Stevie Rudak | October 04, 2023
An Eye on the Sky
Physics student detects changes in space using radio waves through an internship with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico.
Allison Blum spent her summer researching the intricacies of space across time through an opportunity with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) — one of the world’s leading astronomical radio observatories funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
“We used the same methods and telescope that astronomy legends used, learning from the best of the best,” Blum said.
When applying to summer research experiences, Blum shared her list of open opportunities with physics professor and mentor, Ka-Wah Wong. Wong had an additional recommendation — the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the NRAO.
“I had low expectations, as the number of available spots range from five to 10 students,” Blum said. “After months of tirelessly waiting, I received an email and it read, ‘Congratulations, you have been accepted for the NRAO REU program in Socorro, New Mexico.’ I knew I could not pass up the opportunity.”
Before heading to New Mexico, all accepted students traveled to the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. Blum was officially “off the grid,” unable to use her cell phone and other devices with a power switch because the observatory sits in a National Radio Quiet Zone, where technology usage is regulated as it can interfere with radio frequencies.
“We used the same methods and telescope that astronomy legends used, learning from the best of the best.”
Students underwent a week-long training dedicated to understanding the basics of radio astronomy which included daily lectures, an opportunity to collect data from the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope alongside peers, and data analyzation techniques.
“The sky was the clearest I’ve ever seen it,” Blum said. “You could easily see the Milky Way Galaxy.”
Blum then flew to the NRAO’s Very Large Array (VLA), a premier astronomical radio observatory comprised of 27 radio telescopes. She soon began her research with Dillon Dong, a PhD graduate from the Caltech Astronomy Department. Dong secured a grant to develop code that detects changes in the sky using archival data from the NRAO’s VLA.
“Astronomy and astrophysics are very coding intensive,” Blum said. “There’s a lot of theory, but to get there, you must use coding, requiring self-discipline in teaching oneself an entirely new language.”
“This whole summer was something out of a movie. I didn’t think I would have this kind of experience so early in my career, but it reaffirms my place in astrophysics.”
Blum was tasked with the responsibility to classify the changes in data over time based on type, means of detection, method of discovery, and more.
“It’s very hard to give a general classification for things because each object and event in space has its own nuances,” Blum said. “I was even using archival data from other observatories to piece together information.”
Blum’s goal is to eventually automate coding with current and previous archival data to pinpoint changes, figure out what is happening in the sky, and identify why there are transients occurring. Blum continues to work on the project and was invited back to the NRAO next summer to finish her portion of the research.
“This whole summer was something out of a movie,” Blum said. “I didn’t think I would have this kind of experience so early in my career, but it reaffirms my place in astrophysics.”