My name is Andrew Sturner and I am now a senior astronomy-physics major. I have the privilege of beginning the Astronoblog’s 2011 Summer Research Updates series, where each member of Haverford’s Astronomy Department doing astronomical research will blog about his or her summer project and experiences. This year, every upper-level student in the department who wanted to work in astronomy found an off-campus position, funded through NSF-sponsored programs (including the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium), the Haverford College Center of Peace and Global Citizenship, and the Haverford College KINSC Summer Stipend program. The incredibly high percentage of our department doing research this summer is truly a testament to the strength of our academic program and cause for celebration.
This summer, I am working with the Solar and Stellar X-Ray Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA with Dr. Kelly Korreck. The goal of my project is to characterize the temperature of active regions on the solar limb before, during, and after a flare event. In less dense language, this means that I am studying how the atmosphere of the Sun heats up and cools down around the time that a solar flare occurs. A solar flare is an extremely complicated (and not truly well-understood) process that occurs when the magnetic fields of the Sun, which store vast amounts of energy, suddenly realign in such a way that the field cannot hold as much energy as before. The “extra” energy is transferred to the plasma, or ionized gas, that is in the Sun’s atmosphere, causing it to heat up. The sudden heating creates an explosion, and millions of tons of hot plasma are thrown off into space. Solar flares are truly beautiful events, and the high-resolution satellite images that I work with every day never fail to be wonderful and awesome, in the literal sense.
Even though I tend to work past quitting time and sneak in extra hours on the weekends, the past two and a half weeks have not been only staring at a computer screen. I have been effectively absorbed by the Smithsonian’s Solar REU program, with 6 other undergraduate students from across the country (plus one from Scotland!). We, together with the Smithsonian’s other REU program which invites students to study non-solar branches of astronomy (from quasars to dust storms on Mars), attend colloquia on various astronomical topics, tutorials on various programming languages and research tools (such as the ADS and DS9 (both are CfA projects!)), lectures on applying to graduate schools, etc. We also have had a number of fun adventures to visit the Boston aquarium and the fine art museum, to eat brunch at a traditional dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, and to observe on the University’s telescopes, among others events. I even got to attend the Bruins parade last Saturday following their victory in the Stanley Cup Final. And nurturing my other life as a track athlete, I have met up with several different local running clubs and explored the city quite extensively on foot.
Several days after I started at the CfA, I had an epiphany: I have finally found “it”. The people, the work, the sense of excitement- this is the type of place where I see myself spending the next 40+ years. It is a difficult feeling to characterize, and I’m not sure how to describe it to someone who has never had this experience, except that it is simultaneously calming and exhilarating. Last summer, I was interested by my physics research project, but this summer is a whole new ballpark in terms of the passion I feel for what I am doing. And the solar astronomy family has a very strong and developed sense of teamwork, collaboration, and respect for each other, and their enthusiasm for the their work is highly infectious. I am beyond grateful to the Haverford College KINSC Steering Committee for giving me this life-altering opportunity.
If you want to learn more about my research project or about the sun in general, please visit my research blog at approachingeddington.blogspot.com. Thanks, and I hope everyone is enjoying the Sun this summer as much as I am!