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.