OUTERSPACE

Checking in on the future of SETI science


 

Updates from previous SETI Institute REU interns

The future of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) hinges on educating the next generation of scientists who can keep the search going for generations to come.

Because of generous donor support, a cohort of talented undergraduate students conduct research at the SETI Institute each summer as part of the organization’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. These students come from educational institutions from around the world and specialize in a variety of sciences that represent all aspects of the Drake equation, from how solar systems form to how to search for alien megastructures. Because of gifts from passionate supporters, the SETI Institute hosted two additional undergraduates during summer 2022.

SETI Institute interns are paired with mentors at the SETI Institute who guide their research during the summer, and many REU students continue their work in SETI science and astrobiology, often earning Ph.D.s and paying it forward by guiding younger students passionate about understanding the universe.

Here is a look at what a few previous SETI Institute internships have been up to since their REU experience.

2020

Kierra Wilk
Spectroscopy Pathways Intern at NASA Goddard

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
I was working with Dr. Janice Bishop using Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) data to study an aqueous outcrop at Ius Chasma, Mars that exhibited unusual spectral features. 

What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am a second year PhD student in Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University working with Dr. Jack Mustard. I am interested in lunar volatiles and right now I am working on laboratory experiments to better understand spectral water features and remotely sensed signals. I am also a part of the NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
Prior to my internship at the SETI Institute, I was really interested in applying to graduate school, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to study. Broadly, I knew that I was interested in planetary science and/or astrobiology but my research experience in these topics was limited. After working with on my project with Dr. Bishop, I quickly realized that I enjoyed using both remotely sensed data and spectroscopy to study other planets. The internship at the SETI Institute provided me direction in what I wanted to study in graduate school. 

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
One of the most memorable moments of my internship was before the internship even began! My internship cohort was during 2020, the first summer during COVID-19. When I first was accepted into the program, I remember being so excited, only for the country to shut down a day later. For a while it was uncertain as to whether the internship program would transition to remote participation or be canceled. I was so thankful when it was finally decided the program would carry on remotely and it will be a memory that sticks with me. Something I was the proudest of during my internship was when I received the Best Student Presentation award at the end of the summer.  

2019

Rowan Huang
Planetary Science Graduate Student at the University of Arizona

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
My advisor was Virginia Gulick, and I was working on the geomorphology of erosional features and the history of water on Mars.

What are you currently working on?
I’m at the University of Arizona continuing my work on Mars with Ginny!

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
This internship gave me a great opportunity to figure out what I wanted to do with my career, and how I can combine my interests in geology, space science, and math. It also gave me valuable experience working in a professional setting and learning what a career in research would be like.

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
I have a lot of great memories, but one of my favorites was visiting the Hat Creek Radio Observatory and walking out to the field of radio telescopes at night. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars so clearly. As a geologist, I’m looking down at the ground a lot; but this experience reminds me why I want to turn things around and look out 🙂

2018

Emma Turtelboom
Astronomy Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley

Emma Turtelbloom

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
I worked with Ann Marie Cody at the Kepler/K2 Guest Observe Office at NASA Ames, and the wider lightkurve team based there. Over the summer, I analyzed an image of the M35 open cluster made with K2 telescope data in order to generate light curves for each star in the open cluster. From these light curves, I derived a rotation period for each star, and studied the relationship between rotation period and stellar mass. I also contributed to the lightkurve package and learned about this open-source software and its applications.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently a third-year graduate student at UC Berkeley in the Astronomy department. I am working towards my PhD under the supervision of Prof. Courtney Dressing. I currently study exoplanets using the transit and radial velocity methods and am interested in learning about multi-planet system architectures.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
My REU introduced me to the Kepler mission, and more broadly to exoplanet research, which I now do in graduate school. This internship and the people I met there also allowed me to go to my first professional conference (AAS) and encouraged me to apply for graduate school in astronomy! … I likely would not be getting my PhD and studying exoplanets if not for my REU experience, so I’m very grateful I had this opportunity!

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
I loved travelling with my REU cohort to Lassen National Park and to Hat Creek Observatory! It was great to have a cohort of interns to get to know and hang out with over the summer, and I enjoyed meeting new people interested in all sorts of astronomy!

2017

Sergio Esteban
Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Technology

Sergio Esteban

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
During my time at SETI, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Pascal Lee. I worked on investigating the feasibility of extracting water from Mars’ atmosphere via conventional terrestrial techniques. This in-situ resource utilization technology would allow Martian explorers to have a steady supply of water during long expeditions!

What are you currently working on?
I am a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Technology. My work is in robotics with a focus in developing novel control algorithms for reliable robotic locomotion. I currently work with Dr. Aaron Ames in the Advanced Mechanical Bipedal Experimental Robotics Lab. In the future I plan on either becoming a professor or pursuing entrepreneurship!

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
My internship at SETI was what got me into liking the concept of research. Dr. Lee introduced me to several concepts of research such as reading papers, conducting research, collaborating with others, presenting research, and so much more. I can say with certainty that this internship was my gateway into the world of scientific research and is what led to my decision of pursuing advanced study. 

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
My most memorable memory during my internship was visiting Lick Observatory. I distinctly remember looking up at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way. It was the first time I saw the Milky Way with my own eyes, and I remember thinking about how much we don’t know about the beautiful universe that we live in!

2016

Tatiana Gibson
Planetary Geology Ph.D. student at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology

Tatiana Gibson

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
I was mentored by Dr. Lori Fenton and Dr. Janice Bishop working to try to identify a correlation between surface features on dunes in the north polar region of Mars and any distinctive spectral signature potentially associated with them. 

What are you currently working on?
I am a first-year planetary geology Ph.D. student in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA. My research is focused on characterizing sedimentological and morphological features associated with paleolakes on Mars and Earth. I am currently a new member in training on the Curiosity rover science team, training for operations for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument aboard the rover! I am under the advisorship of Dr. Frances Rivera-Hernández.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
My internship at the SETI Institute was the first time I worked with real Mars data, and it confirmed that I am fascinated by Mars and encouraged me to continue pursuing planetary science research as a career! I regularly use the software and datasets I was first introduced to at SETI in my current research and coursework and I am grateful for the head start that my REU project gave me.

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
I very distinctly remember the week that the REU program took us up to Hat Creek and Lassen Volcanic National Park for hands-on experience in radio astronomy using the Allen Telescope Array and for planetary analog field work. We set off into the national park and imagined we were on the surface of a foreign planet, critically thinking about potential formation mechanisms for the volcanic landscapes we were viewing. This exercise has stuck with me, and I am hoping to move my future research into a Mars analog fieldwork direction where I will continue to think about terrestrial landscapes in this

2015

Kaley Brauer
Astrophysics Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Kaley Brauer

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
My mentor was Michael Busch, and I developed a shape model of an unusually shaped near-Earth asteroid. It was a contact binary and I still have the 3D printed model sitting on my desk at MIT! 🙂

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on simulations of galaxy formation and the origin of heavy elements in our galaxy. My field is called ‘galactic archaeology’ because we study old stars and galaxies to learn about the history of the Milky Way and our Universe. I’m planning to finish my Ph.D. in Astrophysics at MIT next year and recently finished an appointment as a research fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
My SETI internship was my first experience with astronomy research and is the reason I decided to focus on astrophysics as a career. Applying coding skills to research for the first time, meeting accomplished scientists at SETI and NASA, and connecting with the other interns all gave me the motivation to go to graduate school for astrophysics and start developing my own projects.

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
There were many memorable moments, but one that stands out was during the week the interns visited the Allen Telescope Array. We discovered a mouse had been living in my mattress and Jill Tarter, myself, and three other interns (Sarah Blunt, Rosa Diaz, Shannen Acedillo) spent an hour chasing it around the house in the middle of the night before catching it in an empty hummus container and taking it outside. There’s a great picture of us all in our pajamas with the mouse. As Sarah said afterwards, I don’t know how many people can say they caught a mouse in PJs with Jill Tarter!

2013

Beth Johnson
Communications Manager at the SETI Institute

Beth Johnson

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
My mentor was Peter Jenniskens, and I was working on manually identifying meteors from CAMS data and looking for meteor showers in the data.

What are you currently working on?
I am a science communicator for two science institutions, writing articles and hosting live streams and podcasts, as well as managing social media for both.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
Peter encouraged and developed my public speaking and presentation skills. He also showed me a gap in my knowledge base that I then went back to grad school to fill, and that has enabled me to speak and write about more planetary science topics.

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
There are so many. The entire program is a highlight reel in my mind, but the moment Jill Tarter turned to me and told me to take over the star party we were having up at Hat Creek Observatory was the best. Also, all of my cohort becoming giddy over giving the commands to move the Allen Telescope Array dishes stands out as a joyous moment.

2011

Tracy Mandel
Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at the University of New Hampshire

Tracy Mandel

Who was your mentor and what were you working on?
I worked with Lori Fenton on Mars climate modeling. We were interested in whether albedo changes from large dust storms could cause significant feedback to the Mars climate circulation.

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently an Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at the University of New Hampshire. My lab studies turbulent flow at ocean margins; for example, we are currently developing some experiments to investigate whether the turbulent flow and mixing induced by water flowing through seagrass meadows can be measured remotely from the water surface.

How did your internship at the SETI Institute prepare you for your career?
My internship at SETI exposed me to what a research career would look like, and helped me learn more about the research process — what is involved, how long does it take to conduct a study, what happens when results are not what you expect, etc.

Most memorable moment of your internship/fondest memory of your internship?
The SETI mentors created a very welcoming, supportive environment. I really appreciated being part of a cohort of other students and getting to watch the final NASA space shuttle launch from the SETI offices. Living on the campus of NASA Ames was also a cool experience!

 

 



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