PART VI: JUNIOR YEAR

This is when it all really takes off.

The summer before my junior year, I got my first real taste at astronomy research at ERIRA: educational research in radio astronomy. It’s a week long that’s filled with a dozen projects you can pick to be a part of (even more than one, which most of us did).

 

That was an amazing week! The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) hosts ERIRA every year and the telescopes sit in a valley in the middle of the Appalachian mountains in Green Bank, West Virginia. The largest directional radio telescope sits here (and pictured below!) with a whopping diameter of 100 meters. The telescope is so sensitive, you are not allowed to have WiFi, cameras, cell phones, laptops, regular phones, or desktop computers nearby and especially not outside. I’m not kidding! So for the week I was there I was isolated from the rest of the world, in this gorgeous, dark valley. At night you can see all the stars, count a satellite moving by a minute, and see the Milky Way. It was breath taking. Being unplugged for that entire week was rejuvenating. If you wanted access to your laptops and cell phones, you had to use them inside and could only use an ethernet. Computer labs are literally encased in a Faraday cage and you have to be sure to completely close the cage up when entering or leaving. The control room for the telescope is even in a Faraday cage.

What’s more is the city has something like a 15 mile radius of Radio Quiet Zone. Anyone living in Green Bank is not allowed to have WiFi or other popular technology that could interfere with the telescopes. In fact, there’s a neighbor there that was so disgruntled by the law that he not only got WiFi, but named his network something like “Ki$$MyA$$NRAO”. The city is becoming well known for its radio quietness because people who believe they are getting sick from electromagnetic radiation are moving there. This is not a legitimate disease! But anyway….

So, I didn’t hate radio astronomy. In fact I loved everything about it minus waking up at 2:00am to survey 3 hours worth of the night sky. That part I did not like so much. I decided to join like four groups and I studied the following:

 

  • Searched for pulsars
  • Studied parallax using Saturn’s moons
  • Measured the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy
  • Measured the heat flux from Jupiter

My favorite was measuring the mass of the Milky Way. I saw firsthand how people discovered dark matter! We took data for hours at night for the whole week and used a few simple physical equations to find the velocities of all of these objects. We then calculated the entire mass of the Milky Way using this. I remember I kept calculating the percent error over and over! I kept thinking, why am I getting 99% error on the Galactic mass?!!?!?!?!?! 

I went up to our instructor of this project and asked him this. He said, dark matter. And I was like OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!!!! I didn’t really know much about dark matter (and I still don’t) but that result was really intriguing.

I carried what I learned with me back to Radford and my mentor, Dr. Rhett Herman, suggested I continue my radio astronomy interests through an independent study. I said, I mean yeah why not?

The start of my junior year, I was full swing in taking hardcore physics classes like modern physics, electromagnetism, electronics, and now an independent study. We purchased a pretty inexpensive Radio Jove Kit, mainly funded by NASA. It came with everything I needed to build my own telescope and radio receiver and all I had to do was actually build it. This was a really fun time because I not only got access to the roof of the science hall on campus but I also got a key! It was awesome. I got to go up to the roof whenever I wanted to work on the antennae. Naturally I was up there all of the time.

I had to build the antennae, build the radio, and get a computer set up to be compatible with the radio and software. Then I needed a nice quiet space so I could listen to static. Yep, that’s the stuff.

Picture

 

We just became best friends if you know what movie this is 😉
I built it all. But something didn’t work. I think something went haywire in the radio receiver – maybe a burnt out amplifier. I’m still not sure. Unfortunately, it took a little while to realize I wasn’t listening to anything. I did my radio astronomy independent study for both fall and spring semesters of my junior year but sadly gave up, anticipating the preparation for the 2016 trip back to Barrow, Alaska. Which by this time, I was very involved with. I wouldn’t shut up about the Arctic ice.

 

In the spring of my junior year, Rhett asked me if I wanted to help him build some electronics to be deployed in Barrow, Alaska in June 2015. The purpose was to measure a few quantities about the microclimate (about 10 meters above the tundra surface) in order to see why Arctic bird populations chose certain nesting sites and whether or not these decisions led to their survival. That was an incredible experience! I’ll get to the actual deployment of the equipment later and for now, I’ll focus on the preparation – which there was a lot of.

This was a really fun project to work on and I show a few photos of me working on the prototypes over the spring semester above! Because we had such little funding for the project, we had to be super resourceful on how we built equipment. We knew we wanted to measure the microclimate of the tundra environment which we defined to be about 10 meters above the surface. We used garden sticks as long standing platforms to places sensors on. We wanted to keep track of temperature (and any gradient that may exist as you move away from the ground), humidity, wind speed, and pressure. There are some pretty cheap electronics that can make that happen. I extensively made use of Arduino hardware which utilizes a custom software to run the codes but is set up in C++ language.

 

We eventually realized a huge problem. The temperature sensors were so sensitive that when exposed to direct sunlight, they read out temperatures nearly 10 degrees higher than the true temperature of the air. The direct sunlight was likely to effect the other sensors too and we weren’t sure how to go about this for a few months. Then it eventually dawned on me how perfect field hockey practice cones are for this exact problem. So I threw these babies on top of every temperature sensor, mounted them down, and tried it out. It completely solved the problem. Thank goodness for my field hockey days or we might’ve been stuck on that part a lot longer!

During this same time in the spring semester, I was taking full time classes (and getting a small extra stipend as a research assistant for the equipment development). I’m pretty sure I was taking electromagnetic theory I and optics. I was T E R R I B L E in these classes. I’m fairly certain I got a D in theory and only managed to weasel out of taking the course again because it was technically an elective for me since I was an Earth & Space concentration physics major. Just as a reminder that while yes, things were really going well for me at this point in time in getting a lot of research experience, it’s not like I was this amazing overachiever always shocking people with my great performance. 

I got a B in optics but I knew I didn’t deserve it. The teacher was too nice to give me the C or D I truly deserved. Looking back, I could probably crush that course now because it’s all just algebra for the most part but for some reason I wasn’t as invested in this course and never took the time to sit down and really understand the material. I guess I was too busy building nesting location measurement devices!

In June 2015, the summer after my finishing my junior year, we went out as an interdisciplinary team: a physics crew to deploy the equipment and a biology crew to determine deployment locations and interpret results. We spent a week out there and it was amazing. I have so many great stories of bird watching out there! I truly appreciate the bird watching hobby now. Birds are fascinating. You’re probably thinking wow she really is a nerd but like, I literally watched birds of prey PREY on other birds! And I even saw a bird do a broken wing dance for me to try to lure me away from her nest. I had no idea I was anywhere near her nest at the time. I later got up and realized I had been sitting on it the entire time. Thank GOD the eggs were all still in tact.

Photos below are us in the Arctic tundra taking data real time! There are also a couple photos of a local presentation we did. The community there loves being clued in on what research scientists come to do in town. They are quite involved actually, in a great way. They are very supportive because they have seen first hand, generation after generation, of how anthropogenic climate change has impacted their ecosystems.

I wanted to end this post about my junior year with the internship I got that summer, which happened at the same time as my trip to Barrow in June. It was my junior year and this was my last chance, before thinking about what to do after graduation, to get some summer research experience in a paid internship (spoiler alert: all STEM internships and graduate school are paid for!!!).

 

I had applied to about 20 internship programs both my sophomore year for the summer of 2014 and again in my junior year for the summer of 2015. I got one acceptance. But that didn’t matter because I at least had one offer to pursue and gain more experience in. I was accepted into the College of William & Mary’s REU program that worked in collaboration with the NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC). Both of these are very close to my hometown. In fact, the NASA LaRC is IN my hometown and was only ten minutes away from my childhood home! So, I began packing and preparing for my 10 week paid internship in Williamsburg and possibly Hampton, depending on the project I was assigned. I, of course, chose to do all astronomy related topics but was assigned a material science topic. So just to reiterate that at this point, I had very little astronomy research experience, even though that was my passion. The goal in undergraduate school is to try to get your hands on any kind of research experience because the skillsets are typically very broad and will serve you well throughout your career. And it did for me. Not to mention, my supervisor at my internship wrote all of my recommendation letters to graduate schools.

Later in the fall of my senior year, the College of William & Mary paid to have me present my research at a Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) symposium in DC.

This also ended up being the same summer I did a college thing – I got a dog without telling my parents. This was around the time my mom kept saying she wanted another dog. My dad vehemently denied my mom getting a new dog. So my mom jokingly said one morning, Jordie you should bring a dog home that we will keep but your dad will be mad at you and not me. And I was like ha, I mean, yeah. I want a dog too! Only I wasn’t kidding.

Fast forward a couple weeks later, my boyfriend at the time had a brother who had recently taken on a stray beagle, Fievel. He was about 1 years old at the time of being found out in the wilderness of the Appalachia and was timid, shy, and very malnourished. I knew Fievel back then already as my boyfriend and I would sometimes take care of him in Radford. Unfortunately, Fievel’s current dog owner, after rescuing him, neutering him, vaccinating him, and giving him all of the things he needed, got a job that was pretty time consuming. It broke his heart to have to consider giving Fievel up to someone else but he knew he wouldn’t be able to give him the life he deserves while working 10 hours a day. I snatched up the opportunity. I remember coming home with Fievel, not saying a word about it at all to my parents, and just seeing their extremely angry reactions. My dad was throwing expletives all around saying how this isn’t a joke and I’m not financially stable to have my own pet and this and that. I mean it was all true. I should not have gotten a dog while broke, being completely dependent on my parents, and doing school full time. My mom “threw me under the bus” saying we did not agree to this! I said, Ma, this was YOUR idea. But damn, we sure were all one lucky bunch to have a dog like Fievel come into our lives. Twenty minutes after I had arrived home with a strange dog, Fievel and I were sitting on the couch just relaxing and watching TV. My dad comes in and pets Fievel and says, “Is he always that docile?”

I eventually renamed the dog to Ruca. Today, nearly five years later, my dad will insist on watching Ruca when I’ll be out of town or something (most recently, he offered to take care of Ruca while I adjusted up in Cambridge). We all love our little surprise addition. I truly was so lucky to make such an impulsive decision on such an easy, happy-go-lucky dog. He’s been by my side ever since!

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Goodness he’s so young here! Circa Sept. 2015, just a few months after getting Ruca. This was in my old Radford apartment!

Writing all of this, I’ve realized I’ve unpacked A LOT. My junior year seemed to be one of the most exciting years from undergrad. If you want to know more about any of these experiences or how I applied to various programs or whatever it is, feel free to comment below or contact me!

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