SWPS Scientist: Melanie Archipley and IAYC

melanieMy name is Melanie and I am a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s physics, astronomy, and German departments. For many undergrads, spring semester is the time to plan and apply for their summer break. It can be a window for going home, working, staying in Berkeley to do full-time research, participating in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), doing an internship, or traveling – which are all fantastic options. One of the best decisions I made in college was to participate in the International Astronomical Youth Camp (IAYC), and I’d like to share with you why you should consider this program for part of your summer.

I first heard about the IAYC through a Facebook post in a physics group, advertised as a summer camp in Europe for 16-24 year olds interested in astronomy. I was attracted to the idea of being able to combine travel to Europe with my astrophysics major, but when I got there, it became so much more than just those two passions. In just three weeks, I was able to form connections with 70 science students from 30 different countries. We were segmented into working groups, which have an overall topic – such as particle physics, cultural astronomy, rover robotics, and so much more – in which people partner up on a specific project tailored to their educational background. The leaders form their groups while balancing nationality, gender, and age so that each group is a deliberate mixture of identities and backgrounds. At the end of the camp, partnerships write a formal report on their project, which gets consolidated and published in a beautiful report book and keepsake. Though “astronomy” is in the name, it is for students studying all disciplines – including math, engineering, chemistry, physics, and others – who have an interest in the program.

Unlike a summer school or REU, the IAYC maintains a camp-like atmosphere. There is no internet allowed and connecting over games, music, sports, and competitions is stressed instead. We have a rigid daily schedule of eating, working, relaxing, and bonding activities, with two days during the camp that are for a “field trip” and free day. In 2015 in Germany, we visited the Karl Schwarzschild Observatory in Jena, Germany. In 2017 in Spain, we visited the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid, Spain. In 2018 in the UK, you’ll have to come to see where we go! My favorite part about the IAYC is the passionate and talented people who attend. On one of the most special nights, people from each country put together a short presentation about their country. It’s a chance to share culture such as dance and dress, show off your country’s food (USA brought pop rocks in 2017), make people laugh, or even share political sentiments, such as from the perspective of a student in a conflict-filled country. During this event alone, I learned more about far corners of the world than I ever did in school.

The IAYC is an incredibly unique learning experience and environment. Everyone meeting the age requirement can apply – there is no GPA requirement, no prior research experience or skills needed, and no letters of recommendation to chase after. The application simply consists of a motivation letter in which you describe why you want to come, how the experience would benefit you, and how accepting you would benefit the camp. Applications for summer 2018 are open at apply.iayc.org until April 7th, and you can contact me at melanie@iayc.org if you have questions!

SWPS Scientist: Clio Sleater

clio I am a PhD student in the physics department, where I study with Prof. Steve Boggs at U.C. Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. My research is in the field of high energy astrophysics, the study of X-rays and gamma-rays emitted from astrophysical objects. The focus of my group is to develop novel instruments to detect gamma-rays from space. Currently, we are working on the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), a balloon-borne gamma-ray telescope. COSI is designed to measure polarization from compact objects such as neutron stars, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts; map the 511 keV positron annihilation line from the Galactic plane and bulge; and image lines of radioactive decay to learn more about stellar nucleosynthesis.

COSI is sensitive to photons in the energy range of 0.2-5 MeV, known as soft or medium energy gamma-rays (depending on who you ask). This energy range is referred to as the MeV gap and is the least astrophysically explored range across the electromagnetic spectrum. Due to high instrumental and atmospheric backgrounds, low interaction cross-sections, and the inherent difficulty of imaging at these energies, the sensitivity of MeV telescopes is currently much worse than the sensitivity of telescopes in neighboring energy ranges. Though many challenges come with observing MeV gamma-rays, this energy range is scientifically rich: we can learn a lot about signatures of stellar nucleosynthesis, positron annihilation, and emission from the most extreme environments.

MeV gamma-rays primarily interact with matter via a process called Compton scattering. To detect these gamma-rays, COSI utilizes 12 high purity Germanium detectors. When incoming gamma-rays Compton scatter in the COSI detectors, we use our understanding of Compton scattering to determine where in the sky the gamma-rays came from, as well as to measure the energy and polarization of the incoming gamma-ray. Because gamma-rays are absorbed in the atmosphere, gamma-ray telescopes need to be in space to study astrophysical objects. COSI is carried into space by a scientific balloon filled with helium, where it floats in the uppermost regions of the atmosphere. Balloons are much cheaper than satellites, so they are a great platform to develop new instruments.

I spent the first few years of my PhD working on building and calibrating the COSI instrument. My roles on the project have included testing and installing our shielding and cooling subsystems, writing the monitoring and commanding software, and any random tasks that need to get done. In the early summer of 2014, we built up COSI in our lab at Berkeley for the first time and tested it to ensure that it was working as expected. We then immediately took it apart and shipped the components to the NASA ballooning facility in Palestine, Texas. There, we spent two months rebuilding the instrument, this time including key components that NASA provided such as telemetry, batteries and solar panels. Once we had confirmed that our detectors were not adversely affected by noise from the NASA electronics, we concluded that COSI was ready to go to space!

Because mishaps can happen during balloon launches and flights, it’s best to launch in unpopulated areas. NASA has a couple of launch sites throughout the globe, including Palestine, Texas; Fort Sumner, New Mexico; McMurdo Station in Antarctica; and Wanaka, New Zealand. When launching from Palestine and Fort Sumner, the flights can only last about a day or two. When launching from McMurdo or Wanaka, however, the winds push the balloon over much less populated areas (Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean, respectively); thus, the balloon flight can last up to 56 days (the world record), or in theory even longer.

In November of 2014, we traveled to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to launch COSI. We worked day and night to get our instrument ready for launch by the first week of December. Once we were launch ready, we had to wait for the weather to be good enough to launch — basically, we need very low wind. COSI launched on December 28, 2014. Unfortunately, the balloon developed a leak during the second day of flight and the mission was terminated shortly thereafter. Another graduate student in my group went to recover the instrument on the Antarctic ice shelf, and it returned to Berkeley in April 2015 in good working order.

In February of 2016, we left for another balloon launch, this time from Wanaka, New Zealand. Again, we spent the first month of the trip preparing the payload for launch. This time, we had to wait 6 weeks for the weather to be good enough to launch! While waiting, we explored the beautiful area around Wanaka and some of us (myself included) got really into knitting. COSI finally launched on May 17, 2016. This time, the balloon remained healthy, and we had a 46 day flight! The payload eventually came down in Peru. Once again, we recovered the instrument and it’s now back in Berkeley.

During our 2016 flight, we got great exposure of the Galactic center and detected one gamma-ray burst. We also detected three compact objects including the Crab nebula (my area of study). Since then, I’ve been working on analyzing the data. It’s been quite a change going from working in the lab to sitting at a computer all day long, but the variety of the work I’ve done with COSI has made for an interesting and rewarding grad school experience!

To learn more about COSI and our adventures in Antarctica and New Zealand, check out cosi.ssl.berkeley.edu.

SWPS Scientist: Alexis Shusterman

alexisI study in the UC Berkeley Department of Chemistry under Prof. Ron Cohen, who is also on the faculty in the Earth & Planetary Sciences department. Our research group looks at just about anything and everything under the interdisciplinary umbrella term of “atmospheric chemistry,” and for the last four and half years I’ve been working on the BErkeley Atmospheric CO2 Observation Network–or the “BEACO2N” project.

BEACO2N is a web of about 50 little air quality monitoring stations spread around the East Bay (although two of my coworkers are installing another 20 sensors in Houston, Texas as I type!). BEACO2N measures greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, but also pollutants that can be directly harmful to human health, like carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. I like to think of BEACO2N as an HD-TV for urban air pollution. Conventional monitoring techniques use one to five sites to try to get an average idea of the air quality across an entire city or region; that’s like trying to watch your favorite movie on a screen that only has a handful of blurry pixels. With BEACO2N, we’ve bumped up the number of pixels by an order of magnitude, giving us a much higher definition picture of pollution levels across the Bay Area. No one breathes “average” air and no one pollutes uniformly across a large area, so having neighborhood-level resolution allows us to study air quality on the spatial scales at which urban life actually occurs.

Of course, this is easier said than done–otherwise, everyone would be doing it! In order to assemble ten times as many sensor stations, we need to purchase parts that are (at least) ten times cheaper, and as with many things in life, you get what you pay for. Most of my work has focused on a comprehensive characterization of these lower cost technologies using a combination of controlled laboratory experiments and in field comparisons to more expensive systems. I’ve found that even modest sensors are able to provide useful information, so long as you possess a good understanding of their capabilities and are careful to ask appropriate scientific questions. Right now I’m developing mathematical models that can separate the slow, regional variations in pollution levels from the short-term, local pollution spikes specific to individual BEACO2N sites, or “hotspots.” While the regional changes can be influenced by outside factors like weather or pollution wafting in from the Pacific Ocean, the local changes are more likely to be the result of a single highway, building, or power plant. Isolating the “local signal” will allow us to give community members and policy makers information on where pollution is likely coming from and how to more effectively reduce pollution in their neighborhood in the future.

My favorite part about BEACO2N is the immediate potential to make a positive difference. We make all of our data publicly available online because we believe that everyone has the right to know what’s in the air they breathe. I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my work in cafes, classrooms, museums, even the capitol building in Sacramento, and it’s clear from the audience’s reactions that air quality and climate change are issues that people care deeply about. I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of such an important project–it makes all of the sweltering rooftops and bird poop-covered instruments totally worth it!

Hello world!

This is our brand new SWPS website. Information is still being added to this site, but most of what you need to know about SWPS can be found here. Welcome!