Wednesday, August 26, 2015

First Internship: From Cold Calling to Astronomy Researcher

I'm sometimes asked how I got my first internship. Some students find it difficult to get accepted into an internship program when they don't have any experience, but can't get experience until someone gives them a chance. It can be a frustrating cycle for students just starting out.

The summer after my freshman year of undergraduate was packed with plans: take two chemistry courses at a community college to transfer to my main university, get LASIK eye surgery, and get a job. I didn't think that I had the time to take on a summer internship. But once I moved back to Pennsylvania for the summer and began searching for a summer job, I wondered if I could get paid to research. (I also took a job in retail at the mall, just in case.)

I obtained my first research position by “cold calling” professors. I lived just outside of Philadelphia where there is no shortage of excellent universities, including a few conducting astronomy research. A great professor, Dr. Larry DeWarf of Villanova University, gave me a chance.

Mendel Science Center at Villanova University - taken 2003

I was hired in a volunteer research position to assist with the Sun in Time project. I measured the emissions of magnesium-2 from the spectra (energy distribution of light) of 50 stars to determine each star’s period of revolution, which is related to their age. The goal was to identify Sun-like stars in the Solar Twin component of the project. I didn't care that it was a volunteer position; I just wanted the experience. The research I conducted was used in another student's poster presentation at the next American Astronomical Society meeting (which won first place) and was published in a paper at some point.

Congratulations on winning 1st place, Ryan! - taken 2004

A week later, I was offered a second research position in the same department, working for Dr. Ed Sion. Larry had talked to Ed about me and there was a little bit of grant funding available for a part-time student researcher. I modeled the spectra of cataclysmic variable stars that brighten at irregular times, then return to less active periods of quiescence. In particular, I researched the WW Ceti white dwarf system at outburst and compared it to its quiescent period. I also learned how to use a Unix-based operating system that summer.

Ed is known for encouraging students to publish their work. Based on that summer's research and future work conducted by others, I published my first paper in which I was the second author: A Far Ultraviolet Study of the Hot White Dwarf in the Dwarf Nova WW Ceti (2006).

My first internship led to my second one. Ed hired me on again the following summer to work on more cataclysmic variables as my only summer work. Because I had already been trained the summer before, I was able to work rapidly and model many such systems. I modeled ultraviolet emissions from the stellar accretion disks and the white dwarf stars. I'm sure that my research that summer was published in several system-specific papers, though I wasn't involved in the writing of any of them.

Model fitting from the WW Ceti paper

I am very grateful to the professors who gave this green student a chance and to the fellow students who helped to train me and befriend me over those summers. I proved to myself during those first two summers that I had what it took to be an astronomy researcher. The experience I gained helped prepare me for my NASA internships and graduate research. Thank you to professors and professionals who take the time from your own research to teach and uplift the next generations!

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