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Trip to McDonald Observatory Inspires FRI Student

Trip to McDonald Observatory Inspires FRI Student
Rylee Ross, second from left, poses with other members of the White Dwarf Stars research stream in front of the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope at the McDonald Observatory. Students used the telescope to make time series measurements of pulsating white dwarf stars.

This summer, Rylee Ross, a member of the White Dwarf Stars research stream of the Freshman Research Initiative and her lab-mates visited the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. Rylee is a second-year physics (space science option) major and the recipient of a 2017 FRI Summer Research Fellowship. After graduation, she hopes to attend graduate school in physics.

What did you enjoy most about your trip to the McDonald Observatory?

This summer's trip to McDonald was very eye-opening, beautiful, and exciting! It was not only informative but breathtaking—being isolated at such a high altitude was both amazing and terrifying because you have to become nocturnal in order to obtain data.

In our lab, the closest you get to a telescope is remote operation. At the McDonald Observatory, however, I was lucky enough to be able to see actual instrumentation, control rooms, and telescopes, including the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope up close. We were also able to learn how to collect data using a 0.9m telescope to make time-series measurements of pulsating white dwarf stars. This hands-on experience allowed me to familiarize myself with many terms and procedures of operation that could affect the data I'm analyzing during the year and helps me to better understand how to manipulate programs to become more effective in their analysis.

How did your trip to the observatory and your involvement in FRI help familiarize you with the techniques and concepts you need to understand for your research?

My research in FRI focuses on methods that astronomers use to measure the brightness of stars. At the observatory, I learned how to do photometry, which is the technique used by astronomers to do just that. I am currently using data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to compare different photometric techniques. This will help to improve how our FRI stream analyzes such data in the future.

Being a member of White Dwarf Stars has allowed me to become more familiar with python and coding in general. This skill will not only help me in my upper-level courses that require programming but also it allows me to understand real-life models of equations and techniques from physics and astronomy classes here at UT. I have been fortunate enough to delve into different research areas and better search for a field I might be interested in in the future. I one day hope to get into gravitational physics and be able to better understand the data observed from recent Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) operations. 

Interviewed by Elizabeth Ilardi, Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science

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Friday, 27 January 2023

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