Thursday, July 21, 2016

Doing Research Whilst Raising Tiny Human Spawn

When I applied for this REU I did so with optimistic hope that they would be accepting, if not accommodating, to the fact that I would need to bring along my tiny spawn. My hopes were far surpassed with the generosity and help I have received from everyone in this program! I am a 29 year old single mother of two children, the oldest is a male spawn by the name of Jackson, and the younger human is a female by the name of Cara. They are inquisitive, curious, loud, and crazy little humans. Bringing them along for this experience has wonderful benefits and some pretty obvious obstacles.  

Something that I want to heavily instill in my children is the love of knowledge and learning. I am fortunate enough to have been successful thus far in that mission. Jackson is an avid reader who is systematically logical and likes to know how things work, step by step, from the bottom up. Cara is also a devoted reader, best in her class in fact, a grade level and a half ahead of her peers, who likes to make sense of the world by making assumptions and then testing their validity. They are wonderfully curious kids who have very different learning styles, but both have sprinting curiosities that I have no interest in suppressing. 

Both of the kids were very excited to spend the summer in a new city and enthralled with getting to spend time at a real beach and getting to live in a dorm! They were even more excited when we found more fun near the city, including a trampoline park that also had a rock wall,

as well as a park trail that was littered with fairy houses!

They were nervous at first having to meet 7 new people, people that are apart of my REU group, and having to spend a great deal of time with these people. They have never shared a house with anyone but their parents, so the novelty of the situation was not lost them. There's been a learning curve of how to share space, but I think they are doing ok :) 

Our group has various weekly meetings; informational meetings about group outings and expectations, lectures having to do with STEM topics, weekly research presentations from lab directors, group dinners at various Rochester restaurants,

 as well as improv lunches structured to get our scientific minds out of the status quo of introverted interactions. The kids have not only had to learn how to operate among peers in the dorm, but they have had to learn to adapt in each of these group situations.

They have had to learn how to occupy themselves and sit still for short periods of time and give respect to lecturers, how to appropriately interact during group sessions when noise is totally appropriate, and how to go to group dinners and deal with not always getting their own way as far as food choices (something that anyone with children knows is no easy task to overcome). They have periodically paid attention to lectures, Jackson even chiming in with questions during the astrophysics lecture :)

They have even done well when I have to sit in meetings to discuss where my work is headed with my team at the LAMA lab. Something that is INCREDIBLY boring for these tiny humans. 

So far they seem to have made friends with most of the members of our group and have MOSTLY positively contributed to the fun of the summer. 

Down on the upside, of course there are some obstacles that the kids and I have had to face. I initially had a babysitter set up a few towns away where the kids could go to spend time with other kids and play while I worked. That did not prove to be an ideal situation and the program has graciously allowed me to keep the kids with me on campus while I work. The nature of my work is mostly computational, so barring wifi connection issues, I can work anywhere. Therefor, I have been working from the dorm while the tiny humans run amuck in the dorm and the communal space on our dorm floor. Usually the tiny monsters understand when I have to do computer work or when I have large amounts of reading to do, but in this foreign environment it has been tricky for them to grasp. Their minds think, "mommy is right there, she can play Sorry with us or watch this cartoon with us, no problem." It has been a bit of a struggle trying to help them be autonomous in their playing and occupation as kids while I'm directly next to them. Sometimes I throw the towel in, call an early day and take them to the beach, then get back to image analyzing when they have gone to bed. 

All in all I think this is going to be a good experience for them. My hope is that they see college as a place where they can meet interesting people, make brain tickling discoveries, and a place where they can feel relaxed and have fun. Being allowed the opportunity to further my education and professional experience while also introducing my children to the wonderful world of academia has been one of the best experiences our tiny family could have hoped for. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Research at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)

The search for exoplanets is an active and evolving area of research in astronomy. According to the NASA website for exoplanet exploration, there are currently 3,368 confirmed exoplanets, 2,416 candidate planets, 2,506 solar systems, and 232 of which are terrestrial planets. In our search for exoplanets we gain knowledge about the evolution of solar systems as well as planets like our earth, information that can give us clues as to the fate of our own solar system and earth. 

Young stellar moving groups represent some of the most viable targets for investigating young stellar objects and the conditions and evolution of circumstellar disks, subsequently leading to the study of the evolution of planetary systems. Planets form around stars within 10 Myr of a star’s birth, thus stellar age is vital knowledge for exoplanet research. 

Young stellar moving groups form inside of what many people think of as "stellar nurseries", also known to scientists as molecular clouds. These clouds are dense areas of gas and dust found in the interstellar medium. Molecular clouds are compressed via gravity and pressure interactions that cause the more dense regions to fall in on themselves, giving way to the formation of a protostars. Protostars are stars that have not yet begun hydrogen fusion, also known as a pre-main sequence (pre-MS) stars. Small molecular clouds can form magnitudes of tens of stars, where giant molecular clouds can give rise to hundreds of thousands of stars, that like the giant molecular cloud found in the Orion constellation. 

These pre-MS stars spend the beginning portions of their lives traveling the galaxy together (young stellar moving groups, aka; moving associations, open clusters) and are loosely bound by mutual gravity that can keep most the group together for a few hundred million years. As the stars age, gravity from other moving groups and impacts with stellar bodies can pull/knock stars out of their association, causing stars to join new associations, or leave the stars to endure life in the galaxy on their own.

Protostar evolution involves the acquisition of an accretion disk, formed from angular momentum via the infall of material after the initial formation of the star. This disk continues to feed into the mass of the protostar until the gas cools. At this stage of evolution, known as the T Tauri stage, with a cooled circumstellar disk surrounding the protostar, planetesimals can begin to form around the star from aggregated dust and ice grains. These planetesimals are the beginnings of a solar system.

In the Laboratory for Multiwavelength Astrophysics (LAMA) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) one of the missions of the faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students is to work to analyze and model multiwavelength astronomical and astrophysical data in order to make determinations about young stellar objects inside and outside our galaxy. 

My role in this lab has been to aide in the evolutionary determination of a known galactic variable star in the constellation Pisces. RZ Piscium (Psc) is an enigmatic variable star whose evolutionary status lies somewhere between a pre-MS star that is on it's way to hydrogen burning, and a post-MS star that is swelling up to become a red giant

RZ Psc shows as a bright X-ray point source when imaged by ESA’s Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) space telescope. Any potential members of a group associated with RZ Psc should have similar ages (within a few million years), thus a survey of stellar association candidates is being conducted to try and resolve the question of the stars evolutionary status. 

The search includes looking for X-ray bright sources using XMM-Newton in conjunction with infrared source catalogs, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) All-Sky Data Release and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), as well as optical images from the WIYN 0.9m National Observatory in Kitt Peak, Arizona. 

Using many wavelengths to image star fields allows our team to gain different kinds information about the ages and properties of the stars of interest. Bright x-ray sources are suggestive of youth as young stars rotate rapidly and throw off x-rays as they fling themselves about their center of gravity. Infrared observation tells us about possible accretion disks around stars causing a "reddening" in the color of the star, also known as stellar extinction. These disks are also indicators of youth as older stars tend to either blow their disks away with solar wind, or their disks have been transformed into planetesimals. Optical images allow astronomers to perform photometry, a science of using pixel intensity from point sources in various wavelengths to measure apparent magnitudes of the stars. These apparent magnitudes are converted into flux's and then fit to Spectral Energy Distributions (SEDs) in order to make an assumption about spectral type. 

Candidate matches that show in these images are analyzed against field stars using color-color plots, used to determine star color as we don't know their distances, color-magnitude plots, showing position on the evolutionary Herztsprung-Russell diagram, and then fit to SED's to tighter fit a spectral type. 

                                            Herztsprung-Russell Diagram  (picture source)

By the end of our survey we hope to either show an association related to RZ Psc and use those stars as age determinants for the variable, or show that RZ Psc has no association, which will also tell us something about its age.