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February 19, 2014

Undergrad’s research experience leads to Science paper

student and researchers
Astrophysicist David Hathaway of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and coauthors Lisa Upton, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, and Owen Colegrove, an undergraduate student at Rochester

Like other seniors, Owen Colegrove had a busy end of the semester: staying on top of classes, preparing for finals, wrapping up projects, and applying to graduate school. But unlike other undergraduates, Colegrove had to leave the last week of the fall semester for San Francisco, to present a poster at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting. Attended by tens of thousands of people, it is one of the highlights of the scientific conference season, with lots of high-profile speakers, media coverage and topical issues being covered.

Colegrove presented work he had done during his Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). During REUs, students across the country spend part of their summer on a research project as part of their academic experience. Unlike Colegrove, though, not many will have a Science paper to their name at the end of the project.

Exposing undergraduates to research is exactly the purpose of REUs, and Colegrove thinks it was a fantastic opportunity for that.

“We encourage our physics majors to take on a major research project over the summer, either in Rochester or elsewhere, to complement their classroom experiences,” says Kevin McFarland, professor of physics who taught Colegrove last semester. “Owen’s success is a great example of how productive these summer research projects can be.”

Colegrove worked during the summer of 2013 under the supervision of David Hathaway, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Together with Lisa Upton, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, Colegrove helped analyze data from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The team was looking for evidence that would point to the proposed existence of giant convection cells on the sun.

The giant convection cells are flows on the sun’s surface that may be related to the sun’s magnetic fields, as well as to sunspots. Small granules (and larger supergranules) that move gas around on the surface of the sun have been studied since early in the 20th century, but the team showed that these are moved around by even larger features: giant convection cells, which are much slower moving.

The work of Hathaway, Upton and Colegrove may also help answer a longstanding question: “why is a day on the sun’s equator (25 days) so much shorter than a day on the Sun’s poles (35 days)?” It could be that these giant cells alter what is happening as the Sun spins.

The day before leaving for the AGU conference in California, Colegrove appeared to be taking all the new experiences in stride. Reflecting on having his name on a Science paper as an undergraduate he said “that it just hadn’t sunk in.”

Colegrove plans to go to graduate school for physics—he is just trying to decide which area of physics and what university. “I hadn’t taken many astrophysics classes before this project, but now after this work I think this is an area I want to learn more about.”

Colegrove says his experience at NASA has provided him with a better understanding of the patience that research requires and a determined attitude to continue forward, even after multiple setbacks.

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