IfA REU Program Celebrates 10 Years
by Louise Good
Summer 2010 REU students on the catwalk of the UH 2.2-meter telescope. Photo by Paul Coleman.
This summer the IfA Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program celebrated its tenth year. Each summer, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported undergraduate students from colleges and universities throughout the United States who spend about 10 weeks during the summer working with IfA scientists and engineers on research programs. Many of the students have reported on their projects at scientific meetings, and some have published papers in scientific journals.
Some REU students have gone on to astronomy graduate school, including five who chose to attend graduate school here at IfA. Mark Pitts (REU 2001) and Trent Dupuy (2003) were the first REU students to become IfA graduate students. Other former REU students now at IfA are Garrett Elliott (2006), Kirsten Larson (2007), and first-year graduate student Kimberly Aller (2009). Caitlin Casey (2006) has returned to IfA as a Hubble postdoctoral fellow.
Asked about his time as an REU student at IfA, Pitts says, "The experience with Bob Joseph was a great one. I got to know many of the then-IfA-grads, and they gave me a rough idea of what being a grad student here was like." Elliott adds, "Having an REU program helps to bring IfA to the attention of the many undergraduates who are becoming more active in seeking summer research programs. I chose to pursue graduate work at the IfA because it provided a positive research experience that I used as a benchmark when considering other graduate schools. I felt none of my alternative options matched up."
IfA's REU program began in 2001 after the faculty asked Jim Heasley to apply for an NSF grant to start the program. IfA received a five-year grant, and for the first year, NSF provided supplementary funds for a Research Experiences for Teachers program that brought Mary Kadooka from McKinley High School and Tom Chun from Kamehameha Schools. Kadooka now works at IfA as the astronomy research/education specialist. She organizes and teaches astronomy workshops for middle and high school students and teachers. Chun has also maintained an interest in astronomy education at Kamehameha Schools.
The program has grown from a one-island operation to encompass all three IfA offices. This year the program supported three students on Maui, three on O`ahu, and four in Hilo. In addition, the University of Hawai`i NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) supported four students, two more were supported by other grants, and one student paid her own way.
"I'm amazed at the caliber of students we get," says Paul Coleman, current REU chair. He received over 280 applications for the 10 NSF-funded positions, and he is pleased that there are more potential mentors than there are positions for students. He urges mentors to select someone who has not had a previous REU position. He notes that while some applicants come from highly ranked schools such as Harvard and Princeton, others come from smaller, less celebrated schools, such as Whitman College. He remembers fondly his first REU student, who came from Oberlin College, insisted on defining his own project, and carried it out very successfully.
The program has long included giving the students an opportunity to go observing on Mauna Kea. However, this was not always possible, so for the last two years, Coleman has arranged for a group tour of Mauna Kea. It includes a sunset tour of Gemini Observatory, a chance to watch observing until about 9 p.m., staying overnight at Hale Pohaku, and spending the next day at `Imiloa Astronomy Center.
But the heart of the program is doing research with a mentor. This year, many postdoctoral fellows, as well as faculty members, served as mentors. Victoria Hartwick (University of Wisconsin-Madison) worked with NAI postdoctoral fellow Gal Sarid to model the interior of Comet Tempel 1; David Schenck (University of Arizona) worked with postdoc Josh Walawender and astronomer Bo Reipurth to prepare a small telescope on Mauna Loa to observe comets; and Thomas O'Connor, an engineering student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute mentored by astronomer Don Hall, studied how detector electronics can interfere with observing.
The application for the 2011 REU program at IfA will be available online by the beginning of next year. Coleman anticipates another bumper crop of qualified applicants.