E&O Undergraduate Astrostatistics Workshop: A Stellar Learning Experience

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Contributed by: Rachel Matheson, Mathematics Undergraduate Student, Vassar College – Poughkeepsie, NY

As a math major at a liberal arts school, choosing my classes for the next semester always feels like a lot is at stake. I want to take physics, neuroscience, astronomy and biology, but I also want to take social sciences and humanities. Dipping in to the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute’s (SAMSI) Undergraduate Workshops gives me a chance to experience the different flavors of applied math and statistics without the commitment of a class. I was therefore extremely delighted to be invited to come back to SAMSI this October for a two-day undergraduate workshop focused on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy (ASTRO).

SAMSI Workshops – Full of Information…

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Jessi Cisewski, an Assistant Professor in Yale University’s Department of Statistics, conducts a lecture on Approximate Bayesian Computation in Astrostatistics. This talk was one of several performed during the workshop.

Though the workshop was brief, it was packed with interesting lectures and hands-on activities. After a yummy breakfast at the hotel, we shuttled off to SAMSI’s campus and were greeted by SAMSI Deputy Director, Sujit Ghosh, who delivered his opening remarks to our group. From there, we quickly transitioned into a lecture from Jessi Cisewski, an Assistant Professor in Yale University’s Department of Statistics, on Approximate Bayesian Computation in Astrostatistics. The lecture was very enjoyable and informative – it served as a reflection and an extension of what I have been learning in my probability class, applied to the stellar initial mass function.  Bekki Dawson, an Assistant Professor from Penn State University’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, then dazzled my mind with stellar facts during her lecture titled Time Domain Challenges for Exoplanets. I was surprised to learn that this is an area where technology is good and up-to-date but we still don’t have the statistical methods to interpret noise in the data properly in order to detect exoplanets similar to Earth.

“SAMSI serves largely as a space for me to feel motivated about my pursuit of applied math and connect with people who feel just as excited as I do about it.”

After a short break, we delved back in to a tutorial on R led by SAMSI Post-Doctorate fellows David Jones, David Stenning and Hyungsuk Tak. This was a helpful overview to lead up to the intensive, hands-on workshop of modeling Gaussian processes. Line-by-line comments in the R code kept me from feeling lost as the lecture sped on, deep into the mathematics and emulator needed in order to make this model run. I could easily go back and gain understanding as post-doctorate fellows stood throughout the room ready to help at an arm’s wave. It felt like a really positive learning environment, despite the high speed at which the material was presented.

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On Day 2 of the Undergraduate Workshop, students got to visit the Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The students enjoyed two presentations on the universe and the existence of blackholes.

Opportunities and Guidance from those who have done it…

One of my favorite aspects of coming to SAMSI is being able to talk to the post-doctorate fellows, SAMSI faculty, and my peers, about anything from career path choices to, quite literally, the stars in the sky. The panel on career opportunities led by some of the graduate fellows was a wealth of information for nervous undergraduates to seek advice from those who have “made it,” as well as to start conversations to continue later on. I ended up eating dinner with two post-doctorate fellows, who advised me on everything from which classes to take to not worrying too much.

Leaving with a new sense of purpose…

After a visit to the Morehead Planetarium, I felt sad to be leaving almost as quickly as it began. It is always so reassuring to talk to people who are pursuing what I am interested in, not to mention truly inspiring and exciting. SAMSI serves largely as a space for me to feel motivated about my pursuit of applied math and connect with people who feel just as excited as I do about it. It forges what may be a 2-day community, but that community gets to live on through email and LinkedIn. I am too glad to have had the opportunity to experience SAMSI as a community and as a learning space – it excels at being both!

To see more about what happened at this workshop, visit: ww.samsi.info/astro-undergrad. To see past and upcoming workshops in our ASTRO Program, visit: www.samsi.info/astro.

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Students from the Undergraduate Workshop pose for a picture at the working sun dial located at the Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The students visited the planetarium as part of their workshop activities. The 2-day undergraduate workshop was part of the Education and Outreach for SAMSI’s Program on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy (ASTRO).

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