For many science undergraduates, research experience can sometimes be difficult to achieve. A number of programs have become available to give undergraduate students much needed research experience, like NASA’s Space Grant program, and others such as the program offered by The Consortium for Undergraduate Research and Education in Astronomy (CUREA).
The CUREA program is run by Paula Turner (Kenyon College), and offered yearly. Designed to prepare undergraduate students for science research, the two-week program at the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory consists of a rigorous astronomy curriculum, combined with several field trips to locations such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology.
This year, two SESE undergrad students, Fran Pavlicko and Ray Sanders, were accepted to the CUREA program. Having access to facilities at Mt. WIlson Observatory, Pavlicko chose to perform solar research using the historic Snow Telescope. By performing detailed spectroscopic analysis, Pavlicko was able to show conclusive evidence for the differential rotation of our sun.
“The entire experience was absolutely incredible, especially for an undergraduate student seeking the necessary knowledge and practical skills needed to perform high quality research having the potential for publishable results. Every staff member involved in this program did an outstanding job teaching and assisting each student, and provided excellent personalized attention that is rarely matched in the traditional university campus setting,” says Pavlicko.
Opting to study the night skies, Sanders chose to perform detailed photometry on an understudied binary star system in the constellation Aquila. By utilizing different color filters, Sanders was able to map changes in the apparent color of the system to the orbital period. Additionally, by collecting data with different color filters, Sanders was able to establish magnitude values that had not been collected for the binary system.
While the program was centered on astronomy research, some time was set aside for fun. In addition to the tours of JPL and Caltech, CUREA participants received several behind-the-scenes tours of key facilities at Mt. WIlson, including the 100” and 60” telescopes, as well as the 60’ and 150’ solar telescope towers. During the program, students had two nights to observe the night skies with the 60” reflecting telescope. Being able to see color in objects like the Ring Nebula, and the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules was a breathtaking experience for the students. When looking at the Moon and Saturn, the views through the custom 4” diameter eyepiece made it feel like an approach in a space ship.
Aside from the workshops and facility tours, many of the CUREA volunteers are established astronomers and researchers, which provided students with valuable mentoring and project feedback. Given the scenic views on Mt. WIlson, highly knowledgeable instructors, and the incredible equipment available, one could find it difficult to leave at the end of the workshop.
"The CUREA program is a great way to gain hands-on experience in making astronomical observations and understanding the process of observational astrophysics research,” says Turner. “The schedule is packed with classes, tours, and observing time - day and night - to help participants make the most of the opportunity to live and work at this historic observatory. And the program is unique, to my knowledge, in its dual focus on solar and stellar astrophysics. Directing this program over the past decade has been the most fun I have doing astronomy."
If you’d like to learn more about the The Consortium for Undergraduate Research and Education in Astronomy (CUREA), visit: http://physics.kenyon.edu/people/turner/cureaweb/CUREA.htm
(By Ray Sanders)
Photo of Sanders and Pavlicko