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Pulsars and college prep: Virtual internship sets Mountain State college students up for success

The crab nebula.The Crab Nebula, some 6,500 light years away, is the remnant of a spectacular explosion that left behind a pulsar.

In the year 5500 B.C.E., when many cultures across the planet were first developing a system of writing, a distant star many times more massive than our sun ran out of fuel. As the star collapsed in on itself, its core became so compressed that its outer layers bounced off of it in a spectacular supernova. Of the behemoth star, all that remained was a cloud of dust, swirling gas and a densely packed, spinning core of neutrons.

In the year 1054, nearly six hundred years before telescopes, astronomers were using mathematics to better understand the cosmos. Late-prehistoric Native American tribes carved their astronomical observations into stone while Chinese astronomers documented something fantastic in the sky as light from that ancient explosion reached our planet.

In the year 2020, sixteen soon-to-be college students logged into computers across West Virginia during a global pandemic, communicating instantly with one another through electronic signals, pixels and code. Using data from the famed Green Bank radio telescope, they got to work developing ways to better study that spinning star ghost, and others like it, in an effort that brought together ancient history, modern technology and a brighter outlook for the future.

A head start in the stars

Elizabeth LoweElizabeth Lowe

Elizabeth Lowe will start her college career at WVU Tech next week. The information systems major from Fayetteville, West Virginia wants to eventually earn her master’s degree and build a career in database management.

“I want to go into this field because it has an impact that extends beyond the digital world and into the physical one,” she said.

She’s excited about starting her journey. So, when she was invited to participate in WVU Tech’s inaugural First2 Network Summer Research Internship program, she chased the opportunity.

First2 Network is a National Science Foundation-funded, statewide project that aims to help students enroll and succeed in college, with a particular focus on rural first-generation students in STEM fields. WVU Tech professors Sanish Rai and Kenan Hatipoglu worked with First2 Network to establish a two-week summer internship for students going into their freshmen year of college.

“The camp's purpose is to provide immersive research experience to rising freshmen students and get them motivated with STEM research that helps them to be successful in university,” said Rai. “Students learn about various aspects of the university and form a community with other similar students including senior students, faculty, scientists and industry professionals.”

That pre-orientation experience caught Lowe’s attention, but, like most first-time college students, there was some uncertainty.

“When I first read the description of the program, I was a little hesitant about applying. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the program because doing the program would have required me to step out of my comfort zone,” she said.

She wasn’t wrong. As the program kicked off, Lowe found out that she would be networking with students from across the state. She also discovered that she would also be working on a project of incredible magnitude.

The Green Bank Observatory has been using its radio telescopes for decades to study pulsars, like the one leftover from the formation of the Crab Nebula some 7,500 years ago. The spin of these dead stars blasts high-intensity beams of electromagnetic radiation that can be picked up on Earth in the form of radio waves.

“The observatory is working on an innovative receiver that will dramatically improve the Green Bank Telescope for low-frequency research,” explained Rai. “A key problem to be solved in order to make this new technology work is real-time is the removal of Radio Frequency Interference or RFI.”

So, the camp worked with Green Bank’s Senior Education Officer Sue Ann Heatherly and pulsar scientist Dr. Ryan Lynch to task students with a few simple chores: characterizing novel cyclostationary RFI plots to help develop machine learning algorithms; defining database structures and a user interface for those continuing this work; and investigating any available machine learning algorithms that might help.

In simple terms: students had to help the observatory find a better way to separate true pulsar data from the rest of the noise.

For Lowe, it turned out to be a fascinating project.

“We virtually used the 20m telescope at the Green Bank Observatory to observe a variety of pulsars. We then analyzed the data we got from the observation to see if the signals we were receiving were from the pulsar or if it was just radio frequency interference,” she said. “Then we looked at cyclostationary RFI plots and characterized them so we could use the data collected from these plots to create future machine learning algorithms.”

Lowe never imagined she’d be working on a project so intense in the program, let alone before she even started her college career.

“I learned about radio telescopes, pulsars, radio frequency interferences, cyclostationary plots and much more. My favorite experience from the internship would be coding in SQL. I had never done that sort of coding before and I found it very interesting to learn. The first few codes I wrote had many errors and wouldn’t run properly. With the help of my mentor and peers, I was able to correct my code and it was able to run properly. I was very excited the moment my code ran with no errors.,” she said.

Lessons as dense as a neutron star

A zoom call screenshot, featuring 25 students, faculty and scientists.Interns, mentors, professors and scientists meet during the First2 Network program to discuss their findings.

The internship spent a great deal of time looking at data from the distant past, but its tone was one of hope and opportunity for the not-so-distant future.

The sixteen interns came from all over the state, and they’re headed into STEM educational careers at WVU Tech, WVU, Marshall University, WVU Parkersburg and the University of Charleston.

In most college experiences, students spend the first half of their college career working through the basics: essentials math, core courses and a smattering of electives. It can be a number of years before STEM majors can really sink their teeth into research.

It’s also a confusing time, where students have to learn new schedules, new ways of balancing school and life – all while trying to study their field.

“We provided various information about research, professional opportunities and life after graduation that we hope will be valuable to students in being successful from the start of college life,” said Rai.

That effort included pairing teams of interns up with six current WVU Tech students, like computer science majors Tyler Kibler and Nicolas Null, who helped interns tackle their work and chat about college life. The program taught them how to conduct research, how to get involved on any campus and the types of resources accessible to college students. For students like Lowe, the experience was powerful.

“The biggest benefit of participating in this program for me,” she said, “is getting a hands-on idea of how to conduct research. We conducted different research projects that allowed us to learn how to collect, analyze and present research data. The skills and knowledge I gained about research will aid me in future research projects.”

But in the era of COVID-19, there was also lessons to be learned about adaptability.

Instructors had to adapt the entire research project to work in an online environment. They had to deal with internet connectivity issues. And a very modern problem reared its head: Zoom fatigue. Interns were feeling the stress of prolonged meetings, both physically and mentally.

“We started doing daily surveys. We quickly adapted to this situation by introducing a five-minute stretch break after every 30-minute session. During this break, students would leave their computer and bring something back – for example, something blue or their favorite snack. This improved the situation highly and students were feeling much better at the end of the day,” said Rai.

Even so, the program’s first round ran like a well-oiled machine, with interns knocking out what Rai called “very valuable” findings in the Green Bank project, racking up tons of helpful college tips and making new connections to the cosmos, career opportunities and colleagues.

“I was able to meet so many people from other parts of West Virginia that I don’t think I could have without this experience. I was able to learn more about college life, and there are many opportunities to ask the mentors what they learned freshman year, what they wish they did differently, and just personal questions you might have about college.” 

“I am glad I applied because I can say I loved being a part of the program.”