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Undergraduate Summer Research at the IfA

by Jonathan Williams, REU coordinator

REU students
REU students: Jennifer Pollack (from the New College of Florida), James Wray (Princeton), Jennifer Katz (Columbia), Carolyn Peruta (Arizona), Desiree Cotto-Figueroa (University of Puerto Rico at Humacao), Adrienne Dove (University of Missouri-Columbia), Kyle Dolan (Lawrence University, Wisconsin), Joshua Shiode (Boston University), Ahia Dye (UH Hilo), and Claire Bendersky (Mount Holyoke). Photo by Jonathan Williams.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program continued for a fifth year in 2005. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), this program brings talented undergraduate physics and astronomy majors from across the country to the IfA. The students arrive in late May or early June and work with a faculty mentor on a research project for 10 weeks. They present their results to the Institute in a one-day seminar in early August and often continue research at their home institution in the fall. Most students will also present their work at the national American Astronomical Society winter conference that will be held in January 2006 in Washington, D.C.

There are 23 REU astronomy sites at a range of universities and observatories throughout the United States, but the allure of Hawaii and Mauna Kea naturally makes the IfA program extremely popular. We receive over 200 applications for the 8 to 10 positions available each year. The students live together in the campus dormitories and work in a classroom that is temporarily converted to a common workplace. Attending seminars, making observing runs, and socializing with graduate students and faculty, they quickly become part of the Institute.

This year, the faculty mentors were Ann Boesgaard, Lysa Chizmadia, Paul Coleman, Harald Ebeling, Christ Ftaclas, Nader Haghighipour, Lisa Kewley, Michael Liu, and David Sanders. Research topics ranged from meteoritics to starburst galaxies. Papers of their work are posted on the Web at

We now have 39 alumni from the program. Past students have gone on to graduate studies in physics, mathematics, medicine, and of course, astronomy. Two (Mark Pitts and Trent Dupuy) are among the current graduate students at the IfA. The NSF supports REU programs in many scientific disciplines throughout the United States. All are designed specifically to nurture the next generation of homegrown scientists, so only U.S. citizens and permanent residents may apply.

One of the current goals of the IfA REU program is to encourage students from Hawaii, whether they attend school in Hawaii or on the mainland, to apply. We have obtained an additional three years of funding from the NSF and hope to be able to continue our program at the IfA for many more years to come.

The REU experience doesn't necessarily end in August. For example, Jennifer Pollack is continuing her study of four hundred galaxies as her senior thesis at the New College of Florida. Her chief REU mentor, Lisa Kewley, praised Pollack as "very hard working" and eager to understand what is a very difficult subject even for professional astronomers. "I think the REU program helped Jennifer decide that astronomy is what she wants to do," Kewley said. She added that the REU program gives the IfA faculty and the REU students a chance to know each other before the student decides on a graduate school and before the faculty look at applications from prospective graduate students, so both benefit.