Tucked away in the lab inside Utica College’s Gordon Science Center, a small group of physics students spends hours each week analyzing data from the world’s most advanced radio telescope—the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Led by physics professor Joseph Ribaudo, the students are members of the Undergraduate Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA Team, a radio astronomy research collaboration between faculty and students from more than 20 colleges and universities nationwide. Utica College joined the team in early 2016.
As part of the project, which started in 2005 and is funded by the National Science Foundation, student researchers use data from Arecibo to understand the interaction of galaxies in the Pisces-Perseus Supercluster, one of the largest galaxy structures in the universe. The goal: to begin to answer fundamental questions about how these structures form and evolve.
Galaxy formation and evolution have long been the focus of Ribaudo’s own research, which he began at the University of Notre Dame as a graduate student before joining the UC faculty in 2011. His work has been published in The Astrophysical Journal four times since 2010.
Through UC’s partnership with the project (dubbed “UAT” for short), Ribaudo hopes to help his students achieve the some of the same goals: Many results of past UAT project have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and UAT students often present their work at national conferences.
“The UAT is designed to involve students at every step of the research process,” says Ribaudo. “It puts students in a position to contribute substantively to real science investigations.”
In addition to learning about the contemporary astronomy research landscape, says Ribaudo, students have been able to experience some of the world’s largest astronomical laboratories firsthand. In spring 2016, a small group of students traveled with Ribaudo to Puerto Rico, where they spent a week studying on-site at the Arecibo Observatory. Ribaudo has also hosted student trips to the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, with another workshop planned there for summer 2017.
Along with the laudable goal of advancing astronomy research in general, the UAT experience helps students on an individual level, as well.
“For our students, this type of work helps them gain confidence as scientists,” says Ribaudo. “It reinforces the idea that real astronomy research isn’t just for the experts or their professors.”