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.

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