?

AS: Being a first generation college student was a challenge (my parents don’t have college degrees) because I didn’t know anyone who had been through college before.  So everything that I know now, especially for a career in academia and graduate school, I had to find out on my own in college.  So that was tough.  However, I think of it as a double-edged sword because it’s also turned into extra motivation; knowing that there’s a lot I still don’t know has made me seek out advice and information about careers in astronomy and graduate school.  For instance, finding out about summer research programs was part of this drive.  So although it was a challenge at first, it ended up giving me extra motivation that’s become very helpful to me.

BB: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to share— for example, something that’s happened along your academic or personal trajectory?

AS: There’s one thing that comes to mind: recently home life got stressful and was interfering with my college work and my well being.  Early last semester I decided to move to an apartment close to UTSA to escape from that.  I’m proud of that decision because it was a necessary act of self care, and my ability to focus on college has substantially improved from that decision. 

BB: Thanks for sharing that.  You arrived early this summer to attend the AAS meeting in Austin.  That was nice because we were able to meet each other before the summer program started.  Can you talk about what motivated this and what you learned from your first astronomy meeting?

AS: I was accepted into TAURUS so I knew that I was going to go to the AAS meeting in the winter to present research.  I looked into the AAS because of that and I noticed there was a summer meeting in Austin one week before this program starts.  It was too lucky and convenient of a date to pass up.  So of course I was going to go!  One particular motivation was that I wanted this meeting to be the first exposure to a scientific conference as opposed to a winter one where I would be presenting research.  

I learned a lot from the meeting.  It was a remarkably wide spectrum of knowledge; it had everything from tips and advice for astronomy careers to the importance of public outreach in science to the fact that solar wind is a result of thermal pressure temporarily winning over gravity.  I learned all kinds of things there.  It was a great experience and I’m glad I went.  I’m looking forward to the winter meeting.  I’ve never been in an environment like that, surrounded by so many people doing astronomy.  It was lovely.  I really felt like that was my first exposure to the world of astronomy.  

BB: I enjoy the AAS meetings too.  The science is great, you always learn something new, and it gives you ideas for your research.  It’s also a great networking opportunity to meet new people and form new collaborations.  Wait until you see the much larger winter meetings!   

Can you talk about what your research or personal goals have been throughout this summer?  What do you continue to hope to achieve for the remaining few weeks of the program?  What would success look like for you in the TAURUS program?

AS: My primary goal was to get my first research experience.  Starting on day one, I already felt like this was a success.  Some of my other goals included learning everything and anything I can, doing a good job on the research project, and boosting my overall confidence— which is a personal goal that was important to me for the summer.  Every week that I’m here I learn so much and gain more experience.  I’m really happy to be here this summer.  

BB: Do you have a better feel for what the research process is like? 

AS: Yes!  That was a big motivation for seeking out these summer programs to begin with.  Certainly with programming experience; I had taken one introductory programming class, but now I feel like I can actually use that and apply it not just to a homework assignment but to an actual task we want to accomplish related to our research goals.  I also feel that my general understanding of the research literature has improved compared to the start of the summer.

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

AS:  After I complete my undergraduate studies, my next goal is to enter a graduate program and earn a Master’s degree and PhD degree in astronomy.  I don’t think I’ve told you that yet!  I was interested in graduate school as soon as I knew that that was part of becoming a scientist and having a career in academia, but it wasn’t until last semester that I felt like I wanted to pursue a PhD in astronomy.  But at this stage I’m leaving my specific career options open.  Right now I feel like I’m learning and training for academia, but I know that that’s not the only option.  Ultimately as long as I find a career related to astronomy in some way, and I can support myself with it, then that’s certainly going to make me happy.

BB: Having been through 5 weeks of research, do you plan to apply to REU programs again next summer?

AS: Heck yeah!  I’ve heard that it’s good to find out early whether you like research to know whether you want to go down that route.  I’m relieved that I’ve been enjoying this and I want to keep at it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Pa Chia Thao

This is the fourth of six profile pieces about the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Meet Pa Chia Thao, from Mt Holyoke College working with Dr. Andrew Mann, who writes about Pa Chia's passion for and growing experience in astronomy.

This summer, Pa Chia joined us from Mount Holyoke College as a TAURUS scholar. Pa Chia will be working on Spitzer data taken on two young planetary systems, which she will use to study the atmospheres of these planets, and more generally, understand how exoplanet atmospheres change over their lifetimes. I spoke with Pa Chia about her story, background, research interests, and future plans:

Pa Chia’s story begins back with the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and is intricately tied with the recent history of the Hmong. When war spread from Vietnam to neighboring Laos, the U.S. recruited Hmong heavily to fight communism, with the U.S. offering independent and autonomous control of their homeland. When the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the Laotian Government declared Hmong enemies of the state, forcing them to flee. Pa Chia’s parents ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she and her two brothers were born. It was years before her family were allowed entry into the United States.

Not long after her arrival in the U.S., Pa Chia quickly discovered her love of STEM. By sixth grade, she was transferred to an aerospace elementary school, which peaked her interest in astronomy and aerospace specifically. Since then, she has always been curious about how the world works and has strived to become a scientist. Her interest only grew when she began to do research for herself.

In college, Pa Chia got involved in a broad range of astronomical research. She is currently working with Jason Young, examining warm Spitzer data of low-surface brightness galaxies with warm Spitzer data, which will become her senior thesis. She has also been identifying signatures of ram-pressure stripping in blue compact dwarf galaxies in Virgo. Last summer, she took part in an REU at the University of Toledo with Noel Richardson, searching for high-mass members of Galactic open clusters. Although most of her background has been in Galactic and stellar astronomy, Pa Chia has a passion for a wide range of topics and has shown the greatest enthusiasm toward working on exoplanets this summer.

Pa Chia was particularly drawn to the TAURUS program because she felt the program’s mission to improve representation in astronomy is extremely important and that the goals ‘spoke to her, directly’. She also welcomed the opportunity to broaden her research experiences beyond stellar and extragalactic work and to sample a wider range of astronomy before picking a specific path in graduate school. She is eager to leverage her TAURUS research-project to improve her programming skills and is particularly looking forward to the trip to McDonald to gain more observing experience with a larger telescope.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Pa Chia plans to take some time off from academics. She has particularly expressed interest in helping others abroad through the Peace Corps. After this, she plans to apply to graduate school and eventually pursue a career in astronomy. As Pa Chia progresses through these experiences, she hopes to follow in her parents’ fearlessness as they overcame tremendous odds and is continually thankful for the sacrifices that they both made so that she can have the opportunities that her parents never had.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Alexander Fortenberry

 This week's TAURUS scholar spotlight is all about Alexander Fortenberry, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands who's majoring in both physics and mathematics.  His TAURUS mentor, Dr. Rachael Livermore, sat down with him to learn more about his aspirations, thoughts on TAURUS and research techniques.

Alexander Fortenberry joins us from the US Virgin Islands! He is a NASA MIRO scholar at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he moved from his small hometown in Georgia for college.

During the summer of his sophomore year, he was offered a chance to do research and worked at the university’s observatory. His interest in astronomy piqued, he went on to conduct research in a range of topics including binary stars, Gamma Ray Bursts and high-redshift galaxies. This summer at UT Austin, he’s working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and using the magnifying effect of gravitational lensing to study distant galaxies.

“The most appealing thing about TAURUS for me,” he says, “is how many graduate students and postdocs are involved with the program. I figured it would give me a chance to learn about more than just what I was researching.”

Alexander hopes to go to graduate school and ultimately pursue a career in research. Having begun his research career earlier than most, he is well on his way to doing so, but he acknowledges that choosing which field to devote that career to is a big challenge. Of his goal for the summer, he says, “My main hope is that TAURUS will help me narrow down, if not decide, what field I would like to go into.”

So far, Alexander has found his observational research “extremely fun and great learning experiences,” but it hasn’t all been easy: “the hardest thing is that there isn’t one single way to do things.” However, some things that initially seemed daunting have turned out not to be so bad; the experience of working with an advisor who uses a programming language he’s not used before has taught him that switching from one programming language to another is “surprisingly easy.”

One thing Alexander has learned from his research experience is that he’s “really more keen on the more theoretical aspects of astronomy.” When I ask what draws him most to the subject, he highlights two things: first, “that there is always something new to find. But the most interesting thing to me is that we are not only living in the universe but that we are part of it, and by studying the rest of the observable universe we have the potential to find how we came to be or even other forms of life.”

Outside of work, Alexander enjoys hiking, traveling, and photography. He’s especially interested in astrophotography, and was kind enough to share some examples of his work (check it out below!).

Whatever area of research Alexander ultimately settles on, I am certain he will be a great asset to the field and I look forward to reading his future publications and seeing some stunning photography from his many travels.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Andrew Cancino

This is the second of six spotlights on the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Adolfo "Andrew" Cancino is a senior at Missouri State University where he majors in physics.  His advisor in the TAURUS program, talked to him about his experience, background, and aspirations for the future.

When you meet Andrew, the first thing you will probably learn is that he likes to be called Andrew. Shortly after that you may learn that he's lived all over the country—as a self-proclaimed army brat—and in fact he's even travelled all over the world, too. But it's family, not geography, that determines what's the closest thing to home for him, and that's why he landed at Missouri State University, even though he went to high school in California and briefly considered UC Irvine for college.

The road that would eventually bring Andrew to Austin this summer for the TAURUS program probably started in his senior year of high school. He decided to take an AP class for the first time that year (well, actually, four of them), and this was looking to be a bad decision. The worst was AP Physics. But fortunately for our story, he had an awesome teacher that helped him turn the tide by meeting with Andrew during lunch breaks and after school. Not only did she simply get him through it, she sparked Andrew's interest in physics for the first time. 

By the time he arrived at MSU, Andrew was determined to pursue a degree in physics. It still wasn't the subject that came easiest to him, but it was the most interesting, and Andrew had become used to overcoming such challenges through hard work and persistence. In fact, when I asked Andrew to give one piece of advice to a starting physics/astronomy major, he simply said "put in the work." For example, he says he's bad at coding, but he's found that when he has kept trying things pay off. When he had to choose a concentration for his physics major at MSU, he didn't have previous experience in astronomy, but that's what he choose because it sounded the most interesting. So far he's really enjoying it. He successfully applied to the NASA Space Grant Consortium and has also been working for Prof. Peter Plavchan on exoplanets and circumstellar disks. This is what has kept him busy since last summer, when he isn't taking classes or at his regular full time job outside of school.

While Andrew has only been here with us in Austin for two weeks, his experiences here and at MSU have already left him with a greater appreciation of astronomy research endeavors. For one, the idea that there is still so much that we don't know, and that he could be the first person to discover something that hasn't even been imagined yet, is deeply inspiring. But the first thing Andrew actually said that he's come to really value is the incredible network of people that make up the astronomy community. He already felt connected to so many people through his work at MSU, and now at Texas this is growing wider. It's not surprising then that Andrew's favorite part of the TAURUS program are the weekly seminars led by students and postdocs. It's not just that he says he's learning about a dizzying array of topics that are instrumental to astronomy, many of which haven't been covered in his normal classes, but that it's a connection to peers and mentors here at Texas who are choosing to spend their time to share their knowledge and experiences. It's a great source of encouragement.

With nearly seven weeks of the TAURUS program ahead of him, Andrew has big plans. He's really looking forward to the trip to McDonald Observatory. He is also curious about being part of the process of writing a paper, from start to finish, for the first time (as well as having his name immortalized in print, of course). Beyond that, Andrew is hoping to get a thorough background on all things astronomy in Texas, as he's heard the same rumors I have that there is more to astronomy than exoplanets [citation needed]. Above all, Andrew hopes to make lasting connections with people that will buoy him in the years to come, no matter what path he follows.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Adrianna Perez

We are thrilled to share with you the first of our 2017 TAURUS Scholar Spotlights!  Adrianna Perez is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she majors in Physics.  Adrianna participated in the Banneker-Aztlán Institute last summer working with Dr. Jill Naiman and Prof. Jorge Moreno and joins us for TAURUS this summer.  Adrianna is also a CAMPARE and Cal-bridge Scholar.  She was interviewed by her research mentor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

CLH: Can you tell me about yourself? What is your story?

AP: I’m from California, live in Bellflower. Basically my whole life in Bellflower, went to Bellflower high school, graduated from there. Right out of the high school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hill as a first generation college student with already my Physics major declared, although I was still unsure whether that was what I wanted to do. I took Physics in high school, and I did really well in it and I thought it was fun, so I went with that :). I was like, OK, I like Physics, so I feel like that’s a good place to start.

So I went to Dominguez Hills, start taking my Physics classes there, and really started to like it. The problems were harder at first. So I was a little, oh no, what if I can’t do this. But I just kept working at it, got better at it, and really started to like it. And then, just space was cool, so that’s how the Astronomy part came in. But we don’t have an Astronomy department at my school, so I wasn’t really exposed to it. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Moreno came to my school and gave a talk about his galaxy mergers, that I learned about research in Astronomy. And he mentioned the Banneker-Aztlán Institute, and I was really interested. So after his talk, I spoke to him. He encouraged me to apply. So I did that and got accepted, and then went to Harvard, and really liked it. Now I’m positive that I really want to be in Astronomy.

CLH: Can you share a little bit about of your future and career goals?

AP: I think a lot about becoming a professor, but I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. After that, maybe do a postdoc, and after that, get into academia, or try to be a faculty member. I feel like I might go down that path, but I’m still open to the possibilities. You don’t necessarily have to go to academia, there are other options. But I feel like, that is where I will end up.

CLH: So what brings you to the TAURUS program, and how do you think the TAURUS program will help you to reach your career goals?

AP: I was interested in TAURUS because at AAS, Dr. Moreno was telling me that Caitlin was gonna be here and the TAURUS people were going to be here. So we had a joint lunch with them, the Banneker-Aztlán people had lunch with the TAURUS people. I got to speak with the previous scholars and I asked how they liked it, and they were all really happy and excited and tell me all these great things. So I’m like, wow that sounds really good. Especially because I really liked Banneker and I wanted to be in something that’s similar. Because I know some REU can feel more competitive, and lonely. You’re just in the office, working by yourself and nobody wants to help you. So I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I wanted to be in a place that would feel similar to the one I was already in. And the previous scholars spoke very well of it. I met Caitlin there, and spoke with her. She said, sure, go apply! So I applied. I heard the program had a goal of diversity and inclusion and I really liked that. That’s up and coming in Astronomy, people are trying to change that. So I would like to be in part of the program where that is included.

CLH: So how would success in this TAURUS program look like to you?

AP: I hope to make many new friends. And I hope to get somewhat far in the research, and just to be able to answer that question now. And I want to give a good talk at the end! :) I want to have a nice talk with nice pictures, and explain myself well. I used to have a pretty big fear of public speaking. So I want to be able to communicate, and give a presentation without running off the stage. :)

CLH: I heard from Dr. Moreno that you gave an extremely good talk at the final presentation last year. Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. I worked really hard. We had a speech class once every week. But I would go a bit earlier, that way, I will practice before everybody else would come to, just to get comfortable saying it on stage. I can handle speaking in front of a couple people, but when the group gets bigger than five, then it’s like, oh no! 

CLH: Yeah, the community here would definitely help and provide feedback, and you can give an even better talk in the end.

AP: Yeah, I hope to top my previous talk, and that would be a success to me.

CLH: Just to change the gear a bit. 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?

AP: I think I learn the best from reading and listening. So I can read something and if I don’t understand it right away and get some kind of verbal clarification, that would be good. Sometimes drawing pictures helps a lot. But I don’t know if I would consider myself a hands-on person. Because I normally don’t like to build, or do things from my hands, I feel uncoordinated. :) So that doesn’t work too much.

Something I like is smaller celebrations. Even if it’s like a small goal, like I read half the paper, or I got a plot to work. These small things are what make me feel good. Yes! It might not be something big or fancy, but it’s progress, and I feel that’s worth celebrating.

CLH: Can you talk about what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

AP: I’ve already briefly mentioned the public speaking one. I feel like it’s my biggest obstacle. Because I can get really shy, nervous, and anxious sometimes, and withdraw into myself, don’t talk to anyone and go out much. When you need any help, you should be able to ask. If you don’t ask, then nothing will happen. That’s the biggest obstacle is to come out and say I need help.

CLH: What are you most proud of?

AP: I am proud that I can make little movies. Something that makes me proud is that I make little bunch of snapshots, and compile them up into a little movie. I think it’s really cool.

CLH: If there are other freshman or sophomore students who are interested in following your path, what advice would you give to them?

AP: I feel like I was lucky that Dr. Moreno came to my school, especially because it is small. But for other places, I feel like you would at least want to look into places you would be interested in doing research. If somebody is interested in going to Harvard or here at UT Austin, then I’d say try to get in contact with somebody here or I would put them in contact, introduce them to somebody. Let them talk about what that student’s research or career goals are. And hopefully, they will get a better idea if that’s what they want to do or not.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TAURUS @ Python 101

Jackie Champagne leads the TAURUS python workshop.
Week one is now in the history books!  Last week, our TAURUS scholars saw an intense week of orientation, logistics, meeting with their supervisors, launching their projects, and possibly most important of all, they started to learn python.  Python is now one of the most useful programming languages for astronomers with the dawn of astropy a few years ago.  Because it's free, fairly user friendly and used by many professions, many young astronomers are choosing python over other programming languages that have been favored in the past.

Learning a new language is always hard.  Especially if it's your first programming language, python can feel overwhelming!  Definitely when you're installing it off the bat and asking the python path to just work without any headaches.  With the help of our graduate student experts -- Jackie Champagne and Sam Factor -- python was successfully installed on the TAURUS workbooks and we were ready to go for python 101!

Jackie Champagne, our local python champion, led three independent tutorial sessions on python in the first week of TAURUS to make sure the students were off to a good start.  She designed the material especially for folks just starting out in astronomy research with important tasks like reading in data files and plotting data points and histograms.  Our sessions were filled with great questions and were also well attended by other UT astronomers who might've wanted to learn python themselves.  Dare I say there were a few faculty members in attendance?

Well done TAURUS scholars on a fantastic first week and onward to eight more weeks of glorious science with your newfound programming skills!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Welcome 2017 TAURUS Scholars!

TAURUS 2017 Scholars with Prof. Casey atop RLM with a panoramic
view of Austin.
Today the crew at UT was thrilled to welcome the second class of TAURUS scholars to the department!  It's amazing to think it's been a full year since we welcomed the inaugural class; we've come so far and it's a great feeling to be back where we started with an entirely new class of scholars.  I'm sure the 2017 class will help take the program even farther, growing in new directions we haven't anticipated.

Like last year, selecting scholars was a process taken very seriously by the faculty and researchers at UT.  The demand for summer research positions is incredibly high in astronomy, and there were many deserving students who we could not select to become a part of our program.  This is where our mission statement comes to mind -- that we aim to elevate and amplify the voices of students who excel, work incredibly hard, and aspire to be the future face of astrophysics, and our commitment to those from traditionally underserved backgrounds works towards a future ideal of a more equitable scientific community for all of us.

This year's scholars include (as pictured from left to right):
Pa Chia Thao, Mt Holyoke College
Aldo Sepulveda, UT San Antonio
Jonathon Brown, MIT
Adrianna Perez, Cal State Dominguez Hills
Andrew Cancino, Missouri State University
Alexander Fortenberry, University of the Virgin Islands

In the coming weeks, we'll get to know these scholars closer with in-depth profiles! But in the meantime, you get to learn about their first day on the job.

As usual, the first day of TAURUS was packed full with activity after activity: from "orientation" and an overview of the department to a brief tour of RLM and the roof (see picture!) to a few marches across campus to retrieve the illusive UT ID cards, we covered a lot of the basic logistics today.  There was also some fun, with a department meet-and-greet complete with a suite of 72 cupcakes to satisfy the afternoon sweet-craving.  The cupcakes gave us a great excuse to mingle, and let the TAURUS folks get to know the local experts: the UT Austin undergraduate researchers.  Tomorrow, let the science begin!

Monday, January 16, 2017

A warm 2016 TAURUS reunion at the 229th meeting of the AAS

2016 TAURUS Scholars in the AAS 229 Exhibition Hall.
Those of us at UT Austin didn't have to travel far to attend the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2017. It was held in Grapevine, TX, just outside of Dallas a quick three hours drive up the road. Every winter at the start of the new year, the AAS seems like the ultimate gathering place and an opportunity to look towards the future of astronomy in the US by meeting all of the young people who will make it happen.

Our 2016 TAURUS Scholars are among that group that will move this field forward into the future. AAS 229 was the first time the Scholars were reunited after their summer in Austin ended in August 2016. With posters in hand and networking skills polished off, TAURUS Scholars left an awesome impression on all they interacted with, from meet-and-greets, dinners, talks, and poster sessions. In many ways this served as a launching-off point, for Scholars to network with prospective employers and graduate schools, while also mingling with peers from other summer programs, including sister programs at Harvard University, the Banneker Institute and the Aztlan Institute.

We are so proud to have had a stellar first class of TAURUS Scholars, and to Elizabeth, Isaiah, Derek, Jennifer and Danielle:  we're eager to see where life takes you! Keep in touch!

Elizabeth explains solar twins.

Isaiah explaining his search for wide-separation planets.

Danielle explaining the IMF.

TAURUS, Banneker and Aztlán lunchtime meetup at AAS.