Transitioning from Student to Researcher

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Transitioning from Student to Researcher

Sigma Pi Sigma-funded project supports scientist-in-the-making


Keeley Townley-Smith

Lamar University

The author poses with the atomic spectroscopy setup in  Lamar University’s optics lab.

I Had no prior research experience when my SPS chapter began an astronomy project funded by a Sigma Pi Sigma Undergraduate Research Award last year. But thanks to this project, I got to spend the school year actively collecting and analyzing data (see my team’s story on p. 12). The experience is helping me to launch my career as a scientist.

For one experiment we identified characteristic wavelengths associated with particular atomic transitions of elements and molecules expected to be found in Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s photosphere. To do this we used the atomic spectra database maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST is known for providing accurate spectroscopic data to the public and the astronomical community, something I appreciated during my research. By the conclusion of the project, I badly wanted to join the atomic spectroscopy team at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland, attracted by the team’s database, high-resolution equipment, and studies of highly ionized atoms. I contacted the team’s director, Yuri Ralchenko. Hoping to be taken seriously, I attached my resume and abstracts from poster presentations I gave at two American Physical Society conferences. Fingers crossed, I waited.

Happily, I received the green light to join their team as a summer intern! Next I needed a funding source. Lamar University offers the David J. Beck Fellowships, each of which provides $10,000 for a summer research project. Before the SPS project I would not have had the confidence nor the experience to apply for a Beck Fellowship. After my research experience, I felt more like a scientist, which gave me the confidence I needed to apply.Townley-Smith attends the Beck Fellowship ceremony with  mentor Cristian Bahrim. Photos courtesy of Keeley Townley-Smith.

Together with my SPS chapter advisor, Cristian Bahrim, I proposed a research project for the internship at NIST to the Beck Fellowship program. Dr. Bahrim helped me prepare for my final interview for the fellowship, and mentioning the SPS astronomy project allowed me to shine. I had credentials! My poster presentations showed that I was actively involved in research and had produced fruitful results.

After the interview and an agonizing week of waiting, I received a phone call from Kenneth Evans, president of Lamar University, who told me that I had received a 2014 Beck Fellowship! I spent the summer at NIST. Working under the guidance of Gillian Nave, I studied the hyperfine structure of iron group elements using NIST’s advanced equipment.

Without the SPS astronomy project and a program at Lamar called STAIRSTEP, which helped me go to science conferences and do science outreach at local schools, I might not have received the fellowship or had the opportunities that I have now. I was recently recognized with a 2014 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an award that is hard to get without any research experience.

I encourage you to get involved in research. Try asking your favorite faculty member for help. Apply for an award through your SPS chapter. Pursue an SPS summer internship. You will be amazed by how the experience can help your career. //

The atomic spectra of the Sun, hydrogen, helium, mercury, and uranium. Image courtesy of

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