Young scientists get their start at the Pulsar Search Collaboratory

The Green Bank Telescope at sunset Credit: B. Kent, NRAO/AUI/NSF

As darkness settled over the West Virginia countryside a group of young scientists walked beneath the towering dishes of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Faint radio signals from across the universe reflect off these dishes to reveal the secrets of pulsars and black holes. But these scientists weren’t astrophysicists or even graduate students.

“We would walk out there as a group,” Katya Gilbo recalled, “all kids - tenth graders and eleventh graders - and be entrusted to move this huge dish and take the data.”

The Green Bank Telescope's 110-meter dish makes it the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. A 7,700 metric tonne support structure lets the telescope cover all but the most southern regions of the sky. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Katya joined the Pulsar Search Collaboratory the summer before her junior year in high school. The education outreach program gives students hands-on experience using data from the NRAO’s radio telescopes to conduct real scientific research. Joe Swiggum, a West Virginia University graduate student and one of the program's mentors, told me how the professional astronomers at the NRAO created this unique program:

“The Green Bank Telescope was down for repairs in 2007. During that time it was stowed in a fixed position. We turned on our receivers and observed the sky as it moved by overhead. A large portion of the data went to the 350MHz Drift Scan Survey, but part of it went to the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.”

The professional astronomers found 35 previously unknown pulsars in the survey’s 134 terabytes of data. These rapidly spinning stellar remains sweep beams of radio waves across the universe like a lighthouse above a storm-swept cliff. Astrophysicists study these repeating flashes to understand stellar evolution, the vast space through which the signals travel, and to find so-far elusive gravity waves.

What’s really important about the Pulsar Search Collaboratory is that it is a collaboratory - a collaborative laboratory.
— Katya Gilbo

By giving the students access to their own 30 terabyte dataset, the Pulsar Search Collaboratory lets them make a similar contribution to science. Teachers and students attend a week-long workshop at the NRAO where they learn the physics of radio astronomy as well as how to collect and analyze data with the observatory’s radio telescopes.

“Every day we had lectures and workshops. At night we looked at pulsars and we mapped the blackhole at the center of our galaxy. It was really neat because we had direct training with the world’s leading pulsar astronomers like Dr. Duncan Lorimer and Dr. Maura McLaughlin. I remember playing ultimate frisbee with some of the PSC scientists. It was really unique because they were our teachers but they were also fellow friends.”

An example of the plottings students in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory use in their search. The summer workshops, and a future online tutorial, teach the students how to read the graphs and analyze the statistics. The learn how to identify spurious signals from radio frequency interference and distinguish pulsars from other astronomical radio sources. Credit: Pulsar Search Collaboratory

The students take those skills home and and search for pulsars during the school year. The students download a set of 35 graphs that plot small chunks of the data. After quantitatively analyzing the graphs, the students compare their results with other students through the program’s website. They report potential discoveries to the program’s scientist mentors like Joe who conduct follow-up analysis. “The students have identified almost one hundred known pulsars,” Joe said, “but it’s not like they’re looking through data that’s already been analyzed. They’ve also discovered seven new pulsars.”

Artist's concept of a student pulsar discovery. The pulsar co-orbits with a companion neutron star - a doubly rare phenomenon. The extreme forces of a supernova explosion usually kicks the surviving neutron star away from any companion stars, making a pulsar binary systems uncommon. For it to happen twice is even more unusual. Cecilia McGough and De’Shang Ray discovered their pulsar in data from the Green Bank Telescope. Follow up observations show that the two neutron stars orbit each other at a larger distance than any other double neutron binary system. Credit: B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

This year the National Radio Astronomy Observatory announced the latest student discovery - a pair of neutron stars orbiting each other at the widest distance ever recorded. Cecilia McGough is one of the 25 students listed as a co-author on the paper recently accepted for publication by the Astrophysical Journal (arXiv: 1503.06276). Cecilia explained how her experience with the Pulsar Search Collaboratory shaped the direction of her career.

“It was through the PSC and other STEM programs that I found my passion for pulsar research. I became one in eleven to represent the United States in the International Space Olympics held in Russia. There I placed fifth internationally in astrophysics and was also named miss Space Olympics 2012.”

Cecilia is now a physics major at Pennsylvania State University where she founded the Penn State Pulsar Search Collaboratory. She modeled the group on her own pulsar search experience, so that undergraduates can do high level research even if they are only freshmen.

“It is my goal to become a professor and to continue on with pulsar research. I see it as a necessity for future space exploration by establishing an interstellar GPS system. Pulsar research also explores the new frontiers of science such as by further validating Einstein’s Relativity theories through potentially detecting gravity waves.”

Katya’s experience had a similar impact on her academic career. “PSC has opened a lot of opportunities for me,” she explained. “With my experience working with data and online catalogs, I did a science fair project my senior year on space weather looking at Nasa data. I competed at the state level and then was able to work at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center - it was amazing! This summer I’m working at NIH and I’m using the same interactive data visualization language I used at Nasa.”

Katya is enrolled in the University of Virginia’s physics program. Even though her interests lean more towards biophysics than astrophysics, she still applies the lessons the Pulsar Search Collaboratory taught her. “It made me want to be an experimentalist. I really relished the hands-on aspect of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. I appreciate being able to see the world and then try to understand it directly hands-on.”

The program shapes the careers of the professionals involved. In addition to serving as a PSC mentor, Joe promotes the program through public presentations. “The thing I love about outreach is interacting with students. They bring a fresh perspective to the subject matter and their determination and enthusiasm inspire me in my own work. Outreach is rejuvenating and fun!”

The program also enhances the mentors’ careers. As Joe explained, “I’ve done a lot of the proposal writing, follow up observations, and writing papers related to the students’ discoveries.” In fact, Joe was the lead author for the latest pulsar discovery - an important asset in the career of a young scientist.

It was through the PSC and other STEM programs that I found my passion for pulsar research.
— Cecilia McGough

A 2010 paper documented the program’s broader impact (DOI: 10.3847/AER2010004, arXiv preprint: 1005/1060). After participating in the PSC, the study found, the students were more interested in STEM-related careers. Girls especially became much more confident in their abilities. Many of the schools taking part in the program were in rural or low-income areas where a majority of students were eligible for the National School Lunch Program. A significant number of the students planned to be the first in their families to go to college.

The Pulsar Search Collaboratory enrolled as many as 2,000 students in 18 states at its peak. But the difficult science funding environment over the past several years has taken its toll.  “The project was funded in 2008 for three years,” Joe explained. “We ended up stretching that to 2013. At the moment a handful of students are working with us and we're looking for continued funding.” 

Expanding the Pulsar Search Collaboratory’s impact will require some changes to reach a broader range of students. “Having students actually visit Green Bank in the summer to see and use the telescope lets them make friends who have similar interests,” Joe explained. “The idea moving forward is to implement an online training program. If Green Bank visits are not possible, we hope to build an interface that allows students to interact with other students and mentors, participate remotely in follow-up observations and maybe even control observations of their own.”

Programs like the Pulsar Search Collaboratory have profound effects on the lives of future scientists like Cecilia and Katya. It gives them hands-on experience with actual scientific research. They get to see that science is a messy exploration rather than the straightforward trek to the right answer of most classroom exercizes. They also learn personal lessons that follow them through their academic careers.

As Katya told me, “What’s really important about the Pulsar Search Collaboratory is that it is a collaboratory - a collaborative laboratory. Beyond exposing students to science it helps you to really work in a team.”

“What I learned,” Cecilia explained, “was that you don’t have to be an Einstein to pursue science.  The key is to be focused, passionate, and dedicated to your work. Do not expect people to take you as above average unless you are willing to do above average work to get there.”

A new documentary called "Little Green Men" will delve deeper into the Pulsar Search Collaboratory's impact on the lives of aspiring scientists. Supported by a National Science Founduation grant, the documentary shows what a difference pulsar science can make - both for science and for the students themselves. Scientists like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, the first pulsar discoverer, describe the physics of pulsars and radio astronomy. Students who participated in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory describe their experiences and the thrill of discovery. You can watch a preview at the Little Green Men site.

June 1 Update: The correct number of new pulsars discovered by the 350MHz Drift Scan Survey is 35, not 7. The correct number of students listed as co-authors is 25, not 2.