Not many college students can say they worked with Chile’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory over the summer, but former TJC student Lena Dietrich did just that through a Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Texas A&M Commerce.
“This summer I participated in a REU program at Texas A&M Commerce University, where I participated in a study of white dwarf stars using a technique called white dwarf photometry, which is the study of the light emitted by a white dwarf star in order to determine if the light was varying,” Dietrich said.
Dietrich is currently a physics major at the University of Texas Dallas but will be transferring to the University of Texas Arlington in the spring to finish her degree in electrical engineering. Before REUs and UT Dallas, Dietrich spent three semesters at Tyler Junior College as a physics major and TJC STEM Club member where she was president for a year.
“A white dwarf is the end-of-life stage of a main sequence star. So, when you have a star that’s about the same mass as our Sun, it will burn all of its energy,” Dietrich said. “What you’ll be left with is an orb about the size of planet Earth.”
To study the white dwarf’s variance in light, Dietrich used a technique called multi aperture photometry. Photometry deals with measuring light visible to the human eye, and multi-aperture allows for photometry to be done on multiple subjects in an image, according to Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I would typically have several days a week of observations, so I would be awake until maybe four or five in the morning. We would be sitting there staring at a screen taking pictures of the sky all night, and occasionally having to recalibrate the equipment,” Dietrich said. “We would take all of that data that we collected from the telescopes, and we would process it using several different pieces of software.”
Dietrich used a program to implement data reduction that takes calibration images to identify any imperfections of the camera. When the imperfections are identified they are then corrected, resulting in uncorrupted science images.
“And then we would use that program to do our multi-aperture photometry, so you would just select a couple of stars, including the target, choose our settings to get the data we wanted and then the program would automatically scan the image for photon counts, and would produce what’s called a light curve, which is basically just a plot of the relative flux, so basically how bright the star is throughout the night,” Dietrich said.
REU programs are funded by the National Science Foundation and offered by several universities throughout the U.S. These opportunities are designed for students going into their junior or senior year of college enabling them to gain experience in preparation for graduate research and to strengthen their resume and graduate program applications. It also gives students the opportunities to network in their chosen field and access labs and equipment that their current school might not have.
“In addition to the telescope that is owned by A&M Commerce University, we were able to remotely access telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, as well as a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile,” Dietrich said. “We were also able to take a trip out to West Texas to the McDonald Observatory … to use their Otto Von Struth telescope in order to make some of our observations, so I was able to physically operate that telescope.”
Dietrich’s original college plans were interrupted when she was wait listed for UT Dallas, but guaranteed acceptance if a two-semester courseload was completed at a community college.
“I applied here (TJC) kind of reluctantly and started coming here. And pretty much day one fell in love with it, to the point where I put off my plans (two semesters) and stayed here for another semester in order to try and finish out my associate degree,” Dietrich said. “[STEM Club] was the greatest part of my time here at TJC. I absolutely adored it. It [STEM Club] gave me experiences that I never would have been able to have otherwise.”
Dietrich urges students to find a REU program that interests them and apply to as many as possible.
“I am currently waiting for next month where I will be presenting my research at a professional conference (Texas Meeting of the American Physics Society), and I am also awaiting the information for me to write out the data that I collected in order to be published in a peer reviewed journal,” Dietrich said. “I would never trade what I did this summer for anything, both for the professional and personal reasons.”