By the time I graduate from Macalester, I will have participated in three fascinating astronomy research projects, and I will be a co-author of one—or maybe more—published journal articles. The summer after my sophomore year, I worked with astronomy professor John Cannon on a project to determine the total mass of the dwarf galaxy AGC 749237, using data from the Expanded Very Large Array observatory in New Mexico. The skills I gained working on the project are applicable to any science—maintaining coherent notes, garnering relevant information from scholarly papers, and solving problems independently. I presented my results at the American Astronomical Society winter meeting in Austin, Texas, and the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team 2012 Workshop at the NAIC Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
At the end of the summer, Professor Cannon suggested that I apply for an exciting REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in La Serena, Chile. I followed his advice, and in October I was accepted to the Chilean summer program (January through March). I was so excited that I misdialed my home phone number when calling to tell my family! I had less than a week to decide whether to take a semester off to participate in the program. In the end, I decided I couldn’t pass up this unique opportunity to work at an international observatory in a country I have always wanted to visit.
At CTIO I worked primarily with David James, a Welsh astronomer, using optical spectrometry data. Having done astronomy research the previous summer allowed me to jump right into the actual science rather than learning how to keep logs or use command line navigation. We attempted to age solar-like stars by characterizing the amount of lithium in the open cluster Collinder 70 (the middle star in Orion’s belt is in this cluster), using the relationship between lithium abundance and stellar age.
The following summer, I worked at Cornell University with Dr. Jonathan Lunine, studying Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan has a dense atmosphere, which obscures the surface for most optical or infrared imaging. Fortunately, radar imaging is available and provides information about the surface of the moon. My project looked for evidence of cryovolcanism (volcanoes spewing out super-cooled liquid or ice crystals, rather than melted rock or ash), and compared the possible surface expressions to the data in hand. It’s challenging and interesting research. Plus, I got to do geology and astronomy, which is a wonderful combination of my two majors.
With each research project, from extragalactic to galactic to the solar system, I have grown as a scientist and explored another side of astronomy.