Invasion of the Interns! SULI Students Do Cutting-edge Science at KIPAC

Oct 11, 2015

By Lori Ann White

We recently caught up with five of the undergraduate physics students who spent their summer at KIPAC through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program. SULI, sponsored by the Department of Energy, gives talented undergraduates the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research at a DOE laboratory; the summer sessions are 10 weeks long. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory served as the host lab and the students were housed on the Stanford University campus. Their research could take place in either location.

Meet our undergrads (L to R):
Ryan Dungee (RD), from Las Vegas, NV is now a super senior at the University of Pennsylvania. His SULI mentor was KIPAC staff scientist Kevin Reil.  
Megan Splettstoesser (MS), originally from Los Angeles, is now a junior at UC Santa Cruz. Her SULI mentor was KIPAC postdoc Philipp Mertsch.
Alex Gibson (AG), from San Leandro, CA is now a junior at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in New York. His SULI mentor was KIPAC research associate Andrea Albert.
Spencer Everett (SE), from Kansas City, Missouri, is now a senior at DePaul University in Chicago. His SULI mentor was KIPAC staff scientist Phil Marshall.
Jarred Gillette (JG), from Eureka, CA is also starting his super-senior year at UC Santa Cruz. His SULI mentors were KIPAC staff scientist Nicola Omodei and KIPAC postdoc Giacomo Vianello.

Each student was assigned a KIPAC scientist as a mentor; the scientist could be faculty or staff. Each arrived with at least two years of college instruction as declared majors in their schools' Physics or Astrophysics programs, but they had little else in common. Some students were interested in theory, some in computational physics, some in building hardware. The undergrads also had varying levels of certainty about their career paths when they arrived. Did their time at KIPAC give them a clearer picture of what it means to be a scientist?

Let's find out.

LW:  Tell us a little bit about yourselves first:  Have you had any opportunities to work on specific projects yet, or has it all been coursework and labs?

AG:  My high school in San Leandro has 4000 students.  I specifically wanted a small liberal arts college and Hartwick is tiny—2000 students or so.  

LW:  That's about half the size—

AG:  Of high school, yeah. There are three physics professors. For upper-level physics we just meet with our professors and do the work. I am working on a project but it's not done yet.

SE:  For the last two summers I've been doing a research project with a faculty member at DePaul who is a cosmologist. I was using SDSS [Sloan Digital Sky Survey] data, so I didn't need a scope, I just got the public data. Because we have such great telescopes in Chicago. (Laughter.)

MS: I did some work with radio. It's the opposite end of the spectrum from here.

JG:  A project with Hubble data.

LW:  How did you find out about SULI?

MS:  I was at a little festival at campus and standing in line for ice cream. I saw a girl I always see in my TA's office that I didn't have any classes with and she told me about it, since she'd already done it. I think I was pretty lucky.

SE:  The program is a bit under the radar—my school didn't tell me much about undergrad programs.  (Nodding heads all around.) My advisor mentioned it once but that's all I heard.

LW:  How did you decide on SLAC as the lab you wanted to come to?

SE:  I found a link to the KIPAC page and the KIPAC page is awesome. It's the whole reason I applied—I'm a sucker for flashy web sites. I found [KIPAC Director] Tom Abel's page and I got really excited, and I emailed him asking him a lot of questions, asking for life advice but it was taking him a while to answer, as I'm sure he is very busy. When I actually met him he was super-nice though.

JG:  I had a professor at Cabrillo Community College, where I went before UCSC, who was a postdoc here. I was getting really tired of filling out applications for undergraduate research programs—it's hard to find something really good—and he told me about it.

LW:  What are you working on here?

RD:  I was supposed to work on LSST but the camera wasn't ready yet so I moved to DESI [the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument]. It's a pretty unique project. Usually telescopes find ways to cool everything down but we can't do that here—the DESI guidance system has to work at ambient temperature.

LW:   How's it going?

RD:   I've been playing around with a lot of dark exposures with cameras. We're making some progress but in the past few days it's been kind of rough. The data I've been getting is the opposite of what was expected.  

But I'm really big into playing with hardware and hands-on things so I’m really happy having this camera on my desk that I can just plug into my computer and take images.  So what I'm working on is a good fit for me.

MS:  I've been working on an analysis of the Fermi bubbles. I hadn't even heard of them before but I absolutely like what I'm doing. I really like that Philipp wants me to understand the math behind the diffusion equation.

SE:  I'm interested in weak lensing—

LW:   But your mentor, Phil Marshall, works on strong lensing.

SE:  I'm working with the Millennium model simulation to clean up weak lensing of strongly lensed systems. I'm just trying to make a model [for which the public code can be found here]. Spherical galaxies, not spherical cows. (Laughter.)

AG:  I'm working on Monte Carlo simulations of gamma ray emissions in a one-degree box of sky—it's dark matter-related and it's pretty cool. I've never formally taken a stats class. I've sort of jumped into the waters. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty simple. It's kind of a pain waiting 13 hours for a program to run, though.

JG:  I'm doing data analysis on Pass 8 stuff using a code that they wrote for gamma-ray bursts. I'm trying to model how they behave.

Since it's new data my mentor wasn't really sure what to expect, and he didn't expect what I'm finding. We're a little surprised that the data is so good. I didn't just get an upper limit, I actually made a measurement.  

There's a bit of figuring out how Nicola's code works, though. Like a lot of physicists, he's not heavy on the commenting side. (Laughter.)

SE:  I was a pretty sloppy coder—I don't think my advisor has ever written a comment in his life—but Phil is the most organized coder I've ever met. Working with him has helped me.

LW:   What's one of your favorite things about your stay here?

SE:  We were given a tour, and SSRL [the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource] felt so much more physics-y than this building [the Kavli building]. There's duct tape on the wall!

AG:  We should put tin foil on the walls in here. (Laughter.)

JG:  It's very different working with gamma rays. It's been fun.

AG:  It feels like we just got here but we're already halfway through. It's a sign that it's fun.

RD:  I think it's amazing. This place is totally amazing.  I already knew I wanted to do instrumentation, and I thought maybe some AMO [Atomic, Molecular, and Optical physics], some plasma, but now that's totally out the window. I know I want to build telescopes.

LW:   How has this experience changed your picture of what a scientist does? Or has it?

RD:  The research I've done might actually change the design of the project. It makes me feel really good.

AG:  I like how it feels like everyone contributes. I thought I'd be working on a much more individual basis but you have to ask lots of people for help.

SE:  It's really cool to be part of the planning of a big project. You feel you're actually part of something much, much larger and it feels really good. Plus I think I had a Leonard Susskind sighting—but I panicked. (Laughter.)  

I would come right back here for grad school. Please, please take me back!

MS:  It's been a really fantastic experience. It's really important to do research at institutions other than your own. The community here is more outgoing than I thought it would be. Everyone is very friendly, very helpful. They even seem able to ask good questions when it's not their area.

I've gotten much more insight into how the scientists here really do science. Not just seeing the results, but seeing how they plan projects, what they're going to do, what they're not going to do. That's so important.

This place is just really cool!


------ More information on the DOE SULI program can be found here.