A Summer of Astrophysics and Getting Married

Featured Photo:  2016 REUs Mykalin Jones, Megan Davis, Kristine (Skul) Romich, and Lorena Mezini

What a summer it’s been! I’m back in Chicago and about to head into my final semester of community college, after which I’ll be transferring to a four-year institution to complete my bachelor’s degree in physics. I’d like to take a few moments to share some highlights from my ten weeks of neutrino astrophysics internship at UW-River Falls.

First, an introduction. My name is Kristine, and I’m a student at the City Colleges of Chicago (a network of seven community colleges serving residents of Chicago proper). My story is a bit different from most of my colleagues’: although I’ve been fascinated by physics and astronomy for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s — with two prior degrees in the liberal arts — that I chose to pursue a career in it.

I graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in communication studies and psychology. I also spent a semester in graduate school for applied social psychology. After withdrawing from my graduate program, I worked a string of temp jobs and had a brief stint as an administrative assistant at a corporate office; eventually, I made the decision to go back to school and study physics.

Majoring in the natural sciences gave me a sense of purpose I never got from psychology. (That’s not to say psychology doesn’t have value — it just means it wasn’t for me.) I made a point of getting to know faculty members and asking them what I could do to maximize my chances for success. They all said the same thing: research.

I learned that there are special internships, called Research Experiences for Undergraduates, that allow college students to participate in original research in various STEM disciplines. I found out about the opportunity at UWRF just two weeks before the application deadline. Thanks largely to a fantastic professor who wrote me a recommendation on only a few days’ notice, I managed to
submit my materials on time. Four months later, I arrived in River Falls.

I once asked Suruj why I had been selected. He told me he pulled my name from a hat. For a second I almost believed him.

My project involved using the photon-propagation code CLSim to compare two existing ice models and identify discrepancies between flasher simulations and real data. As one might expect, it required a great deal of computer programming. I worked on a team with two other REU students, Roman and Lorena — both of whom had considerably more programming experience than me. Actually, just about everyone had more programming experience than me. During the Python crash course Suruj gave the first week, I accidentally created two infinite loops.

My lack of familiarity with coding made the first month at UWRF difficult. The only thing I’d ever programmed before was a Raspberry Pi camera, and that was using a script somebody else had
written. My colleagues, meanwhile, were writing original code to perform far more complex operations. More than once, I found myself questioning whether I have what it takes to become an

Thankfully Suruj, Dr. Madsen, and Dr. McCann reassured me that my programming skills would improve as the summer progressed. By July, I had gotten a lot better at making computers do what
I wanted them to. I spent the second half of the internship analyzing waveforms — charge- weighted time distributions used to compare the timing of light propagation between simulations
and real data. At one point, I identified an error in an existing code that solved a significant technical issue my team had been having. I also built a wiki page to document our procedure and

When we weren’t working in the lab (or in a coffee shop, as was often the case with me), my fellow REU students and I had a chance to explore River Falls and the rest of the Twin Cities
metropolitan area. We visited the Mall of America, watched fireworks in Stillwater on the Fourth of July, and did science demonstrations for the public at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair. Roman
and I had our cars with us, which helped a lot.

Fireworks in Stillwater, MN on the Fourth of July.
Demonstrating the Magdeburg sphere at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair.
Demonstrating the Magdeburg sphere at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair.

I couldn’t have asked for a better assortment of colleagues. Despite our differences in age and background (half from community colleges and half from research universities), I’d like to think we got along . . .

I got married during the final week of the internship, and my REU group came to my wedding. (Yes, that’s the right-hand rule).

Nerd-ing off with the right hand rule at my wedding. REUs Chris Patenaude and Roman Gradford are in the back row, left and right respectively.


By Jack Nuclkes: UW-Madison Undergraduate who is on an IRES Neutrino Astrophysics Internship in Sweden in Summer 2016.

Four days after returning from Switzerland, we again packed our backpacks and began our trip to Norway.  After our long haul to the Alps, we were all glad that we only had a mere 30 hours on trains planned for the weekend.


By Friday morning, we reached Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway.  We then headed back east to Voss (the town that is the namesake for the “artesian” water brand) to meet a bus that took us down an 18%-grade road to Gudvangen, where we boarded a boat for an unbelievably beautiful cruise through the Nærøyfjord.  We had read that this deep, narrow fjord offers some of the best scenery anywhere in the world, and it certainly delivered.  Two hours later, the boat deposited us in Flåm. The world-famous Flamsbana train then took us by waterfalls and through hand-dug tunnels from sea level to Myrdal at 3,000 feet. One more train brought us back to Bergen. We spent the evening strolling through the fish market and exploring a fortress before getting on the night train to Oslo.


We arrived in the Norwegian capital before the city really woke up, so for two hours we had the streets to ourselves.  Throughout the day, we saw the obligatory sights, including the modern opera house, a tour of the city hall (where we learned so much we were half expecting to get a diploma before we left), and a walk through a large sculpture park.  By the afternoon, we were all out of granola and PB&J supplies, so Nick K. grabbed what he said was a delicious barbecue-flavored hot dog, suspiciously on sale, from one of the many 7-Elevens in the city.  Shortly after, we caught the train back to Stockholm, concluding another great weekend trip.



By Jack Nuclkes: UW-Madison Undergraduate who is on an IRES Neutrino Astrophysics Internship in Sweden in Summer 2016.

We left Stockholm at 7:00 a.m. on a Friday morning, each toting a backpack stuffed with, among other necessities, water, bread, peanut butter, canned tuna, and fresh socks. During the next 24 hours, four trains carried us to Switzerland. We sped through the Swedish countryside to Malmö where we hopped on a commuter train to Copenhagen. To reach the European mainland, the next train rolled onto a ferry and we cruised across the Baltic before continuing on to Hamburg, where our steady southward progress was interrupted by an agonizing three hour wait for the night train to Basel. At precisely the minute it was scheduled to leave, a faded, rusty, tin can of a train screeched to a halt at the platform where we were waiting.


We spent the next ten hours in a blurry purgatory, half-sleeping at best between the screams of toddlers and the strange lights that flashed through the window of our compartment. However, the next morning, as we ate our breakfast on a bench in an empty Basel train station, we unanimously agreed that the journey was worth it. We were in Switzerland.


Two more quick trains took us to Lauterbrunnen, a small farm village in an alpine valley that felt quintessentially Swiss. Surrounded by cliffs, waterfalls, and with views of snowy peaks, we wandered around and enjoyed the scenery. Church bells filled the air intermittently as cows grazed in the fields and wispy clouds floated along the clifftops. In the afternoon, we headed north to Bern, the Swiss federal city. We strolled through the flag-lined streets, snapped photos of the turquoise Aare River, and admired the statues and architecture. As the sun began to set, we returned to the train station to begin our journey back to Scandinavia.

To get home we repeated our trip from Stockholm to Basel in reverse. Feeling the effects of having not showered three days, we sat tiredly and watched the scenery out the window of the trains slowly change from the farm fields of Germany to the windmills of Denmark and finally to the rocky soil and pine trees of Sweden. At close to midnight on Sunday, we reached our apartment, feeling grateful to be home but even more-so, glad to have been to three new countries and the Swiss Alps.

Busy Summer 2016 at UWRF

One month has gone by and this is our first post for summer 2016. We have been very busy getting; first with and intense first week settling into River Falls, getting paperwork done, learning python programming, particle physics, neutrino astrophysics and exploring many aspects of IceCube. This summer we have six REU students from all over the US. They are Megan Davis (MSU), Kristine Skul (Chicago City Colleges), Lorena Mezini (Stony Brook U), Roman Gradford (Normanale College, MN), Mykalin Jones (WPI), and Chris Patenaude(Clatsop College, Oregon). They are joined by five UWRF students; Alex Haas, Marium Asif, Dylan Frikken, Joseph Wagner, and Mitch Ahlswede. All student are working on projects either on the IceCube Netutrino Observatory or on the Neutron Monitors at UWRF and the South Pole. Fhon is also visiting from Thailand for the summer.

Megan Davis arrived first, a few days early so she could get an early start on her project. She and Chris are working with Dr. McCann. They are looking at the properties of optical fibres that can be used as light sensors for the next generation of IceCube, IceCube-Gen2.

Megan Davis and mentor Dr. Lowell McCann outside Centennial Science Hall at UWRF.
Megan Davis and mentor Dr. Lowell McCann outside Centennial Science Hall at UWRF.

Everyone else

arrived in the a few days later.  As usual, the first thing we do is a week of prep for the IceCube bootcamp. After the first week of bootcamp prep we headed off on the usual trip across the state to Madison. The road trip is always a time when we get to know each other a bit better and  a chance for REUs to see a little more of Wisconsin.

The bootcamp was organized a bit different this year. It started on Saturday with a two day pre-bootcamp, followed by two days of beginner and three days of advanced bootcamp. We stayed for the first four days. This belated first post ends here but stay tuned for more frequent posts in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here are some photos from the first weeks.

UWRF interns at WIPAC in Madison: Back row from left: Roman Gradford, Mitch Ahlswede, Chirs Patenaude, Megan Davis. Front row: Suruj Seunarine, Alex Haas, Mykalin Jones, Lorena Mezini, Kristine Skul
In the Lab
Our “Lab” mostly contains computers and a massive chalk board. Mitch, Alex, Marium, and Dylan (our UWRF students) get an early start on their projects.
Fhon seminar
Fhon at UWRF gives a seminar presentation on neutron monitors.
At the bootcamp in Madison, REU students took the first row. From left: Mykalin, Lorena, Kristine, Megan, Chris, Roman.
Joe working on the muon taggers.
Joe working on the muon taggers. The two upper scintillators are shielded by lead.
Back at UWRF, throwing boomerangs.
Back at UWRF, throwing boomerangs.
Boomerang in tree.
Boomerang in tree: Dylan Miller heroically volunteers …
Boomerang retrieved.
Boomerang retrieved,  now  …
Mykalin and Roman write code.
Mykalin and Roman write code.


Stockholm Summer Starts

Editor’s Note: Five undergrads are taking part in an NSF Funded IRES program in Sweden this year. Here they start to chronicle their adventures. They are Vanessa Esaw (University of Minnesota and 2015 UWRF REU, Nick Kulacz and Nick Jensen (UWRF), Jack Nuckles (UW-Madison), and Samantha Pedek (UWRF)

After three flights over the course of a full day, we all made it safely to Stockholm, Sweden on Sunday May 22, 2016. For many of us, this was the first time out of the country. The flights, though long, were uneventful. Vanessa and Sam are staying in an adorable apartment in northern Stockholm for the first week before moving to southern Stockholm for the rest of the time.

Samantha's and Vanessa's Apartment Building
View from Samantha’s and Vanessa’s Apartment Building for the first week.

Nick, Nick and Jack are staying in a tiny apartment in northern Stockholm. The doors have been the biggest adversary as they open the wrong way almost all the time, and the shower is not enclosed and therefore gets the bathroom floor all wet. One of our first tasks when we arrived was finding a grocery store. It is unbelievably difficult to shop in a market for things in a different language and are not where you “expect” them to be!

Minnesota Maple Syrup
Found here: Minnesota Maple Syrup
American Peanut Butter
and : American Peanut Butter

The people here are very hospitable and friendly and almost everyone speaks English. Overall, Swedes seems happy and content. The fact that summer holiday is right around the corner may have something to do with that. Summer holiday is from the end of June until the beginning of August. Basically the entire country vacations during that time!

The weather here is very similar to weather in Wisconsin when we left, which is welcoming. One major difference though is how long the sun is up. The sun starts to rise at around 4:00am and doesn’t set until about 10:00pm. The majority of our first week consisted of settling in and adjusting to the new environment.

Midway through the week we all settled on projects for the summer. As a brief overview: Nick and Nick are working on building a one meter cubed to scale LED model of IceCube, Jack is modeling cosmic ray sources in the galactic plane, Vanessa is using machine learning algorithms to optimize muon track reconstruction and Sam is simulating a version of Gen 2 to check the likelihood of detecting extragalactic supernova.

The work environment here is very relaxed. Both the professors and the grad students are very helpful and flexible. Once a week we have fika, which is a staple of Swedish culture. Everyone from the office gets together for a coffee break with a light snack. It is a chance to socialize and catch up with everyone in the office.

This Friday, Kip Thorne visited the University of Stockholm to give a talk on gravitational waves, which were recently discovered by LIGO. Kip Thorne was one of the original founders of LIGO. The talk was very comprehensive and we all enjoyed it.

Faint signal of Kip Thorne at edge of image.
Faint signal of Kip Thorne at edge of image.

Here  is the University of Stockholm Astronomy Building where our office is located.

University of Stockholm Astronomy Building
University of Stockholm Astronomy Building



Robert Leaves the Pole, Finally!

By Robert Zill (Undergraduate DuPage and NIU)

Back in McMurdo, we finished up the final tasks we had with the troubled tube of the neutron monitor and then we got one more exploration opportunity. We were able to visit Discovery Hut which is a structure just a short walk from “downtown” McMurdo that was built in 1902 as a rest stop of sorts for early Antarctic explorers. They take the preservation of original artifacts very seriously and so you are not allowed to touch anything. No, not even the rotting seals that have been in there for decades! Once you got over the smell though, it was very interesting to have a look around. There were old crates that had Scott’s name on them. He was one of the early explorers in Antarctica and leader of the second group to reach the South Pole. There were pans on the kitchen stove with bits of seal meat still in them and there were places where they had started to rip the ceiling down to use for firewood. It was a veryintriguing and very well preserved site to see.

Supply crate for Scott's 1910 expedition
Supply crate for Scott’s 1910 expedition

Well, here we are, waiting a few more hours for our flight to take us back to New Zealand. It has been an intense experience down here, but I am also happy to be leaving as well. Spending a month in New Zealand is scary and exciting at the same time, but I look forward to seeing what the country has to offer me. I’ve met many people down here who are also spending time in NZ and a few of us many hopefully cross paths at some point. I will most definitely never forget my time here on the ice and I can’t wait to get home and brag about all these adventures and more!


Couch Surfing at the South Pole

By Laura Moon Parmeter (UWRF Undergraduate)

It’s so hard to write this blog post because it’s impossible to describe the feeling you get being at the Pole. The South Pole has been one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Even with it being -40 wind-chill! Everyone is so nice and has the same adventurous attitude! There are only about 150 people, which is max capacity for the station. Just passing people walking down the hall everyone has a smile on their face and is so friendly. Because of the small space that we work in there is always people to talk to. Everyone hangs out at the end of the day in the game room lounge. Doesn’t matter what your job title is, firefighter, scientist/grantee, mechanical engineer, cook, etc, all hang out together. You get to meet some amazing people!

Image reflected in ceremonial South Pole marker.
Image reflected in ceremonial South Pole marker.
South Pole Station.
Amundsen-Scott station

We actually arrived to the pole on the day we were scheduled to!! With it being above 9000 feet the sudden altitude change made things difficult. Just walking up the stairs made you winded. So the first day we took it easy and just wandered around the station getting acclimated. This station is newer than McMurdo and has so many accommodations. There’s a gym and a workout center, two movie rooms (so full of movies I don’t think I could watch them all even if I wintered over), a music room, game room (with a pool table, dart board, and foosball table), a greenhouse, quite reading room (with a ton of books!), a science lab, and a sauna!

The green house growing lights and my camera did not get along
The green house growing lights and my camera did not get along

The food at the Pole is so much better than the food at McMurdo! The first day we arrived there were raspberry blondie brownies made by a lady who owners her own bakery back in the states. Another day we got filet mignon and crab legs! They even have fresh apples and oranges. I never thought I would eat so well in a cafeteria.

We were only scheduled to be at the South Pole for 5 days, so the next day we got to work! We wandered out to the IceCube lab (ICL) to set up the muon tagger equipment. We also checked out the neutron monitors, some bare inside the science lab, others fully covered and insulated sitting outside.

After getting most of our work done we changed gears a bit. We helped with the artists and writers program. Two artists want to recreate some historic photos from Antarctica, but because room space in limited at the Pole they were unable to come. So we got a GoPro camera from them and a Scott tent from the station. The tent was just a little too tall so we had to dig a trench and bury it about 3 feet. Part of the reenactment of the photos was to do interviews of the people participating. While Dr. Madsen and Robert were outside in the cold filming people, I was inside in the warmth of the station doing the interviews. This gave me the opportunity to get to know a lot of people very fast.

Digging the trench for the tent
Digging the trench for the tent
One of my favorite groups reenacting a famous photo. These men are all firefighters and amazing characters to hang around with
One of my favorite groups reenacting a famous photo. These men are all firefighters and amazing characters to hang around with

Before we knew it the five days were up. Our flight was scheduled to leave on Monday. Normally we need to check in our bags the day before (called “bag drag” because you literally have to drag your bag to the check in spot). But because we were leaving on Monday we had to bag drag on Saturday because on Sunday they weren’t working. We are allowed one carry-on bag to keep with us, but it has size restrictions. So the key is to try and balance how many clothes to bring but still keeping in light. The problem is you never really know when you’re leaving.

At the Pole the flights are done a little differently. First a flight will come in and drop off people and cargo. They won’t even shut of the engines before they start loading it with new cargo and people leaving the pole. They’re only on the ground for maybe an hour if everything goes as planned. So our flight came in at 11:30 pm and we all got on the plane at 12:30 am. We flew for about 45 min before they decided the weather was too bad in McMurdo so we had to turn around (what was surprising to me was that the weather was hardly ever bad at the south pole, always sunny and very little wind). We got back to the pole and had a 2 hour window were, if the weather cleared,  we would still take off. So we waited around till 3:30 am before they finally decide to call it a day. They shut off the plane’s engines… This could be bad… very very bad…! Once you shut off the engines it’s very hard to get them started again. It’s just too cold at the Pole. Also once they shut down the plane their navigation systems start to act funny and they can’t fly unless they have perfect weather conditions.

Needless to say we were stuck at the Pole until Friday. With weather delays and problems with the skyway our 5 day trip turned into 10 days. Before the boomerang flight I was ready to go. Five days were long enough for me and I was starting to get home sick. But by the end of the five extra days at the pole I didn’t want to leave!!! After we boomeranged and got back to the station our rooms were already given away. And now the station was over max capacity with 177 people. They had no more rooms for us. So they set up 10 beds in the gym. The flight crew slept in one of the movie rooms on the couches while other people found couches in the other lounges. I had the time of my life! Couch surfing pro!!!

SpiceCore, 50,000 year old ice!
SpiceCore, 50,000 year old ice!

With this extra time we got to tour a few things. We went and saw SpiceCore. We were lucky enough to show up right as they were bringing up a core. The ice was 50,000 years ago! We also got to launch a weather balloon. We got pretty friendly with the weather man Oregano who brought us frequent weather updates. We got a tour of the South Pole Telescope and also got to see the ice tunnels were the piping for the station is ran. The tunnels were really cold, about -50. At the end of that tour we got to climb a 30 foot ladder to get out of the tunnels. That was a little scary considering we just spend an hour in freezing temperatures and my hands were starting to go numb.

I got to let go of the weather balloon!
I got to let go of the weather balloon!


30 foot ladder we had to climb to get out of the tunnels (see Robert's post below)
30 foot ladder we had to climb to get out of the tunnels (see Robert’s post below)

We got back to McMurdo and spent a few more days doing some work at Cos-Ray. We got to go inside discovery hut, which you’re only allowed to do with a guide.


Adventures in undergraduate astrophysics research