Possible Projects

Galaxies and their environments (Prof. Jay Gallagher):

We are obtaining optical/infrared observations from a variety of ground-based telescopes, including the 3.5-m WIYN and the 4.2-m William Herschel Telescope, for a study of how the internal structures of galaxies are modified by their environments.

This project involves the quantitative analysis of galaxy images to define basic structures, the measurement of star formation rates, and determinations of internal stellar and ionized gas kinematics. We are applying these techniques to galaxies with special characteristics, such as those with signatures of recent disturbances, e.g., polar ring galaxies and starbursts, as well as to systems that appear to have been quiescent for long time periods (such as “super thin” disk galaxies).

This will provide an REU student with a range of opportunities for the collection, analysis, and interpretation of galaxy observations within the framework of dynamical constraints on their evolutionary processes.


X-ray astrophysics (Prof. Dan McCammon):

The last few years have seen a revolution in the spectroscopic and imaging sensitivity of astrophysical X-ray detectors. We have a very instrumentally-based program aimed at developing a new type of detector technology that measures the temperature rise produced by the absorption of single X-ray photons and can achieve energy resolutions 100 times better than a theoretically perfect CCD or solid state detector.

We are using these detectors in a sounding rocket program to study the galactic and extragalactic soft X-ray backgrounds. Improvements in the detectors will allow a search for the “missing baryons” in intergalactic space, and improved studies of the very hot components of the interstellar medium in our galaxy.  We also support the deployment of similar detectors on general-purpose space-based observatories such as Astro-H.  Interested students can learn fabrication and cryogenic techniques needed to assemble and test detectors, and methods of X-ray data analysis.

Note: This project might be adated and/or not be feasible in virtual mode.


Neutrino Astrophysics and Astronomy (Prof. Francis Halzen, Prof. Albrecht Karle, Prof. Justin Vandenbroucke and Scientist Dr. John Kelley):

The completed IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole is the first instrument with the sensitivity required to capture signals of cosmic neutrinos. Rather than collecting light, it probes the high-energy Universe by detecting neutrinos. Since the 1950s, scientists have built a compelling case for using high-energy neutrinos as ideal messengers from the most interesting, violent, and least understood phenomena in the Universe.  Throughout the previous decade, an international collaboration of scientists has designed, constructed, and operated the first kilometer-scale neutrino telescope. Originally conceived at the University of Wisconsin, IceCube has transformed a cubic kilometer of natural Antarctic ice into a Cherenkov detector. Optical sensors embedded in the ice detect the photons radiated by charged particles produced in neutrino interactions. They detect the faint flashes of light created by neutrino interactions in the transparent ice.

Since early construction of the detector, the IceCube group has employed about 5 to 10 undergraduates. Although work is ongoing on the development of a next-generation detector, data analysis is a priority focused on the origin of cosmic neutrinos as well as on the study of the neutrino itself.

Additionally, students will have the option to work on the development of the Askaryan Radio Array (ARA). ARA is a pioneering neutrino detector located at the South Pole designed to detect ultra-high-energy neutrinos from cosmic ray interactions with the cosmic microwave background.  Our current research is focused on separating potential neutrino signals detected by the ARA antenna arrays from the large background of thermal noise, as well as developing directional and energy reconstruction algorithms that can be used to estimate neutrino properties once such rare events are detected.  REU students on this project will learn the necessary techniques in radio signal analysis, interferometric beamforming, data analysis and reduction in Python and C++, and parallel processing with graphics processing units (GPUs) in order to contribute to our research.  Specific projects include, but are not limited to: raytracing of radio signals in the Antarctic ice sheet; accelerating interferometric neutrino directional reconstruction with GPUs; and optimization of detector triggers and neutrino event filters running at the South Pole.


TeV gamma-ray astronomy (Prof. Justin Vandenbroucke)

The student in this project will work with Prof. Justin Vandenbroucke’s group on the camera for a gamma-ray telescope under construction in Arizona. The telescope will detect Cherenkov flashes from very-high-energy (TeV) gamma rays that collide with Earth’s atmosphere and is a prototype for the upcoming Cherenkov Telescope Array.  The camera features 1024 channels of silicon photomultipliers and custom electronics and is five feet across with a mass of 500 kg.  Images, movies, and a live webcam of the telescope are available at http://cta-psct.physics.ucla.edu.


Observational Cosmology (Prof. Peter Timbie):

The Observational Cosmology group uses two astrophysical tools to study the evolution and structure of the universe: 1) the ancient photons that make up the 2.7 K cosmic microwave background (CMB) allow us to explore cosmological history as far back as a redshift of z = 1400, some 300,000 years after the Big Bang; 2) radiation from neutral hydrogen gas at a wavelength of 21-cm traces the large-scale distribution of matter and dark matter, which in turn probes dark energy, neutrino mass, etc.

Students in the Observational Cosmology group assist in building the most sensitive detectors of microwave and radio radiation possible and can learn about radio astronomy, cryogenics, superconductivity, microwave circuits and antennas, and data analysis.

REU students can choose to work on the development of a superconducting microwave sensor called a microwave kinetic inductance detector (MKID), specifically designed for measurements of the polarization of the CMB. CMB polarization is expected to arise from gravitational waves released during the inflation process during the Big Bang. Another project is to design and test antennas and receivers for the Hydrogen Structure Array, a radio interferometer under development for measuring 21-cm radiation.


Cosmic ray observations and their propagation in magnetic fields (Dr. Paolo Desiati and Dr. Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez):

After more than one hundred years from the discovery of penetrating cosmic particles from space, we still have quite a lot to learn about the origin and journey from their sources to us. The observation of cosmic ray particle energy, mass and arrival direction distributions can provide useful information on their history, especially if combined with the detection of high energy neutrinos and electromagnetic emissions such as gamma rays. To reconstruct their history it is necessary to disentangle the effects of their production at the sources with those of propagation in interstellar magnetic fields. One way to do so is to analyze experimental data collected by IceCube and IceTop and the South Pole and compare them with results from other experiments and relate them with scenarios of cosmic ray production and propagation. In addition, the study of particle trajectories in magnetic fields can provide the necessary information to reconstruct the more complicated puzzle of cosmic ray propagation in magnetized plasmas. Thus we may be able to utilize cosmic ray distributions in a given energy and mass range to probe interstellar magnetic fields within a defined distance scale and infer their diffusion coefficients.


Data-intensive astronomy (Dr. Ralf Kotulla)

Astronomy is increasingly becoming a data-driven science where new results are extracted from every increasing amounts of data. This project aims at developing and applying the tools to process large amounts of data using modern techniques such as python codes optimized for parallel data processing. Research topics (often in collaboration with Prof. Gallagher) could include the search for some of the faintest low-surface brightness galaxies in the nearby universe from archival data taken on the world’s largest telescopes,  analyzing data from the Hubble Space Telescope to use star clusters to reconstruct a galaxy’s formation history, or ground-based observation from the WIYN One Degree Imager to search for interactions between dwarf and giant galaxies.

As part of this project you will become familiar with programming in python (no prior knowledge is required, but it’s certainly helpful), how to extract useful information from data using commonly used tools such as ds9 and topcat, how to visualize and present the results, to (depending on progress) how to apply machine-learning techniques to optimize and speed-up data exploration and analysis. Depending on telescope time allocations this project might also offer the potential to take part in an observing run.


Determining the Chemical Composition of Star-Forming Regions (Prof. Susanna Widicus Weaver):

Using data from the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), the Herschel Space Observatory, the Combined Array for Millimeter/Submillimeter Astronomy (CARMA), and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), you will help identify molecules in star-forming regions, quantify their densities and temperatures, and explore their spatial distributions.  With large sets of observational datasets already acquired and additional information available in the Herschel and ALMA data archives, we will use the spatial information determined through ALMA and CARMA observations to constrain the molecular abundances in sources observed with single-dish telescopes like the CSO and Herschel.  Additional observing proposals are planned for the upcoming ALMA and NOEMA/IRAM proposal deadlines; if observing time is awarded, you will be involved in collection and analysis of these new results.


Laboratory Astrophysics of Prebiotic Interstellar Molecules (Prof. Susanna Widicus Weaver):

You will work with our laboratory research group to acquire and analyze spectra of small organic molecules that are suspected to contribute to the millimeter/submillimeter spectra of star- and planet-forming regions in the interstellar medium.  The spectra acquired will then be compared to observational data from radio telescopes (see the other project description above).  Several laboratory projects are available and interested students can choose which project to join.  Current projects include:  1.  Using reactive oxygen atoms to form new molecules that are suspected interstellar precursors to sugars and amino acids.  2.  Simulating interstellar and cometary chemistry through UV and thermal processing of ices and analyzing the products using IR spectroscopy, submillimeter spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry.  3.  Using a high voltage discharge plasma source to produce ions and radicals that are known to play an important role in interstellar chemistry.  In these studies you will work directly with a graduate student mentor who will teach you about the instruments and data collection and guide your day-to-day work.  Once a spectrum is acquired you will compare the results to observations and attempt to identify new molecules in space.

Note: This project might be adated and/or not be feasible in virtual mode.


Galactic Dynamics (Prof. Elena D’Onghia)

more details coming soon


Chemistry of Planet-forming Disks (Prof. Ke Zhang)

more details coming soon