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Summer Research in Physics
Before coming to Juniata, I hadn’t thought I would or could do physics research as an undergraduate. Luckily, I was proven wrong! This past summer, I had the opportunity to work in the physics department on an awesome project involving stars! My job was to collect and analyze data on binary stars, systems of two stars that orbit around each other. The data I used was photometric, meaning it related the intensity of the light my target stars gave off. Along with another girl in my department, we created light curves which graph the star system’s brightness across time. We completed a total of six curves this summer. From these curves, we found estimates for the system’s period and measures in the differences between their maxima (when the system is brightest). In the future, we can also use this data to calculate estimates for the mass-ratio and temperature of these stars.
This may sound boring to some, but my job didn’t just consist of graphing points on a curve! My research partner and I read papers, learned how to use new software, assembled telescopes, aligned those telescopes, learned about new constellations, and showed other students craters on the moon. While a fair bit of our work involved clicking buttons, we also got to travel and do some more hands on work. We collected data using a set of remotely-operated telescopes at the Sparks Farm Robotic Observatory which is owned by the college. Sometimes, our tech broke, so we drove down and spent the night running scripts and unscrewing things. By the end, I had mastered the art of falling asleep in a car.
Summer on Campus
Though Juniata is a small school, plenty of other research students were around this summer. Every Wednesday, research students would break from their work and meet in the von Liebig Center for Science. These afternoons, we listened to alumni and postdocs share their research findings and experience. They worked on everything from how nuts affect your gut flora to how birds in the Galapagos are becoming resistant to antibiotics. It was super interesting to hear from alumni, one of whom was actually a Goldwater Fellow. And the lunches were catered! We mainly got lunch from Lil New York, which never disappointed (except maybe for the olives in the empanadas…).
Beyond meeting for weekly lunches, the research students on campus met with those studying at the Field Station for s’mores and canoeing at Raystown Lake. Even though the lake is manmade, the area is super beautiful! Paddling through the mountains after scarfing down four s’mores was incredibly relaxing. Some of us also celebrated the 5th of July with other students working as tour guides on campus.
Presenting My Research
As the summer fun and research wrapped up, it was time to present! My research partner and I presented our findings at the Landmark Research Symposium, a symposium for undergraduate researchers belonging to Juniata’s sports conference. I was nervous for my first real research presentation—especially one online—but it went well! My partner and I successfully fielded questions from professors and some chemistry students. Our sponsor has plans for us to present at an AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) meeting, along with the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics and National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Though I’m super excited to present at more conferences, I still can’t believe our work is quality enough to do so!
Finally, a note about funding. Juniata has many opportunities for funding summer research, whether through department money or through other programs. Half of stipend was paid through the department, while the other half came from the Student Scholarly Initiative at Juniata. The SSI exists to offer assistance with research and travel funds. As a recipient of such assistance, I have the privilege and obligation of presenting at Juniata’s Liberal Arts Symposium. This is a spring event in which Juniatians can present their research and theses via poster or presentation to other students and professors.
I’m grateful to my department and sponsor for this research opportunity. This semester, I plan to continue observation on new targets visible in Pennsylvania’s winter sky. To other students, especially in the sciences, reach out to your professors for research opportunities. Professors are almost always willing to take you on their projects. The experience is well worth it, especially at Juniata.