How to use this page
Below you will find mentor bios and project descriptions for the 2017-2018 academic year. You will be paired with one of these fantastic scientists to conduct research on the project described.
Disclaimer: We make every effort to match you with a project closest to your interest but cannot promise you one of your top 5 projects. I do promise that every single one of our projects and mentors is amazing and you will have a phenomenal experience.
Lu Yao, Mammalogy
Keywords: Conservation, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics & Genomics
Project: Spot-billed pelicans (Pelecanus philippensis) are coastal birds that reside in southern Asia. They have distinct spots on their bills, but they are often confused for two other pelican species, the Dalmation pelicans (P. crispus) and the Great White pelicans (P. onocrotalus), which also reside throughout Asia. So the first goal of this project is to double check species identifications of museum specimens using genetics as most identifications were made decades ago without updates. Additionally, we aim to better understand each species’ phylogeography, range reduction over time, and loss of genetic diversity in extinct and current populations. Because very few populations remain in the wild, especially spot-billed pelicans, the use of museum specimens from 50-100 years ago is necessary for this work. In this hands-on laboratory and computational project, the SRMP students will work directly with dried tissues from pelican museum specimens by digesting, extracting, amplifying, and sequencing DNA. Towards the end of the program, SRMP students will have the opportunity to learn how to analyze the genetic dataset to answer some of the questions.
Bio: My interests in evolutionary biology and physical anthropology began when I started watching the TV show Bones in college. Since then, I’ve pursued research in the field of evolutionary biology. My work focuses on primates and other organisms from Southeast Asia. Specifically, I use ancient DNA and morphological traits collected from museum specimens to answer a variety of questions surrounding the colonization of islands, biogeographic patterns, natural hybridization between species, shape and size changes on islands, and species relationships. Additionally, because of the endangered statuses of many organisms in this region, my research has conservation implications.
Paul Sweet, Ornithology
Keywords: Bioinformatics, Conservation, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Taxonomy
Project: How can we use museum specimens and archival data to produce a historic snapshot of bird diversity and map the expeditions of early 20th century scientists? Learn how to be a biological specimen detective and produce online data visualizations. The AMNH Whitney South Seas Expedition spent a dozen years from 1920 to 1932 travelling around the Pacific collecting some 40,000 bird specimens from over 600 islands, the longest ornithological voyage in history. Although these specimens are critical to our understanding of the biodiversity of the region almost none of them have associated geographic coordinates. We will work to discover geographic information for the bird specimens collected on this expedition. We will examine bird specimens and their original labels; consult the hand-written catalogs and the unpublished field journals, as well as various online and published sources. This hands-on research work will generate data that can be used not only by the students to learn GIS applications, but will also be archived in our database and be available to all researchers with an interest in the Pacific. Once we have obtained our georeferenced locality data we will work with colleagues from Vizzuality, a Brooklyn based digital mapping group, who will guide us in the use of their CartoDB mapping program. We will learn how to visualize our data to generate an engaging and informative digital map showing the WSSE route with links to specimen records and historic photographs.
Bio: I grew up in England and have been fascinated by natural history for as long as I can remember. I have always collected specimens and as a child even had a museum in my bedroom, so working in the bird collections at the AMNH is a dream job. I studied Zoology at university and have been working in the Ornithology Department for 25 years. Every day I am amazed by the vast collections that I manage and overwhelmed by the daunting task of caring for these treasures.
Anthony Caragiulo, Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics
Keywords: Ecology, Conservation, Genetics and Genomics
Project: Coyotes (Canis latrans) have greatly expanded their range in the recent past and are now abundant throughout nearly all North America having recently colonized highly urbanized areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto. Coyotes are well established to the north of NYC, but have recently been migrating into NYC's dense urban matrix as evidenced by coyotes being captured in parts of Manhattan and Queens. Coyote urbanization studies have used camera trap and scat surveys to examine the presence or absence or coyotes in NYC, with the goal of understanding their colonization pattern. This project aims to use environmental DNA (eDNA) to detect the presence of coyotes in NYC, as well as assess the utility of eDNA for vertebrate biodiversity surveys. eDNA is trace DNA in samples such as water and soil, and is a mixture of potentially degraded DNA from many different organisms. This SRMP project will follow protocols from a metabarcoding study that used "dirt" from a zoological garden to determine if the known species within an enclosure could be detected using eDNA techniques, and will expand on a SRMP project from 2016-2017. My SRMP team from 2016-2017 detected eDNA from most vertebrates visiting the sampling sites – even coyotes! Soil samples from camera trap sites in the south Bronx were collected for metabarcoding to examine vertebrate biodiversity at each site. Sites were paired with camera traps to validate the species detected via soil metabarcoding. Students will learn molecular genetic techniques (i.e. DNA extraction, PCR, DNA sequencing) in addition to bioinformatics, and the project has applicability to molecular ecology, conservation biology, and the growing field of eDNA. Additionally, this eDNA approach may provide a quick methodological alternative to classic ecological surveys of biodiversity. Not to mention, your study species is coyotes!
An overview of this study was published in Scientific American and accompanying slide show.
Bio: I am a research scientist and the Assistant Director of Genomic Operations of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at AMNH. My main interests are conservation genetics and population genetics of organisms. I spend most of my time researching large carnivores (i.e. pumas, jaguars, snow leopards, tigers) using noninvasive techniques (i.e. scat, scent sprays, hair). I’m really interested in using new noninvasive methods for understanding how these carnivores use the landscape. I’m also interested in using genetics to answer ecological questions, such as (1) how long has an organism been in an area? (2) what’s their colonization pattern? (3) what landscape features drive their genetic and population structure/diversity? I am also interested in using museum collections for historic and ancient DNA to examine past genetic patterns.
Please note: I am on able to mentor on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Jessica McKay, Ornithology
Edward Myers, Herpetology
Keywords: Ecology, Evolutionary Biology
Project: Anole lizards are common through the Caribbean and Neotropics and have been well studied because they represent a textbook case of adaptive radiation (https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/ecological-opportunity-trigger-of-adaptive-radiation-84160951). However, even in well studied groups, like anoles, there are undescribed species that are unknown to scientists. To make the problem of recognizing different species even more complicated, sometimes very different species look very similar (i.e. cryptic species). In such cases biologists need to use DNA sequences to test species boundaries and quantify biodiversity. For this study we will be extracting, amplifying, sequencing, and analyzing DNA of the Bluefields Anole (Anolis opalinus)( http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Anolis&species=opalinus&search_param=%28%28genus%3D%27anolis%27%29%28location%3D%27jamaica%27%29%29), a species that is wide spread across Jamaica. Previous work suggests that this species should actually be classified as multiple different species, but no in depth investigation has been conducted. This project will ultimately quantify cryptic species within one of the best studied groups of lizards and potentially lead to the description of a new species to science!
Bio: I have always been fascinated with reptiles, and in particular snakes. This interest lead me to graduate school at CUNY where I earned a PhD studying the population genetics of snakes in the desert southwest. For my dissertation I used a combination of genomics, morphology, and ecological niche modeling to address the question of how do species form? I am currently a post-doctoral researcher in the Herpetology Department at the AMNH. My current research is focused on the evolution of venom in rattlesnakes. This work has allowed me to spend a lot of time in the field (within the US, Mexico, Panama, and Brazil!) and a lot of time in the lab. I am very interested in the fields of evolutionary biology, molecular ecology, systematics, and did I mention snakes?
Darice Westphal; City University of New York
Keywords: Bioinformatics, Ecology, Conservation
Project: The project I am currently developing will focus on habitat changes and deforestation in Madagascar. Deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate in Madagascar and is the cause of declines in many species, particularly primates. In order to study how deforestation occurs over time, forestation patterns from several years will be analyzed. During this project, participants will code in R and develop graphical representations of forest change over time. Participants may be interested in this project if they want to learn more about coding in general, are curious about how fast deforestation is occurring, or love maps. Below are some examples of maps I have made with code in R.
Bio: I am a PhD candidate at CUNY that studies changes in gene flow in small, nocturnal primates as a consequence of habitat fragmentation. All my lab work is completed, so I am currently focused on bioinformatics. I work in the Education Department (AMNH) teaching the Human Origins and the SRMP Summer Institute. I also teach physical anthropology to undergraduates at Hunter College and Lehman College (both CUNY). My background is in physical anthropology, with an emphasis on genetics. If you get me to say “joke”, you will hear my Wisconsin accent.
Shaadi Mehr, Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics
Bio: Dr. Shaadi Mehr, earned her PhD in genomics techniques and molecular, from City University of New York (http://www2.cuny.edu), in 2013. She worked with professors Rob DeSalle at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History (http://www.amnh.org/our-research/sackler-institute-for-comparative-genomics), and David Gruber at the City University of New York to write her PhD thesis. During her PhD, as a genomic data scientist she used RNA-seq transcriptomics data to identify and characterize novel fluorescent proteins form marine animals. She has published the chapters of her thesis in peer-reviewed journals (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Shaadi_Mehr/publications). During her postdoctoral training, at the New York University (http://www.nyu.edu), she used Next Generation whole genome sequencing method to study population adaptations of S. mutans (caries disease causing pathogen) collected from more than 130 individuals living around the world. She is currently is an assistant professor at the State University of New York (https://www.oldwestbury.edu), and research scientist at Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the AMNH (http://www.amnh.org/our-research/sackler-institute-for-comparative-genomics). Her research interests include microbial diversity and functional adaptation using phylogenomics and metagenomics methods. More specifically, she is interested in the role that environmental heterogeneity plays in functional and genomics diversity of bacterial genome, and how these factors influence the functional adaptation in urban environment such as waste water plants, and public areas. She is currently a member of MetaSub (http://metasub.org) international consortium, the largest Metagenomics and Metadesign of Urban Biomes.
Suzanne Macey, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
Keywords: Ecology, Conservation
Project: Project Description – Did you know that one of the world’s most endangered turtles lives right here in New York State? Bog turtles (the smallest freshwater turtle in North America) are endangered primarily because human-induced threats such as the loss of their wetland habitat to development and agriculture and the illegal pet trade. Additionally, bog turtles and their nests are threatened by predators—including those animals that have benefited or tolerated expanding human development (e.g., raccoons and skunks). So, how many bog turtles are left? An exact number is hard to come by because they are cryptic (hard to find). How big does a population need to be for it to persist? Well, that can be determined by understanding the ecology of the species—including their life history and demography, such as birth rates, death rates, and migration rates. For this SRMP project, students will be analyzing demographic data collected on bog turtle populations from over a decade of work in the field. We’ll use population modeling to help wildlife managers make a practical decision: Does it make sense to protect bog turtle nests from predators? Results from this study could have real-life management consequences—helping managers decide where best to spend their money and time for bog turtle conservation.
Want to learn more about the bog turtle? Start here:
Bio: My name is Suzanne Macey and I’ve been researching animals since I was 19 years old—sometimes travelling all over the world to study them. My projects often focus on the reproductive ecology of a species and use that information to help conservation efforts. What’s my favorite animal? I’m not that picky, but small, fat, and round animals make me squee. I did my Ph.D. at Fordham University studying the endangered bog turtle and I now work at the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and create educational materials about conservation (and I still study turtles… and penguins).
Mike Tessler, Richard Gilder Graduate School @ AMNH
David Kizirian, Herpetology
Neil Duncan, Mammalogy
Mark Weckel, Science Research Mentoring Program
Mark Weckel, Science Research Mentoring Program
Keywords: Ecology, Conservation
Project : Researchers and students have been studying NYC's coyotes for the past several years as part of the Gotham Coyote Project. We've used cameras to locate them, scat to reconstruct coyote die, DNA to understand their genetic relatedness and ancestry, and social science to understand what New Yorkers think of them. This year SRMP students will participate in a variety of projects helping us to wrap up existing research while also at starting some new ones:
1) Dissect and analyze the content of stomachs from NYC coyotes killed by automobiles.
2) Use statistics to explore diet data collected from previous SRMP teams and compare the diet of NYC coyotes to other cities.
3) Test new telemetry collars to study coyote movement
This last objective is very important to our study. Coyotes arrived in NYC in the mid 90s' and are now found a:ll throughout the Bronx, the northern tip of Manhattan, and in a couple of sites in Queens. We know coyotes have been successful in colonizing new parks, but we don't know much about how coyotes move around our city? When are they most active? Are there movement corridors? Aside from one-way trips across our city to colonize new parks, are they largely restricted to the borders of parks?
Our radio collars will one day answer these questions but for now, we need to know how location accuracy and precision is impacted by building height and density as well as tree cover.
Disclaimer: There is no guarantee that we will analyze real coyote movement data. . . . but we can hope!
Neil's Bio: I am the Collections Manager for the Department of Mammalogy. I am responsible for the day to day operations of the department as well as implementing collections improvement projects. While the collections are an important part of my professional life I still seek opportunities on my own to answer ecological questions. Before I came to the museum I worked in various parts of the country employed in different wildlife and fisheries jobs. One of my favorites was working as a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service studying forest carnivores in Northern California. That is where I became interested in food webs and diet analysis studies. Since that time I have determined prey items from carnivores in over 3000 scats. I have been involved in diet studies of fishers, martens, fox and coyotes from localities around North America. I always feel somewhat like a detective when I conduct a diet analysis study. Every new prey item identified is a small puzzle piece of the bigger picture. Eventually, a clearer picture emerges of the day to day life of an elusive animal.
Mark's Bio: I am a Brooklyn born, Bronx and Manhattan educated, Queens resident, conservation scientist and co-founder of Gotham Coyote . I did my graduate work at Fordham University and the City University of New York where I worked on jaguar conservation and white-tailed deer management, respectively. I am the co-founder of Gotham Coyote and the proud manager of SRMP!
Please note: Students who want to work on our project must be able to work Mondays and Tuesdays.
Alex de Voogt, Anthropology
Rae Wynn-Grant; Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
Richard Baker; Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics
Claudia Wultsch; Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics
Keywords: Bioinformatics, Conservation, Ecology, Genetics and Genomics
Project: Exploring wildlife microbiomes – an alternative perspective on animal ecology and health: With growing human populations expanding into wildlife habitats, research on wildlife microbiomes, comprised of thousands of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms within animals’ bodies, functionally associated with the animals’ health, nutrition, and indirectly with the quality of their habitat, is of increasing interest in wildlife conservation and management. Presently, however, microbiome studies focusing on wild animal populations are rare. This research project aims to study different microbiomes (e.g., gut, skin) in free-ranging bobcats (Lynx rufus) across different study areas with varying levels of human disturbance. In addition to providing important baseline information on carnivore microbiomes, we will also explore alternative applications of this research approach to aid ongoing conservation and management efforts.
What to expect:
This project is great for everybody who has an interest in carnivore ecology and conservation and the application of innovative DNA methods to study them. Students will be helping with various tasks of this research project:
+ Additional data analysis using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and R
+ If time allows, students will also help with some lab work
And I love dogs!
For more information, check out my twitter page: http://twitter.com/claudiawultsch
Brian Shearer & Dag Abebe; Anthropology
Brian's Bio: I'm a Ph.D Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center studying human and non- human primate evolution. Most of my research involves fossils or the study of extant primates through comparative anatomy. Recently I've begun to incorporate technology such as CT and MRI scanners to better understand the evolution of primates in a non-destructive manner, and am always excited to incorporate new technology into an old field. I teach several courses at different CUNY campuses, and human gross anatomy at the NYU Langone Medical school. I also am actively involved in paleontology fieldwork, and am lucky to get to spend my summers in Colombia, where I am part of the La Venta paleontology project.
Dag's Bio: My name is Dagmawit and I’m an Ethiopian PhD student at the City University of New York. My research is mostly focused on studying the evolution of Old World monkeys, particularly gelada baboons. I am interested in understanding what these primates looked like, how many species there were, what kind of environments they lived in and so on. I use 3D data like surface and CT scans to answer these questions. I have worked at multiple archaeological and paleontological field sites in East Africa. I love working in the field and excavating fossils.
Lais Araujo Coelho, Ornithology, AMNH & Columbia University
Keywords: Bioinformatics, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics and Genomics
Project:Do dispersal ability proxies in birds actually reflect dispersal?
Biological dispersal is an organism's movement from its birthplace to a different location, or from one breeding location to another. Dispersal is an important behavior, with vast ecological and evolutionary implications. Some organisms are more morphologically suited to disperse than others. An organism’s ability to disperse can be challenging to measure directly. For birds species, a common way of assessing the ability to disperse is through the wing shape: birds with narrow and pointed wings are better fliers than birds with round wings. However, having the morphological ability to disperse does not mean the organism will necessarily disperse. Habitat preferences and other ecological constraints can inhibit an individual from dispersing to new areas. For example, forest birds are expected to be less likely to disperse than open vegetation birds because forest birds likely have narrower physiological tolerances. For our project, we will be testing if the dispersal ability (wing shape) is a good predictor of the amount of dispersal between bird populations. We will also see if the relationship between dispersal ability and dispersal is the same for forest birds and open vegetation birds.
We will be measuring bird specimens from the collection to in order to estimate their wing shape. We will be using genetic data (both mine and publically available) to calculate genetic distances among populations, a proxy for the amount of dispersal between populations. If the genetic distance between two populations is small, there is likely some gene flow occurring between the populations through migrating individuals. If the genetic distance is high, there are probably not many individuals migrating from one population to the other. In order to estimate genetic distance, you will learn how to download and process genetic data, and how to do some basic genetic analysis. We will be comparing populations of forest and open vegetation birds from western Amazonia.
Bio: I am a PhD candidate at Columbia University, but I do most of my research at the Ornithology Department at AMNH. I investigate the effects of past climate cycles on Amazonian bird populations by studying the genetic variation present in their genomes. The genetic variation in an organism reflects the history of the organism’s ancestors, and is a great window to the past. I lived in the Amazon for 5 years, and I’ve been wondering ever since about the origins of the astounding biodiversity of the region. That curiosity brought me all the way to New York, where I came to pursue my PhD.
Jackie Lacey, Anthropology
Azadeh Keivani, Astrophysics
Please note: Students who want to work on my project must be able to work Mondays and Fridays.
I cannot mentor on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday
I cannot mentor on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday
Nathan Leigh, Astrophysics
Keywords: Theoretical Astrophysics
Project: This study relates to chaotic gravitational interactions between stars. These types of interactions occur commonly throughout the Universe, and are thought to be at the forefront of some of the most exciting puzzles of modern astronomy. To study these chaotic encounters, I use a computer program called FEWBODY, which performs simulations of gravitational interactions involving small numbers of stars (i.e. 3, 4, 5, etc.). The program is easy to use, and is ideal for research purposes on a modern laptop. A few example simulations can be viewed here (see the section called Stellar Encounters): http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/aaron-geller/visuals.php
Surprisingly, a solution to the three-body problem in Newtonian gravity has eluded scientists for centuries. Thus, interactions involving 4, 5, 6, etc. objects have hardly ever been considered, let alone studied in detail. This leaves enormous potential for using FEWBODY to address a number of interesting astrophysical questions related to complex gravitational interactions involving stars, black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs, etc. Specifically, the goal of this study is to develop an equation for the probability for any two stars to collide. For example, consider an encounter involving three Sun-like stars and one black hole. What is the probability that the black hole will collide with a Sun-like star? Using our derived equation, we will calculate a prediction for the likelihood of this event (let’s take p = 0.10 for the sake of our example). If we run many simulations of encounters between a black hole and three Sun-like stars, the black hole will consume a star in 10% of the simulations.
This is a continuation of a similar project I began last year working with SRMP students. We completed a paper that is about to be submitted for publication. This year, we are going to expand on this initial study to further develop the formalism to include more realistic encounter scenarios, for more direct
application to real astrophysical problems.
Bio: My name is Nathan Leigh, and I am a theoretical astrophysicist. I study gravity and its role in moving stars, clusters and galaxies in space and time. One such focus involves direct collisions between stars in dense environments, such as massive star clusters and galactic nuclei. I also study the dynamics of black holes, and make predictions for what astronomers should expect to find for their properties and numbers when performing observations of the cosmos.
Eileen Gonzales, Astrophysics Department (AMNH) & City University of New York
Keywords: Observational Astrophysics
Project: My research is on understanding the atmospheres of some of the closets objects in our stellar neighborhood, brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are the objects that lie in between stars and planets. Brown dwarfs don’t produce their own energy like the sun to keep them going, but instead start off as bright as they will ever be when they are born and cool over time. Brown dwarfs have temperatures similar giant exoplanets, but are much easier to observe since they produce their own light, which makes them great comparison objects!
This project is will consist of reducing spectra of brand new objects taken with the NASA ITRF telescope and spectral typing the objects in this data set. These targets are of interest because they are identified by their high proper motion and their unusually red near-infrared color, making them the ideal link between brown dwarf and exoplanet populations. Before we can investigate the data, we need to reduce it. This is where we prepare the spectrum by removing unwanted artifacts from observations. The next step in understanding our sample is to put it into context with other objects like it, which is known as spectral typing. Spectral typing is where we group brown dwarfs (and stars!) that look similar to one another by the absorption lines found in their spectra. These absorption lines are indicators of surface temperatures. However, in brown dwarfs these lines are affected by secondary parameters, such as gravity or metallicity, which highlight the differences between objects of the same spectral type. Our goal is to classify these objects in order to detangle gravity, age, temperature and atmospheric changes in brown dwarfs and exoplanets.
Bio: I am a third year PhD student at the CUNY Graduate center, working with the BDNYC research group at AMNH, where I am studying the atmospheres of brown dwarfs. I am creating flux calibrated spectral energy distributions (SEDs), a collection of spectra and photometric points. Using these SEDs, I am trying to understand what aspects of the brown dwarf’s atmosphere is causing the differences we see amongst various objects. By using flux calibrated SEDs we can derive an objects fundamental parameters, such as its bolometric luminosity and effective temperature. When I am not working on research, I can be found swing dancing!
Ben Burninghamster, Astrophysics
Linda Sohl, Earth and Planetary Science
Keywords: Earth and Planetary Science
Project: In my current research, my main tool is a complex computer model called a general circulation model or global climate model, a.k.a. GCM. GCMs are usually used to study processes of modern and future climate of Earth, but in this case, the GCM I use has been adapted so that I can simulate a wide range of Earth-like planets that are very different from modern Earth. Some of the model characteristics I can change to “make another world” include the distribution of land vs ocean on the planet’s surface, and how much land; the composition of the atmosphere; the kind of star the planet is orbiting; the shape of that planet’s orbit, and the tilt of its rotational axis. By the way, these kinds of changes are also what we need to do if we want to explore Earth much earlier in its history, when the geologic record suggests that it would have looked like an alien world to us (and we might not have survived very long under those conditions!).
Now, while we do have some geological clues about past Earth environments that supported life, we don’t have nearly enough information to get the full picture – and that’s where the GCM comes in. Using the GCM allows us to explore and test different ideas about those environments – for example, whether the Earth was really hot or barely warm enough to keep from freezing over, and whether it had a very thick carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere vs one where methane was much more prominent.
For your research project: You’ll learn first some things about climate models – how they work, what information goes into the model to get it started, what the model produces, and the steps that all climate scientists take to analyze model results – by working with an educational version of a GCM (called EdGCM) that you can run on your own computer. You’ll also learn about some of the questions that we’re hoping to explore with our climate simulations, such as what conditions might be needed to resolve the Faint Young Sun Paradox, or what happens to climate and the potential for life when a planet’s orbital configuration (obliquity, eccentricity, precession) looks different from modern Earth’s.
Bio: I have always been fascinated by Earth and sky. Growing up in the Bronx, I used to sit for hours at a time with a rock and mineral guide in one hand and a bunch of pebbles in the other, trying to figure out what the last ice age left in my backyard. At the same time, I was a huge sci-fi fan and loved to read stories about alien civilizations among the stars. As a scientist now, I can blend the Earth science I’ve learned with my interest in looking for life on other worlds, by trying to characterize what climatic conditions supported the development of life as we know it – and using that information to figure out how we might find other planets that harbor life.
Personal Website: https://science.gsfc.nasa.gov/sed/bio/linda.sohl
Please note: I am unable to meet with students on Fridays.
Emily Sanford, Columbia University
Keywords: Observational Astrophysics, Theoretical Astrophysics
Project: Twenty-five years ago, astronomers knew of exactly nine planets. A lot has happened since then--Pluto's been demoted, and we've discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. The count of confirmed planets stands today at about 3500, and it's an incredible collection--we've found worlds so hot they're boiling away, worlds ensconced in deep clouds, and strange watery worlds unlike anything we see in the Solar System.
All these fantastic discoveries have kept astronomers and science journalists busy. Early on, every newly discovered planet had its fifteen minutes of fame, with press releases and write-ups in major newspapers. Every article would be accompanied by an artist's impression of what the planet might look like if we could photograph it up close. These pictures captured the public imagination and inspired scientists and artists alike to imagine what it would be like to explore these new worlds.
We're expecting to discover thousands more planets in the next ten years with new telescopes and satellites. It's rare for a newly discovered planet to get its own write-up now that we've found so many, but what if we could use the treasure trove of existing artist's impressions of planets to generate new ones? In this project, we'll use state-of-the-art developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and image processing to teach a computer to "dream up" visions of new worlds.
This project is an opportunity not only to learn cutting-edge exoplanetary science, but also to engage the public with brand-new scientific discoveries. If the project is successful, we can turn it into a website as well as write up the results as a research paper!
Bio: I am a graduate student in the astronomy department at Columbia University, and I study exoplanets in the Cool Worlds Lab. I take the tools people build for artificial intelligence and use them to answer questions like, "What can we learn about one exoplanet by looking at another exoplanet orbiting the same star?" I work mostly with data collected by NASA's Kepler space telescope, and I think about what science will be possible with the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. I also write for Astrobites, and I'm very interested in science communication.
Please note: I cannot mentor on Wednesdays.
John Brewer, Astrophysics
Keywords: Observational Astronomy
Stars are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium with only about 2% of their mass coming from heavier elements. Planets form out of the same material that makes up the star, but tend to be predominantly heavy elements. One of the earliest discoveries once we started ﬁnding planets around other stars was that stars with more heavy elements were more likely to have giant planets like Jupiter orbiting very close to their star, or 'hot Jupiters.' The question was then, does a star with more heavy elements (or 'metals' to astronomers) more easily form giant planets? Or does the process of forming a hot Jupiter 'pollute' the atmosphere of the star, making it seem more metal rich?
Stars of different masses also have atmospheres of different thicknesses. Astronomers found that the correlation between 'metallicity' and hot Jupiter occurrence was the same regardless of the atmospheric thickness. This means that it is the initial conditions that matter, and not pollution.
However, this does not mean pollution never happens. If a planet the size of the earth were to fall into the Sun it would make a very small, though measurable difference in the abundances of heavy elements. The problem is that stars can have a range of heavy elements, so how can we know if they have changed?
Binary stars form from the same material and should have the same composition. By comparing the compositions of stars that form together, differences in planet forming elements between the stars may point to one star having eaten more rocky material than the other. Indeed, a couple of tantalizing examples of this have already been found.
We can determine the composition of stellar atmospheres using high resolution stellar spectra. In this project, we will be looking closely at the spectra of a collection of stars with anomalous abundance patterns as well as pairs of binary stars. We will then build a range of stellar models to determine the mass of the atmospheres. Using the combined information, we will determine if any of the stars could have swallowed a planet and its possible size. Our goal is to understand the frequency of planet eating stars and how much they like to eat.
Bio: I have always been interested in the search for life on other worlds, but before I went back to Yale for my PhD in astronomy I studied photography, then spent many years as a so=ware developer. Both of these seemingly unrelated topics ﬁt well in both the study and practice of astrophysics research. I used my programming knowledge to start planethunters.org allowing everyone to help in the search for planets and am currently helping in the development of a new high precision spectrograph to discover Earth-like worlds. My primary research is examining the chemical makeup of stars to understand how subtle differences between stellar compositions can inﬂuence the types of planets that form around them.
Personal Website: hOp://dotastro.org
Please note: I cannot mentor on Wednesdays.
Kim Fendrich, Earth and Planetary Science
Keywords: Earth and Planetary; Observational Astronomy
Project: – Chondrites are meteorites that contain some of the oldest, most primitive materials in the solar system that have not been modified by melting or planetary differentiation. They provide valuable insight into the formation and accretion of the earliest solids in the solar system, the precursors to planets. This project will focus on CM chondrites, which are composed of chondrules, calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs), and minerals such as olivine. Our objective is to characterize the relative abundances, sizes, shapes, and compositions of the free-floating objects in space that combined to form these chondrites. The student will measure inclusions in a CM chondrite by applying quantitative image analysis to x-ray element maps obtained from the electron microprobe (see image). Through this study, the student will develop a better understanding of solar system origins and meteorite petrology.
Bio: I am the Confocal Microscopy Specialist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at AMNH. I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Geosciences from the University of Arizona this past spring. During my graduate career, I studied mineralogy and crystallography, focusing on the identification of the atomic structure of various minerals. I was also part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, working on a team that operates the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) X-ray diffraction instrument on board the Curiosity rover. In 2006, the NASA Stardust mission returned to Earth with samples of dust from Comet Wild 2/81P. Here at the museum, I use a confocal microscope and other instruments to analyze these dust particles to gain insight into the early stages of solar system formation.
Please note: I cannot mentor on Wednesdays and Fridays.