Make it the Best Time of Your Life.

Hi! My name is AJ and here I am with the GEMINI Observatory in Chile at about 7-am after a long and wonderful night of observing. Read below to find out how I made the best of my time during the College Experience.

The best advice I can give to an incoming freshman all the way up to an outgoing senior is: DO something.

It has been the best decision that I have made in all of my years at the University of Arkansas. It doesn’t even matter what you do, just do more than the normal “college classes” experience. College is about so much more than that! Even though occasionally I have been so freaked out about everything going on that all I could do was roll around on the floor in distress, I have made it (almost, graduation is so close!) Here are just a few ways I made the most of my college career.

Summer 1

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Freshman Research Program.

I applied for this on a whim. I received a random letter in the mail (I still do not know how they got my contact information) for this freshman program, which allows you to start doing research immediately upon entering college. The program was not exactly in a topic I was particularly interested in (chemistry) but it was the foot in the door I needed to enter a research laboratory, and it did become more physics related as I went. It whetted my appetite for research and drove me to pursue it even harder. With Dr. Lin Oliver (physics department) I studied vesicle properties and interactions with the peptide lipin by observing the very tiny particles using a process known as dynamic light scattering.

My poster on my work with HHMI at the Sigma Pi Sigma Conference in Fermilab, a research laboratory in Batavia, IL near Chicago.

Summer 2

McDonald Observatory Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

To this day, I still affirm that this was my all-time favorite overall experience. The thing is, the McDonald (not McDonald’s the restaurant, but an observatory founded by a wealthy banker named McDonald) Observatory is located in the middle of West Texas. The closest Walmart is approximately three hours away.

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  • Living on a mountaintop
  • Living on a mountaintop means that you are removed from many outside distractions such as: [place almost anything you find distracting here].
  • Waking up every morning (in this case going to bed at 6 a.m. after a night of observation) and seeing the sun rise over an empty valley really gives you an unique perspective.
  • Seeing only about 10 people on a regular and daily basis can also give you a unique perspective and it also allows you to form strong relationships (friends, enemies, or other).
  • Seeing the Milky Way EVERY night! ‘nough said.
  • Being chased by a mountain lion….
  • Never encountering traffic, ever.
  • Hearing visiting astronomers talk about how to make a conveyer belt-type transportation system out of black holes while representing the “black holes” using restaurant-sized salt shakers (spinning by hand included).
  • Eating ice cream every day (even if it means you have to crawl through the dish window at midnight because the door to the kitchen is locked).
  • And I have to include the possibility of meeting the love of your life in the most unlikely of places (I met my fiancé—he was working at the boy scout ranch an hour away, close for that place).
  • This list could go on for ages. Email me if you are really that curious!

Looking over the valley from the catwalks of the McDonald Observatory. Photo Credit: Rachel Wilkerson.

In addition to all of these wonderful experiences I had a fantastic time studying the properties of the white dwarf star BPM 37093. This star is also referred to as “Lucy”, as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” because approximately 80% to 90% of it is composed of diamond-material; in fact, it is quite literally a diamond in the sky.

The REU group from the McDonald Observatory REU 2009 on the catwalk of the 107” telescope. That’s me, second from the right. Behind us is a rainstorm on the left and the 82” telescope on the right. Photo Credit: Rachel Wilkerson.

Spring, Junior Year

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory REU, Chile.

This was the semester when I decided that I didn’t care if I took longer than four years to graduate. Because goshdarnit! I wanted to go to Chile, work for another observatory, and be paid for having the time of my life! You can never lose with that combination. And then began my first experience living abroad, working, but having just as much fun as ever!

Chile is an absolutely amazing country, as I am sure most students would say about the country they studied abroad in. You can’t lose when it comes to traveling to another country. Even if at the time it seems like you are never going to get over culture shock, figure out where you are because you can’t speak the language, or can’t find anything “normal” to eat. You will always be in awe of that experience.

One of my favorite things was learning to do astrophotography while in Chile. Standing on the edge of a mountain and searching for that best shot of the Milky Way is a singularly unique and perfect experience. It’s even better when you catch a satellite in your lens or an iridium flare.

The GEMINI Observatory. Overhead, the Large Magellanic Cloud (another galaxy).

GEMINI Observatory

The 1-m telescope looking out through the dome of the telescope towards the Milky Way.

The research I did at CTIO was quite different from what I was used to. Before, I had been focusing on stellar properties (such as exactly how much of Lucy is a diamond) but this time I went a different route.  The Sloan Digital Sky Survey contains what feels like an endless supply of information about an endless number of objects. All of the data there is open to the public (you can use it!) and tons of numbers everywhere. I used this information to investigate why some galaxies have radio emissions and why others don’t. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’ll let you know if I do!


Summer 3, Part 1

Austin, TX (self-motivated research project)

Not the best of my experiences to say the least. During this summer I found out about the challenges in research from a new perspective. I have the greatest respect and esteem for the team I worked with in Austin. I learned a lot from them, but I did not have the best time. Since this was not a REU or another type of program, but something I had organized directly with the professor, I was quite often lonely and occasionally sad. I had difficulty with the work because of this and also because my mentor and I did not have an easy time understanding one another. We both had very different ways of thinking. This is a possibility for all research projects. The best way to handle it is with optimism, hard work, and perseverance. Hang in there!

Summer 3 Part 2: A new project and back in Arkansas

After being a bit lonely it was very nice to return to Arkansas, my apartment, and all my friends. I took a summer class and I worked on my new project, which I would soon use for my honors thesis. Working with Dr. Claud Lacy was fantastic after having difficulties with my previous mentor. If you like organization, lightening-speed email responses, and not much interference and over-the-shoulder-peaking-at-your-work distraction then Dr. Lacy is the mentor for you!

Summer 4

Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Internship.

Here is revealed the switch in my career pursuits. After so many years of lots of communication with computers and little communication with the outside world I came to the realization that I wanted to go into science writing and astronomy education. The decision: Get an internship with anyone that would have me so that I could talk to everyone I saw about how awesome science and astronomy are. I applied to the National Air and Space Museum and hopped around on my toes for a long time hoping I would hear back.

No response…


I guess I’ll apply somewhere else…

The day that I sent in applications to the Iowa Science Center and the Forth Worth Museum of Science and History I got a call from NASM, “You got it!” and I lost my cool. There was much yipping and jumping around and accidentally running into objects. Getting those acceptance calls/letters/responses is always one of the best things to brighten a day.

And so I spent a summer at the NASM as an astronomy education intern. I worked with absolutely fantastic and amazing people and confirmed that I had made the perfect move in career choice.

Every day was filled with people I had never seen before (and occasionally someone I had: Kathleen Lehman, our physics librarian at the U of A came and stopped by to see me on my first day of work!) I stood out in the hot and humid D.C. summer to show people the sun, smiling constantly because little kids almost always freak out when they see a prominence (ejection of plasma) on the sun. I created a planetarium show on light pollution. The kids loved the part when I turned off the “streetlight” and they could see ALL the stars. The planetarium was filled with oooo’s, aaaaa’s, and just shouts of amazement in general. It was a very good summer.

Working with visitors inside the Public Observatory at the National Air and Space Museum. Here we are looking at sunspots using our Sun Gun.

One of my favorite nights was Astronomy Night on the Mall. Watch the video of it here.

I even got to write a couple blogs (one with my friend Lauren, the other Astronomy Ed. Intern) for NASM’s blog.

From Earth to the Solar System Blog

Astronomy Night at the Museum Blog

During my very last planetarium show I had a couple new attendees, the executive and associate directors of the International Dark Sky Association! They really enjoyed the show, so much in fact that now my planetarium show is in the works to make its way across the nation and inspire kids everywhere to fight light pollution because they saw the stars that one time at the planetarium. I can also say, hurrah for summer and crazy adventures.

So again I say to you. No matter your age, your designation, class, or whatever you want to call or classify yourself as. DO Something, now and always.

College is the best time of your life, right. Nobody said that ever meant it would be easy, but you can definitely make it as interesting as possible and if you don’t succeed in everything along the way (see Summer 3 Part 1) all that really matters is that you take something away with you to improve the next experience.

Now while you’re inspired, go send in an application for anything!

This entry was posted in Advice/Tips, Astronomy, Chile, Internships, J.William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, Physics, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

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