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[an error occurred while processing this directive] American Astronomical Society Meeting
January 7-11, 2008, Austin, TX

By Emily Petroff


Emily and her poster, Variation in Star Formation Rate from Galaxy Cluster Center for cl1037.


Emily Petroff is a senior at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland and is e-mentored by Catherine Garland, an assistant physics professor at Castleton State College in Vermont. They got linked a few years ago when Emily's eighth grade teacher attended an astronomy teacher enhancement program at the University of Hawai’i where Catherine was a graduate student and program instructor.

This January from the 7th to the 11th I attended the 211th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas with my mentor Dr. Catherine Garland. I was presenting a poster at the conference, something I had never done before, but at the same time I was trying to understand more about what astronomers do at meetings like this one. Every day I met with more astronomers, from many various walks of life and learned more about what it means to pursue a career in astronomy.

Catherine and I arrived in Austin on Monday. We checked into our hotel and walked over to the convention center to pick up our registration materials and nametags, and to see the general layout of the convention center. We didn’t stay long, and instead went back to our hotel to look over the program. Catherine suggested that we each look through the schedule for the week and try to decide roughly what sessions we would each like to attend, to get a feel for the length of a day at the meeting. This strategy ended up being really useful and I felt a lot more prepared for the week and a lot less likely to get burned out before the end of each day.

After looking through the bulletin we got ready to go to the receptions being held that night for astronomers at the AAS. First, we went to the undergrad reception held in a somewhat too small conference room in one of the nearby hotels. While I was there I talked with some of the presenters at different booths about Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs and graduate schools. While it is a little early for me to start thinking about either one it was still very educational and I was interested to hear more about the student research that goes on during an REU. I also picked up a great little pamphlet while I was there that had been written by the AAS for undergraduate students. Inside there were small tips that helped a lot throughout the week such as “ask questions” and “network, network, network”. Most of all I was amazed to see how many undergraduate students there were attending the conference (enough to fill a small conference room) and the variety of schools they came from.

From the undergrad reception we walked straight over to the opening reception. The general reception was held in two large, connected ballrooms in another nearby hotel. Again I was astounded by the large number of astronomers present. Both rooms were filled with people who were standing around, eating some good food, and catching up with friends and colleagues that they hadn’t seen since the last AAS meeting, or maybe even longer. It was a little overwhelming, considering I knew no one there, except for Catherine. She introduced me to a couple of her colleagues and we had an enjoyable time talking and getting interrupted occasionally by another astronomer popping in to say “hi”. Later in the evening Catherine and I sat at a table with H. Frederick Dylla and Jack Hehn of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). They told me about how they came to work at the AIP and when and how they started to get interested in a career in physics.

The next day Catherine and I got up early and headed over to the convention center to set up our posters in the exhibit hall before the morning plenary session. After the morning talk I went to stand by my poster at around 9:20 until about noon. I wasn’t sure what to expect when presenting my poster. I was nervous about presenting my research to professional astronomers that had studied similar things for years longer than me, but everyone who came to talk with me about my project was really nice. Some people made suggestions of things I could try in the future, but no one argued with me or told me I was wrong. All in all it was extremely pleasant and I was glad to be able to talk with so many smart people! The poster scene got less busy after lunch and more people were interested in going to sessions than looking at posters, and I got some time to relax and sit down after a long morning of standing. That afternoon I went to the plenary sessions and then went back to my poster for the last hour from 5:30 to 6:30. After about 6:30 we were allowed to take our posters down and head out for the evening.

The next day we opted not to go to the plenary session and instead get a good breakfast and start our day a little later. We got to the convention center just as the poster hall was opening and decided to look at posters for a half hour before going to morning sessions. Catherine and I split up for the sessions, being interested in different things. I elected for the “Galaxy Clusters I” session while Catherine went for the education session. In the morning session, as in most of the sessions that I attended throughout the week, some of the science was way over my head, and there were times when I had difficulty keeping up, but the experience of just going to the sessions, seeing other brave astronomers present their year or more of research in just five minutes and getting really excited about what they were finding was interesting in and of itself. I was especially amazed by how many different types of research are out there and the real variety of topics that were covered just under the already specific heading of “Galaxy Clusters”.

Catherine and I met up after the morning session and got a quick lunch and then headed over to the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy (CWSA) meeting. The topic being addressed was ‘when is the right time in your astronomy career to have kids?’ The panel addressing the question was made up of men and women astronomers who told their stories and gave advice for raising kids and still being active in the astronomy field. There was no definitive answer at the meeting but the dialogue itself was enlightening: there is no perfect time to slow down your career for children, but you can prepare yourself and figure it out along the way. I had never thought about that dimension of having a career and it is something interesting to think about, for sure. Catherine advised me that the CWSA meetings are important to attend for women astronomers even if the topic isn’t directly relevant. She told me it’s important to check up on how other women astronomers are being treated so one can understand what it is like to be a women astronomer. From this particular meeting it sounded like women have trouble getting maternity leave for as long as they would like, particularly if they are in a post-doctoral research (postdoc) position or are on a tenure track. It was interesting to hear other women astronomers talk about their situations and I hope to attend the CWSA meetings when I attend future AAS meetings. After the CWSA meeting Catherine and I split up to attend the afternoon sessions, and again attended one of the afternoon plenary sessions.

The next day, Thursday, we got up early to attend the morning plenary session and then to listen to the morning oral sessions as well. From the morning sessions we went straight to the 11:40 invited session by Robert Kennicutt. It was really exciting to hear him speak because I, and most other people doing star formation research, have read and cited some, or many, of his papers. I was blown away that I was at a meeting where you can go and listen to celebrated astronomers and learn about their current research. After hearing Kennicutt speak we grabbed some lunch and came back to the convention center for the afternoon sessions and the third invited talk of the day: Sandra Faber, whose work is also very well known. One thing that I noticed after each one of the plenary sessions, not just on Thursday but that’s when I observed it most, was that as soon as the session was over everyone went out in the hall and talked about what was just said. They talked about the science behind it and the validity of the conclusions and the general structure of the talk. Whenever I was walking in the halls I would always hear someone telling someone else about their research, or about how they have access to data that might back up the other person’s project, or that they know someone who was doing such and such kind of research. There was a real spirit of collaboration between fellow astronomers that I didn’t really expect to see.

On Friday Catherine was presenting a second poster and my brain was feeling pretty full of astronomy. Catherine introduced me to some of her colleagues to tell me about what they did as astronomers and how they got to be where they were. First I talked to DJ Pisano, a postdoc at NRAO in Green Bank, West Virginia. DJ got his PhD in astronomy and since then has done 3 different postdocs each for about 3 years. He told me about how difficult it is to apply and receive postdoc positions and about how, as a postdoc, you are given grant money, from which you give yourself a stipend to pay for food, rent, and other personal things, and that the rest of the grant goes to your research. He told me that postdocs are good experiences that help you learn about doing research professionally and that postdocs can help boost your resume for when applying to institutions for tenure track jobs. One important point I took away from talking with DJ was this: postdoc positions are beneficial, but not permanent, as a postdoc you need to begin exploring new options for when your 2 or 3 years of grant money are done.

I also talked with Catherine’s colleague Scott Fisher at the Gemini Observatory. He is part of the permanent team at Gemini and works with instruments and outreach in Hawai’i. He was hired directly out of grad school and had taken data on the Gemini telescopes even before getting his PhD. He told me about how he had always been interested in instrumentation and engineering as well as astronomy, and that in graduate school he was involved in a team that built a portable infrared camera that could be used on a variety of different telescopes. He said that his dual interest in astronomy and instrumentation really helped him when looking for a job and his one piece of advice was to be open to many different types of work. Even if astronomy was his primary interest he still branched out and did different areas of work that made him appealing to telescope facilities like Gemini.

Finally, I talked with Catherine, who told me about her path to becoming a physics and astronomy teacher at Castleton State College in Vermont. She said that coming out of grad school she knew that she didn’t really want to postdoc, but she also knew that she wanted to teach. She found Castleton College and they were eager to have her join their science department. She is currently on tenure track and will undergo an annual review for the next few years before getting tenure. She always tells me about how rewarding and fun it is to teach at a college, which is what I am also interested in doing, and how there are many opportunities and different approaches that one can take.

The conference was a huge success for me. I learned so much about what astronomers do, how they work together and how research is done. It was also important to see how different astronomers choose different career paths after getting their Ph.D.’s, but it was also really great to see how much each astronomer loves doing what they do, and how most wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Variation in Star Formation Rate from Galaxy Cluster Center for cl1037
Emily Petroff1
1Oregon Episcopal School.
Presentation Number: 009.03
This study investigated how the star formation rates (SFRs) of galaxies in a cluster change as a function of distance from the center. I studied cl1037, a cluster at redshift 0.58. I predicted that SFRs of galaxies would decrease as a function of distance because of fewer mergers farther out. SFRs were calculated using 24 µm luminosities from Spitzer Space Telescope data. I found that SFR increases as a function of distance from the cluster’s center by 0.026 Mo/yr/kpc. This observation might be because ram pressure stripping in the cluster would leave central galaxies with fewer materials to form stars. However, the data did not fit the linear regression neatly, with an R2 correlation co-efficient of 0.11. A detailed analysis of possible pairs in the cluster was also done: one pair was identified in the cluster but two other potential pairs were classified as isolated galaxies. A second linear regression was performed yielding slope=0.0293 Mo/yr/kpc and R2=0.14. Learning more about SFRs of low redshift galaxies in clusters can inform us of behavior of clusters at higher redshifts. Further research would include a study of more clusters at low redshifts.



Emily Petroff and her mentor, Dr. Catherine Garland.
Emily Petroff and her mentor,
Dr. Catherine Garland.

The national meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) can be overwhelming! Imagine a convention center full of two thousand astronomers. Some are students, but many are well-known astronomers releasing exciting new results. There's even a media room where astronomers give press releases! The talks are held in enormous rooms where the guest speakers are dwarfed by two large screens on either side for their slides.

I am an astronomer working at Castleton State College in Vermont and I enjoy going to this meeting every year, but I still sometimes feel overwhelmed by the flurry of excitement and activity and the talks after talks after talks. So I was very impressed when Emily Petroff, a high school student I mentor who has been doing her own astronomy research, expressed an interest in attending an AAS meeting. Of course, I was excited, too, because it's always fun to share something you love with someone else!

Not only did Emily attend this year's AAS meeting in Austin, she presented a research poster along with undergraduates, graduates, post-doctoral researchers, and astronomers. High school students are rare at AAS meetings, but Emily earned the privilege of presenting her research on star formation rates in galaxies because of her placement in last year's International Science and Engineering Fair. As you'll read in Emily's report below, she got a sense of what the meeting was like, and also what it's like to be an astronomer.

—Dr. Catherine Garland, Emily’s mentor

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