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As part of the Summer Research Experience, the students learned how observations are conducted with the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico.
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A diverse group of students, researchers and faculty attended the "WIU/NMT International Online Meeting: A Multiscale Approach to Understanding Outflows During High-Mass Star Formation," participants included high-school students from Iowa and New Mexico and a prospective new graduate student from Bangladesh.
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Summer Research Experience at the WIU Astrophysics Research Laboratory Finishes with an International Bang

August 17, 2020

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MACOMB IL – Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, the Western Illinois University Physics Department's Astrophysics Research Laboratory provided $3,000 scholarships to two undergraduate students and a full-time Research Assistantship to a graduate student to participate in a 2020 Summer Research Experience.

Under the supervision of Professor of Physics Esteban D. Araya, students conducted research in the area of star formation, based on data analysis of observations conducted with the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

"A great aspect of the summer research experience we offered this year was the diverse group of students," said Araya. "The different backgrounds of the students brought a wide range of perspectives on how to approach individual research projects and collaborative activities."

The students are from different majors and are at different stages of their careers: Natalie Kovacevic, a senior undergraduate student from Plainfield IL, is a physics major; Hunter La Croix, a sophomore from Greenville IL, is a math major; and Emmanuel Sanchez Tovar, from Costa Rica, is a graduate student at the Applied Statistics and Decision Analytics program of the WIU Department of Economics and Decision Sciences.

The summer program was conducted online, with virtual meetings in which students discussed the specific goals of the week, accomplishments and challenges in their specific projects. The learning experience was further enhanced by participating in several online conferences, including the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Symposium "Living with Artificial Intelligence: The Human Impacts of AI," and the "Astrochemical Frontiers" conference of the International Astronomical Union. Students also developed short outreach activity modules, using Jupyter Notebook technology, that were used in the astronomy section of the WIU's Virtual Summer Science Experience for high-school students.

"This experience will help me in my future career because I am going to go to grad school in the area of astrophysics," said Kovacevic.

Finishing with a Bang

To conclude the summer research experience, Araya, in collaboration with Professor Peter Hofner from New Mexico Tech, organized an international virtual conference to highlight the research work done by the summer research students, including also a presentation from Tatiana Rodriguez, a New Mexico Tech PhD student from Argentina. The meeting took place July 28, and in addition to the summer students, the conference was attended by two high-school students who are interested in research opportunities in the area of astrophysics (one from Iowa and one from New Mexico); former lab members now in Indiana, Virginia and Singapore; a prospective graduate student from Bangladesh; and WIU Physics Chair Kishor Kapale.

"The conference was a great success; it was a way of connecting the student's research at WIU and New Mexico Tech, and connecting the work done by current students with research that is being carried out by former lab members all around the world," said Araya.

"The summer program I was able to participate in with the AstroLab, lead by Dr. Araya, was the single best opportunity that I was offered at WIU," said La Croix. "From my time beginning in the lab, continuing on during the summer, the experience was hands on. I learned how to utilize programs for analyzing data from telescopes, and how to utilize academic sources to dive into the literature of my topic. As someone wishing to continue being active in the sciences, the attention I got from the department, despite online-only operations, gives me great hope for the collaborations I may be able to participate in with academia in the future."

The WIU Astrophysics Research Laboratory is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (AST-1814063 in collaboration with AST-1814011), and computational resources donated by WIU Distinguished Alumnus Frank Rodeffer.

For more information about the WIU Department of Physics, visit

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