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CIERA Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU):
Research Project Descriptions

In the online application form, accessible from the applications page, you will list your top 5 choices for your summer research project from the options described below.

For all questions, please contact ciera-reu@northwestern.edu.

Abrams research image

Dr. Daniel Abrams
Exoplanets, applied math, and high-performance computing

Weak gravitational coupling between planetary bodies can lead to resonance, where the orbital and/or rotational periods converge to small integer ratios. This type of interaction led to the tidal locking of the moon to the Earth, and can explain the fine structure of the rings of Saturn. The problem of mutual weak coupling for multiple massive bodies has not yet been carefully explored, but results from other fields suggest that global synchrony may arise spontaneously in such a system. The student will work with Dr. Abrams to apply these ideas to NASA's Kepler exoplanet systems. Specifically, s/he will be trained in manipulating one of Dr. Abram's mathematical / computational models and compare the results of these models with Kepler's observational results.

Bayliss research image

Dr. Alvin Bayliss
Astrobiology, applied math, and high performance computing

Astrobiologists study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This includes research into the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space. This project will involve studying the evolution of two competing species with nonlocal competition. The two species will be modeled by a system of two coupled partial differential equations for the populations which will account for species diffusion, natural birth rates for each species and intraspecies and interspecies competition, reflecting a competition for a scarce resource. In many real-life ecosystems the competition terms are nonlocal. This means that at each point in space they depend on a weighted average of the populations in a neighborhood of that point, rather than the populations only at that point. One way to visualize this is that if the competition involves water in a stream as a scarce resource, the effect of the competition depends on the average of the animals drinking from the stream not just the population at any fixed point along the stream. This nonlocality makes the equations of the model integro-differential equations, i.e., the equations have both derivative terms and integral terms. Nonlocality can have a very significant effect on the evolution of the populations of the two species. In this project the role of nonlocality will be studied both by analytic methods and by computational methods.

Dahl research image

Dr. Eric Dahl
Dark Matter, instrumentation, and experimentation

The nature of dark matter is an 80-year-old mystery that spans astrophysics, cosmology, and particle physics. Fortunately there is plenty of it around to study, if we can build the right detector to see it -- namely, a detector able to distinguish dark matter from the abundant backgrounds coming from natural radioactivity. In this project, the student will work with Dr. Dahl and his group to investigate a new detector technology, the scintillating xenon bubble chamber. The student will use a prototype detector in the Dahl lab and measure its capability to discriminate against backgrounds from alpha-decays gamma-ray interactions. The student will learn the fundamentals of particle detection, work with detector hardware and electronics, and perform basic data analysis.

de Gouvea research image

Dr. André de Gouvêa
Cosmological, astrophysical and laboratory neutrinos: theoretical physics

Dr. de Gouvêa's research group uses neutrinos as probes of the Standard Model. Experiments have found evidence for new physics, first manifested in the leptonic sector in the form of neutrino masses. What does that tell us about the physics at very short distance scales? Are neutrinos like the quarks and charged leptons, or are they special? The student will investigate the properties of cosmological, astrophysical and laboratory neutrinos in the context of these questions.

Faucher-Giguere research image

Dr. Claude-André Faucher-Giguère
Mining, analyzing, and visualizing large-scale cosmological simulations of galaxy formation

Our group develops and produces large-scale simulations that follow, in unprecedented detail, the formation of galaxies from the Big Bang all the way to the present time. These cosmological simulations are run on massively parallel supercomputers and produce extremely rich data sets that we use to address a wide variety of key scientific questions in astrophysics and cosmology, including the processes that regulate star formation and galaxy growth, the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes, and the nature of dark matter. A summer project in our group would consist of analyzing recently produced, state-of-the-art simulations. One particular emphasis would be on the development of effective visualization techniques to enable new discoveries using the complex simulation data. Due to the computational nature of the research, prior programming experience (especially in Python) and familiarity with Linux will be an asset to hit the ground running, but is not essential for students eager to learn those tools as part of the project.

Margutti research image

Dr. Raffaella Margutti
Eruptions, Disruptions and Stellar Explosions: the biggest fireworks in our Universe

Dr. Margutti's research group focuses on multi-wavelength observations (including Gamma-rays, X-rays, UV, Optical, NIR and radio observations) of the most dramatic outcomes from massive stars at the end of their lives: eruptions and supernova explosions (SNe). Current projects include the study of the most luminous stellar explosions (i.e. the Super-Luminous SNe), Gamma-Ray bursts (i.e. relativistic blastwaves at cosmological distances), as well as the recently discovered class of strongly interacting SNe. The immediate goals are to shed light on the energy sources powering the explosions and constrain the peculiar properties of their progenitor stars. The student will have the opportunity to join the quest for stellar explosions in real time (Dr. Margutti is part of the ASAS-SN survey), while familiarizing with data across the electromagnetic spectrum and with the physics of the events that create the most extreme objects in our Universe (like Black Holes and Neutron Stars).

Motter research image

Dr. Adilson Motter and Dr. Yoram Lithwick
Exoplanet dynamics, applied math, and high-performance computing

Dr. Motter's and Dr. Lithwick's research area is theoretical and computational investigations of non-linear dynamics and chaos in Hamiltonian systems. The student will learn to manipulate one of their computational simulations which applies nonlinear dynamics to the study of planetary orbital dynamics. S/he will then choose one of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope multi-exoplanet systems and investigate the stability of the system using the computational simulation.

Novak research image

Dr. Giles Novak
Interstellar medium, instrumentation, and observation

Dr. Novak's research group specializes in the development of astronomical instrumentation for the infrared and submillimeter wavebands, and in its use to study the interstellar medium and processes related to star formation. A current project is the Next Generation Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) that is being constructed by Novak's group in collaboration with an international team of researchers in preparation for an Antarctic flight in December 2016. Another is HAWC+, a new far-infrared camera for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The student will develop and test BLAST pointing sensors and/or software for analyzing HAWC+ images from our first SOFIA flights. BLAST and HAWC+ will map the magnetic fields of dozens of star forming interstellar clouds, thereby testing theories of stellar birth.

Osburn research image

Dr. Magdalena Osburn
Lipid Biomarkers in Subsurface Environments

Biological molecules record information about both their formation environment and the organisms that produce them. Dr. Osburn uses research tools from organic geochemistry, microbiology, and stratigraphy to investigate microbial and biogeochemical cycling in both modern and ancient environments. The student will work with Dr. Osburn and her group to study a class of molecules called lipids, found in microbes on Earth, and s/he will focus particularly on microbes from subsurface environments on Earth. Our understanding of these subsurface Earth microbes will allow us to prepare for future experiments in Mars landers and to hypothesize about conditions necessary for life to exist on (or inside of) asteroids and exoplanets. Students with a background in biology and/or chemistry are particularly encouraged to apply.

Kalogera research image

Dr. Chris Pankow and Dr. Vicky Kalogera
Astrophysics with gravitational waves and high-performance computing

As part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Dr. Kalogera works on the development of methods for the extraction of astrophysical information from gravitational-wave signals. The detection of several such events has led to questions about how binary black holes form, evolve, and merge through gravitational waves. These methods involve large-scale computations including Markov Chain Monte Carlo sampling (especially focusing on measuring masses, spin, sky location and distance) and sophisticated hierarchical statistical models to obtain information about their populations. The student will be trained in the astrophysics of binary compact objects, the origin of spins, as well as in high-performance computing and applied mathematics.

Rasio research image

Dr. Fred Rasio
Exoplanets or black holes and high performance computing

One of the hottest areas today in astrophysics research is exoplanets, the study of planetary systems around other stars. We now know several thousands of these planets, and their properties have puzzled astronomers for many years, opening up many new research opportunities for theorists trying to understand them. Dr. Rasio has many projects available and easily accessible to undergraduates in the area of dynamics and formation of exoplanets. Many of these projects require only a basic knowledge of classical mechanics, and some computing experience. Current projects focus on tidal interactions between close-in planets and their star, and on the long-term stability and dynamical evolution of the compact, multi-planet systems discovered by NASA's Kepler satellite. For students with an interest in high-performance computing and prior experience in computer simulations, projects are also available in stellar dynamics, with a current focus on the modeling of black holes in dense star clusters.

Schmitt research image

Dr. Michael Schmitt
Supernovae, Dark Energy, and statistics

The Schmitt group applies statistical techniques to understanding physical phenomena related to dark energy and particle collider physics. In this project, the student will learn about Type Ia supernovae that provide the means for measuring the accelerating expansion of the universe. The modeling of light curves serves as a primary focus for this research, but the longer term goal is reducing key systematic uncertainties and understanding the impact of new data on the dark matter equation of state.

Shahriar research image

Dr. Selim Shahriar
Gravitational waves , instrumentation, and high-performance computing

The Shahriar group is exploring the feasibility of realizing a table-top gravitational wave detector (GWD) using two orthogonal, square-shaped ring lasers. Each has its mirror displacement sensitivity drastically enhanced - by a factor as large as a million - by the use of the superluminal effect produced via anomalous dispersion. In this project, the student will work closely with one of the graduate students in Dr. Shahriar's research group to model the basic behavior of the GWD under various conditions. This theoretical modeling requires basic familiarity with atom-field interaction, suitable for an advanced undergraduate student.

Ulmer research image

Dr. Mel Ulmer
X-ray detectors and instrumentation

The success of future X-ray missions depends on improving the optics to better focus X-ray photons onto the detector. The student will work with Dr. Ulmer in his instrumentation lab to apply magnetic smart material to X-ray optics in an effort to improve the consistency of their shape and reflectivity. The student will also analyze Hubble Space Telescope or X-ray Chandra/XMM images, all related to clusters of galaxies.

Wu research image

Dr. Ying Wu
Sloan Digital Sky Survey, data mining, computer science, and high-performance computing

The accumulation of observational data in astronomy is much faster than astronomers can analyze. Dr. Wu applies techniques from computer science to develop an effective, intelligent search engine for large astronomical data sets, like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The student will first explore existing astronomical data sets to understand their properties and uses. S/he will then choose a particular data set to focus on and work with Dr. Wu to adapt his search algorithm for this data set. The student will then use the improved algorithm to discover meaningful patterns within the sample.