Sixth formers visit ARC for work experience

20 February 2013

In January and February 2013, the Astrophysics Research Centre at QUB hosted four sixth-form pupils on work experience placements. First up was Jackson Riley of Methodist College Belfast, who spent a week with the Supernovae group in mid-January, followed by Andrew Cameron of Friends School, Lisburn. In February we were joined by two more students, Tara Curran from Newbridge College, Loughbrickland, and Ralph Roulston from Lagan College, Belfast. Each of them has written an account of their week in Astrophysics.

Jackson Riley

“I am a Lower Sixth pupil from Methodist College Belfast who came to the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University for a week to get some idea of what Astrophysicists do in their day-to-day jobs. I was given a project, to measure the luminosity (in R and I bands of electromagnetic spectra) of a particular supernova, SN2009ip, relative to the luminosities of other non-variable stars in the epochs taken over the course of around three months. I then used the data about the absolute magnitudes of the reference stars to offset any irregularities caused by atmospheric conditions on the nights of the epochs. Using this data I plotted in GNUplot (with quite a lot of help from Ken Smith) a light curve with standard error bars, showing how the brightness of the supernova event varied over time. Using a distance modulus and formulae given to me by Professor Smartt, I was able to calculate the flux, the energy output due to core collapse, and the (literally) astronomically large power value for the explosion, confirming the event to be a supernova.

This placement was incredibly interesting, and I learned a lot about supernovae, as well as stars. The people I met in the Astrophysics Research Centre were all very welcoming and gave up enormous portions of their time to help me, in particular Ken Smith and Darryl Wright and Professor Stephen Smartt, as well as Morgan Fraser, Robert Ryans, and Cosimo Inserra. The Centre itself was very well outfitted with a seemingly infinite supply of computing equipment, giving the researchers good access to telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and the Canary Islands. This work experience was invaluable in aiding and abetting me in my decision to carry on with science after secondary school and hopefully pursue a career in some aspect of physics. My thanks go to all of the staff at the University for this unique week.”

Andrew Cameron

“My name is Andrew Cameron, currently in lower sixth at Friends' School, Lisburn, and studying Physics, Maths, Geography and Electronics. Queen's University Belfast where very kind to offer me work experience between the 21st and the 25th of January so I could get a good insight into the area of Astrophysics. On my first day I was given the task of researching supernovae and learning as much as I could about them, the facilities I was given to do my research on supernovae were brilliant with top of the range computers and textbooks which made the research all very enjoyable! On day 2 I was given the task which all my research was to prepare me for: my project was to measure and record the luminosity of a supernova known as SN2009ip while using data from other stars surrounding SN2009ip to calculate an accurate luminosity result.

To do this I had to use software called Gaia to allow me to measure the luminosity of SN2009ip and the surrounding stars. After many hours of collecting my results and identifying any anomalous ones I was finally ready to plot my graph… now when I mean 'I' was ready to plot my graph, I needed the help of PhD student Darryl Wright to plot my graph. It was very interesting being shown how to use Terminal by Darryl, an alternative way of operating a computer system which really gave me a great view of how diverse Physics really is! I finished the day by having a graph showing a light curve that showed the change of luminosity over a period of time. The graphical presentation is one in which I had never seen before as it showed error bars which helped me to understand my results. On day 3 I had to work on my light curve and look into any large errors, which resulted into me having to remove some results because on the day when they where taken the results where very poor, hence not making the data reliable. After completing my data presentation I was given formulae by Professor Stephen Smartt to calculate the flux, magnitude and the energy produced by the supernova, thankfully Darryl was on hand to help me with some of my calculations and to make sure I was able to understand how I was getting these results.

On day 4 I was lucky that one of the special Physics work experience days was on, so I was able to take a day off and go on the work experience day. It was very interesting with some very good presentations on the many diverse areas of Physics Queen's have to offer such as Physics with Financial Mathematics, Physics with Medical Applications, Physics and Computer Science, even Physics with a year out in Europe and of course Astrophysics. We where given presentations on Astrophysics and lasers which where both very interesing. Then we where given a tour of Queen's by current Physics PhD students who showed us the vast surroundings of Queen's from the park to the Students' Union and the fantastic library which is just phenomenally big. We finished the day with tours of the Physics Department's labs and doing experiments with lasers which was all very enjoyable.

I would like to thank Neil Meharg for organising this fantastic week set out that gave me a great insight into Physics, Professor Stephen Smartt with giving me help on my understanding into supernovae and letting me be able to attend the work experience day, Darryl Wright for assisting me on my project and showing me how to operate all of the computer programs. It was an incredibly interesting week and a great experience of Queen's, seeing their fantastic facilities and campus.”

Tara Curran

“My name is Tara Curran, I am an AS student from New-Bridge Integrated College where I am currently studying Art, Maths and Physics for A-level. I contacted Queens Astrophysics department for a week’s work experience from the 4th February to the 8th February which thankfully they accepted. I was excited to start my placement in the Department as I had read through some information on the website and I found Astrophysics one of the most interesting areas within Physics. On my first day I was welcomed by Neil Meharg who I had been in contact with regarding my placement and was given a tour of the Physics Building. The facilities were very impressive and I was provided with a mac to use for the week linked up to another computer. I was introduced to Dr Pedro Lacerda who throughout the week taught me a lot about moving bodies within and outside our planetary system. I was set up with two different programmes, Gaia and SAO Image. Both programmes where very helpful as I used them to obtain information and also find the position of particular moving bodies within images taken by a telescope. I also learned about terminal, a new way to operate a computer in which code is used to run different functions.

A certain centaur I concentrated on for the first and second day was Chariklo, discovered in 1997 by James V Scotti. It is the largest known centaur. I studied it over two nights tracking its movement from the telescope images Pedro had taken and accumulating information to create a table and hence creating a graph showing the variation of brightness against time, this object did not provide as interesting results as the second body I looked at. Haumea, a dwarf planet just one third of the mass of Pluto. This object produced very intriguing results, its brightness varied greatly within the two days I studied it and Pedro told me to find the period of time it took for this object to do one full turn. This planet was elliptical in shape and I calculated the time it took to get from the brightest stage to the dimmest suggesting a quarter turn. I multiplied this by 4 giving 4 hours and 13 mins. I was not far off the actual rotation which is around 3 hours 55 mins so I was pleased with my estimate.

At the end of the week I was lucky enough to sit in on an Astrophysics lecture in the University with a 3rd year class. Although the class was more advanced I was able to grasp the main concept and picked up some of the Maths behind it.

Overall I have found my week’s work experience very interesting and I believe I gained a lot of knowledge from the people I met and the things I have learned. I have had a lot of fun and I am definitely considering Astrophysics as a possible career choice. Thank you very much to Neil! For organising my week and helping me to make the most of my time here. Thanks to Dave Young and Ken Smith for being very welcoming and friendly and letting me sit in their office to work. Thank you to Pedro! Who was the best teacher I could ask for, giving up a lot of his time to teach me new concepts and introducing me to the real work of an Astrophysicist. Many thanks to the whole Astrophysics department at Queens for providing me with this placement and for the very unique and helpful experience.”

Ralph Roulston

I am a lower sixth student from Lagan College, Belfast, where I am currently studying Maths, Physics and ICT. I came to Queen's University for a week of work experience from the 11th February to the 15th of February because I wanted to see what Astrophysicists do in their jobs and I also hope to do Astrophysics at Queens in a couple of years. When I arrived I was provided with a Mac to do all my work and research. On the first day I was given a task by Dr Pedro Lacerda to track the movement of a comet called Amphios in the Kuiper Belt using images Pedro had given me. I used a programme called Gaia to work out the light given off by Amphios and then recorded the values into a table. I then created a graph showing brightness against time but unfortunately the results where not very good. I then tracked the movement of another comet called 2002GH32 but this one was a lot more difficult because it was very faint in the images so when I created a graph showing brightness against time for 2002GH32 the results where also poor. Pedro then gave me information on a dwarf planet called Haumea. Using this information I was able to work out how long it took Haumea to make one full rotation. I was then given a formula which allowed me to workout the size and shape of the dwarf planet. Then with the values I worked out, I used a website called to give me a visual display of what Haumea would roughly look like.

I would like to thank everyone in the Astrophysics department for allowing me to have this wonderful experience and allowing me to use their facilities. I would especially like to thank Neil Meharg for organising everything for me, giving me a tour of the campus on my first day and always making sure I was getting on ok. I would also like to thank Pedro for taking up a lot of his time to teach me about our solar system, help me with all of my tasks, and teach me how to use a mac! This week's experience has got me even more interested in Astrophysics and I am hopeful I can come and study here after I have finished my A-levels.“

public/news/2013-01-22.txt · Last modified: 2013/08/27 14:52 by Robert Ryans

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