A Summer Studying Space – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

A Summer Studying Space

Physics major Michelle Gomez ’16 of Bronx, N.Y. spent the summer as one of 14 interns in the Space Astronomy Summer Program at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. Interns hailed from throughout the United States, as well as Brazil, Egypt and Poland. Gomez learned about the internship from her adviser, Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb, and was accepted following an application process that included an essay on why she is interested in astronomy.

“This is one of the top – if not the top – internships for undergraduates interested in astronomy,” explains Hebb. “Michelle spent the summer working alongside some of the top researchers in the field of extra-solar planetary science. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity.”

The Space Telescope Science Institute is one of the world’s premier astronomical research institutions, with a scientific staff of more than 100 astronomers conducting research on a breadth of astrophysics topics. It is the scientific operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope. The Institute invites only a few college students to take part in the Space Astronomy Summer Program each year, and students work individually with its researchers and staff.

Gomez’s assignment was to identify transits in the Kepler database whose light curves are affected by star spots.

“Since star spots are interesting because they are a signature of magnetic activity, our goal was to map star spots to understand magnetic fields on stars outside of our solar system,” explains Gomez. “If the Kepler satellite delivered little data for a planet system, it was difficult to complete this task. We had to find a way to map star spots, but make sure we were not overfitting a light curve that might have a subtle star spot feature.”

The majority of her day was spent in her office programming in the computer language Python. She also volunteered at Youth Star Parties that were hosted by the Space Telescope Science Institute, during which she was able to participate in night star observation through amateur telescopes and the Morris W. Offit Telescope located at Johns Hopkins University.

“On one night we were able to see Saturn and Mars,” she adds.

Gomez learned valuable skills, including collaborating with colleagues, public speaking, analyzing graphs, thinking critically, and how to present scientific information to the general public, among others.

“It was challenging for her, but she met the challenge head-on which resulted in a very productive summer. Her advisers were very happy with her progress over the summer and her overall attitude and work ethic,” says Hebb, adding that Gomez is an incredibly hard worker who asks interesting and thoughtful questions. “This internship has given her the opportunity to see all the possibilities that are open to her and has launched her into the exciting field of scientific research. I have no doubt she will continue to learn and improve and make the most of this experience in the years to come.”

In reflecting on how her summer experience will help her now, Gomez says HWS professors at HWS encourage students to work together.

“I believe that I will be more capable and willing to dissect ideas and problems taught in the classroom,” she says.